Tuesday, May 26, 2020

It Starts with a Gift: A Wood and Fiber Collaboration

 It Starts with a Gift:  A Wood and Fiber Collaboration

I have collaborated with Olena Nebuchadnezzar on three pieces.  Olena is a fiber artist.  I am a woodworker.  So, how does such collaboration come about?  What does it look like?  What is its impact?

This collaboration starts with the heart: A gift for a dear friend.  My friend is a quilter and I decided to incorporate an allusion to quilting into a small stool/ table.  I contemplated a variety of possibilities  incuding marquetry, “sewn” wood patches, and, finally, incorporating actual quilts.  I can’t quilt; I can’t even sew!  While puzzling over who might do the quilts, I remembered going to the Blue Spiral Gallery in Asheville so my friend could show me the work of one of her favorite quilters:  Olena Nebuchadnezzar.  When I first saw Olena’s work I was overwhelmed with its beauty, attention to detail, vivid colors and nature themes.  But would she collaborate with me? 

Her positive response to an email outlining my tentative plan surprised and delighted me.  What ensued was a series of emails in which we exchanged sketches of the piece from me and sketches of the panel from Olena.  Olena’s usual focus is nature; and my friend’s husband, also a dear friend, is a birder.  So, we settled on birds.  Finally, when the woodworking was complete,  I sent fitted plywood panels to Olena and she returned them to me with the quilts mounted  on them. 

We have collaborated on three pieces .  And each unfolded just like the first piece:  An agreement to work together, an exchange of ideas and sketches, completion of the woodwork , completion of the quilted panels.  We have never met in person nor have we even talked on the telephone.

The Gift  a small table (12” Depth x17.5” Width x 24” Height) has a Japanese

sensibility in the overall shape and many of the details.  The color, texture and detail in the mini quilts immediately draw one’s eye.  The medium light color of the oak in which they are framed contrasts with the dark toned walnut and adds to the salience of the panels.

The legs do not directly support the top of the piece.  The top rests on the panel frames and floats above the legs. (In order to minimize racking a ¼” plywood back is rabbeted and glued into each frame.)  The walnut legs feature an incised, carved detail.  The interior of the incision is outlined in maple.  The maple calls attention to the detail because of its contrasting color and because the technique for “inlaying” the maple inside the carved detail is not immediately obvious[i].  The legs are oriented 450 with respect to the front and side of the table.  This arrangement makes the detail easily visible when viewed from the front, the side or the corner of the piece. 

The stars of the piece are Olena’s quilts.  The artistry is immediately obvious.  The colors are vivid, discrete and beautifully combined.  The masterful stitching adds to the imagery and texture.   There are two quilted panels in the piece and the images seem quite different.  But, look a little closer—Olena has tied them together.   The birds are different, a great egret and a Carolina wren, but the flora is the same!  For example, there is a branch that starts in the upper left corner; crosses to the right and ends in the middle of each panel.   In spring there is a blossom at the end of the branch; by fall, the blossom is gone and the seed pod is revealed!  Same with the flora at the panel bottom:  Green and budding in the spring; dried and yellowing in the fall[ii]


Autumn Flight.  Our second piece was explicitly designed to feature Olena’s quilts.  The woodwork and the fiber art explicitly incorporated a Japanese esthetic and the effort was better integrated.   Hopefully, the completed piece has some interesting architectural details.  And, of course, Olena’s fabulous work jumps right out.    

This table (26” wide X 16” deep X 26” high) is larger than The Gift and qualitatively different.  Again, the top is not directly supported by the legs.  But, instead of straight legs with carved details, these cherry legs follow a sweeping curve; the sides of the table are defined by two simple horizontal battens mortised into the legs.  Viewed from the front, the sweeping legs give the table a feel of opening up toward the sky.  Some of the more subtle details reinforce this opening upward feel.  These include the panel frames that are larger at the top than the bottom, the profile on the side edges of the table top (repeated on the top of the panel frames and even the tops of the legs). 

The quilts, again, steal the show.  Each of the two panels features falling ginkgo leaves, a moth (Luna moth, tiger swallowtail moth) and other fall foliage.  The magic, of course, is in the detail:  The texture of the background, sky and mountains, for example.  The use of metallic like thread for the mountain top snow and background flora animates these details as the light hits from different angles. The stitching that creates the meticulous detail of the veins makes the leaves 3- dimensional and they pop for the eye.  Too, check the detail in the moths including veins, decorations and even feather like antennae.   My favorite detail is the dandelions on the lower left of the tiger moth panel:  We can see the seeds going airborne in the autumn breeze.  The dominant colors in this piece are more subdued than those in The Gift and they nicely complement the wood tones.

Girls Night Out:   The architectural aspects of this piece (15” Depth x 30” Width x 36” Height) are clearly influenced by Autumn Flight.  This time Olena and I agreed on an art deco theme.   Table legs with a simple arc became   legs with a compound curve that might resonate with the sinuous curves often seen in the depiction of women in art deco graphics.  The inverted triangular panel was enlarged and the proportions changed to make the panel look sleeker.  A shelf appears and the side panels feature art deco themed marquetry. 

 The stark contrast provided by the black background in Olena’s quilts adds drama.  Similarly, the contrasting woods provide interest value.  Padauk is a highly saturated reddish/orange color when newly cut and contrasts nicely with the light colored quarter sawn sycamore.  And, the sycamore when viewed closely has a delicate lace pattern to it like some of the gossamer effects in the quilts.  

Again, details in the quilts are noteworthy.  For example, the variable skin tones on the woman’s back are differences in light reflection due to the quilting pattern on a uniformly colored fabric.  There is an impressive gossamer quality to the fur stole, even more so in the “see through” stole and incredibly so in the veils.   

As in all of her quilts variable lighting makes a huge difference and even animates the piece- a quality that is difficult to convey in a still image.  Also difficult to convey are some of the subtler aspects of the work.  For example in the background of each panel there is a group of top hatted, cigar smoking “gentlemen “ “eyeing” the girl.  I love this piece:  The images, colors, contrasts, and uplifting sweep of this piece elevate my mood.   And I have tried to capture that feeling in a short video (click HERE).

The collaboration between Olena and me has gone on longer than expected.    I expected to incorporate Olena’s panel into The Gift and move on.   However, our collaboration was incredibly easy and I wanted more.

Why did I want to continue working with her?  Some of the reasons are obvious and impersonal.   Others are personal:  Growth oriented and egoistic.  Her work is simply first rate.  And, that improves the esthetics of our joint work.  Her work makes my work look better.  I love it when people tell me they like my work.  And, new people were expressing greater interest.  And, for me, like every other artist/craftsperson, self-improvement is a constant issue.  So, collaboration was attractive because one tends to learn more from one’s most accomplished colleagues.  Finally, I am simply proud to work with a person of her talent.

I have profited artistically from this collaboration and I hope that Olena has as well.  We commented on and made suggestions regarding one another’s work but the quilts are unambiguously Olena’s work and the woodwork is unambiguously mine.  After The Gift I simply found myself thinking about forms that might enhance the marriage of textile and wood art; a line of thought I would not have engaged without the collaboration.  And, that line of thought and the pieces that have grown out of it has enriched my artistic vocabulary. 

The Gift was a “one off” piece.  There is not another piece like it anywhere in the world.  But, it was a new sentence composed from my extant furniture making vocabulary.   The table form evident in Autumn Flight and Girls Night Out has emerged directly from this collaboration.  The form is new for me and it is a form with which I am continuing to work.  Olena’s work has focused on nature so I was delighted when she agreed to do the art deco ladies.  Perhaps, working on this has helped expand her artistic repertoire as well

This collaboration started with a gift to a friend and has become a greater, more lasting gift to myself.  My work benefitted by combining it with Olena’s.  I had a good time.  I came away with more as an artist/craftsman than I had before I went in.  Did luck play a role in these outcomes?  No doubt.   But, if you have the opportunity to work with someone you admire in another field, it is well worth a try!


Abraham Tesser started building furniture as a hobby over 40 years ago.  After retiring from academe, about 20 years ago, he became more serious about designing and building furniture.  His woodworking style reflects his academic background in a several ways.  He thinks long and hard about design and construction issues before creating the first bit of sawdust.  He reads voraciously about design/woodworking/furniture.  And, he enjoys writing and lecturing about these topics.  For more click HERE.


Olena Nebuchadnezzar has a BFA degree from Boychuk Art and Design Institute in Kiev, Ukraine, with an emphasis on graphic arts.  But her love of textiles pushed her to become a self-taught fiber artist.  Her quilts attempt to show human feelings and different stages of life through different seasons in nature, drawing the viewer's attention to the fragile, ever-changing beauty of nature around us and commemorating it.  For more about her work click HERE.


[i]  The detail is neither carved in the usual sense nor is it inlayed.  The detail is turned on a lathe using a technique called “inside out turning”; and the leg blank has a thin maple laminate near the surface.  See  Abraham Tesser. (2019).  A Stylish Stool:  Quick Turn Adds Pizzazz. American Woodturner, October, 2019.  Vol 34, no. 5, 26-30.


[ii] Gift Epilogue.  When my friend visited the stool/table was under wraps.  I asked her opinion on “something new” and uncovered the piece.   Her eyes immediately locked onto the quilts.  She was clearly taken back by the quality of the work displayed in the panels.  It took a while for it to sink in that Olena, one of her quilting “heroes”, was my collaborator.  She almost lost it when she learned that the piece was for her and her husband (a birder, hence the bird imagery).    She couldn’t imagine sitting on this piece and the stool/table there and then became a table!  I can’t imagine a more appreciative response to this collaboration. 


1 comment:

  1. Your spirit of generosity transcends so many facets of your life, but it's especially admirable in the realm of art. You are a supportive link to many other artists - woodworkers, fiber artists, painters, sculptors, photographers and even bakers! And it serves to make your works shine even brighter. Keep on sharing!!