Ottawa Citizen, May 2009

Lanark’s Dean Spence makes whimsical twig and bent-willow furniture

By Janet Wilson, The Ottawa CitizenMay 16, 2009

Dean Spence collects wood from his rural property to make one-of-a-kind twig furniture and birch-bark dressers. Photograph by: Jean Levac, the Ottawa Citizen, The Ottawa Citizen

Dean Spence collects wood from his rural property to make one-of-a-kind twig furniture and birch-bark dressers. Photograph by: Jean Levac, the Ottawa Citizen, The Ottawa Citizen

It’s no surprise living in the forest has shaped Dean Spence’s artistic prowess. He lives and breathes wood, transforming it into inspiring rustic art forms.

For 15 years, he has made twig and bent-willow furniture, accessories and twig miniatures handcrafted from birch saplings. His distinctive artistry features traditional joinery methods and birch bark mosaics, influenced by wood-working traditions from the Adirondacks and the Rockies.

Spence and his wife, Cathie Green, recently moved from British Columbia to an idyllic acreage on the banks of the Mississippi River in the Lanark Highlands, outside of Perth. This weekend, the couple is taking part in the Brooke Valley Spring Tour, where they can be found at the home of fellow-furniture maker Dawn King.

Spence’s love affair with wood began 22 years ago as a builder of custom, handcrafted log homes. He turned his focus to rustic furniture design and production in 1994. The process of making the furniture is labour-intensive. While the materials are virtually free, the value is in the handicraft.

Spence has the ability to create heirloom-quality furniture that combines natural form with classic design concepts. He accomplishes this with his dedication to detail and craftsmanship, combined with a passion for simple woodworking techniques, which includes a pruning saw and clippers while in the bush.

“I handpick all of my wood. I rough cut the wood in the bush using my body as a measurement. I use a chop saw to trim the wood and tenon cutters. I prefer working with dry wood, which can take two years to dry.”

He selectively prunes some of the stems on a birch tree and leaves the trunk of the tree to regenerate new saplings. The long whip-like benders are softened using a knee pad and elbow grease and applied to chair frames within a week of harvesting. The benders, used to build the curved arms and hoop backs of the chairs, are drilled and nailed to one another every six to eight inches. The chairs are left to dry and then oiled with linseed oil.

He works almost exclusively in birch, which is a strong, dense wood that suits his furniture style. It takes time and skill to incorporate the wood into a design that is sound, sturdy and comfortable. The 57-year-old’s trademark includes rustic birch chairs and loveseats, coffee tables with birch-bark mosaics under glass and birch bark mosaic mirrors and picture frames.

“I’m hoping that generations of people will be able to enjoy my work and that my customers will pass down my pieces to their children. People feel a real connection to it.”

Spence, who was born in Iroquois Falls, moved to Prince George, B.C., to study at the B. Allen Mackie Log Building School in the 1970s, earning a carpenter certification. Under the tutelage of numerous furniture builders in the 1990s, Spence gained a strong design foundation. The owner of Kapristo Mountain Woodcraft spent years building backcountry lodges and rustic resorts in Lake Louise and Banff. Last September, Spence and Green moved to the Lanark area after realizing they couldn’t afford to retire in B.C.

“A lot of people who moved out west 30 years ago are coming back to Ontario. In some cases, it’s because they have aging parents but mostly because it’s too expensive to live. People can’t afford to retire in British Columbia,” Green says.

An arts administrator and small-business manager by trade, Green, who manages their business, was born in Australia and raised in New England. The couple often spends months on the road travelling to the Adirondack area visiting family and friends and dropping off furniture to clients. Spence also teaches rustic furniture-building workshops across North America.

“We are very excited about the move. The artistic community here and in Perth has really embraced us.”

Prices range from $6 to $6,000 and include armchairs ($350), loveseats ($525), log-cedar benches ($1,000) and two-drawer night tables ($1,200).

Spence also produces a full line of miniatures made with waste wood from furniture, which includes twig reindeers, teddy bear chairs and display easels. The furniture, which often appeals to people with country homes and cottages, is best suited for indoors or in a screened porch to avoid harmful UV rays.

Spence lumps himself in the struggling artisan category and does carpentry and labour jobs to supplement their income.

“I’d love to make a full-time living being an artist, but I don’t have any complaints.”

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KAPRISTO MOUNTAIN WOODCRAFT IN STORES …

– Furniture is available for sale at By The Clyde Furnishings & Artisans’ Gallery in Lanark Village. www.bytheclyde.com

– Household accessories can be found at Riverguild

Fine Crafts in Perth. www.riverguild.com

– Contact information: Kapristo Mountain Woodcraft, Lanark, 613-267-4681 or visit www.kmw.ca

… AND AT THESE EVENTS

– Brooke Valley Spring Tour, May 16, 17, 18 brookevalleyspringtour.ca

– Kiwi Garden, Art in the Garden, June 20 & 21, www.kiwigardens.ca

– Brooke Valley Creative Living Workshops, creating birch-bark picture frames with Dean Spence, July 12 and Aug. 22. www.brookevalley.ca

– Perth Autumn Studio Tour, Oct. 10, 11, 12, www.perthstudiotour.com
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