Working With Wood

Sometimes Shaker-style simple, sometimes provocative, Liz Grace’s handcrafted pieces express beauty in different ways.

Woodworker Liz Grace is moved to create by the energy she experiences and by the experiences themselves. Sometimes she creates because she feels she must.

She takes a very personal approach when designing handcrafted furniture for a customer, working with them closely. Grace, who’s owned River’s Bend Woodworking Studio in Plymouth for the past nine years and who is member of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters, also wants to honor the simplicity of beauty while creating a functional piece.

At the same time, she creates art that may make people feel uncomfortable or find difficult to talk about. Her bench “Have a Seat, Everything Is Fine” was in response to the August 2020, officer-involved shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that sparked unrest in the community and clashes with police. To create it, she and a friend
used a shotgun to blast holes in the bench top—one shot for every bullet that Blake took.

She created the art piece “Where Do They All Go” after going through cancer treatment, and says she was simply driven to make it. “It was a catharsis. It was a need to express something.” She’s now cancer-free.

Growing up in New England, Grace always loved to work with wood, but in the early ‘70s, high school girls were expected to sew and cook, not carve and sand.  She graduated from UNH and later worked as a crop consultant in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, but kept practicing with wood. Eventually, she began her woodworking career in earn-est by teaching herself. In a pre-internet world, Grace learned through books and magazines, or asked neighbors—anyone willing to lend her some knowledge.

She hopes her work captures the energy in the living space around us, and that it moves others as well. Between working in her shop and at the New Hampshire nonprofit Circle Program, a mentoring program for disadvantaged girls, Grace is also learning the fiddle and mandolin.

New Hampshire Home [NHH]: How did you become interested in woodworking?  

Liz Grace [LG]: As a really young kid, I found wood fascinating. I loved the smell and feel of it. When I was growing up in junior high, girls took Home Ec. and boys took shop. I went to three different high schools, and only one of them would let me take wood shop. I just totally loved it.

NHH: How did you learn without taking classes or being an apprentice?

LG: Trial and error, which is the dangerous part. Trial and error can sometimes end in the error. I’m surprised I still have 10 fingers at this point. The internet didn’t exist, so knowledge was what others would share with you or what you could get from books or TV. Through the years I acquired more tools, expanded my knowledge, practiced skills and kept playing with it, mostly on the side.

NHH: Does the way you learned play a role in how you work today?

LG: It has forced me as a self-taught woodworker to find my own expression. There was nobody I was imitating, though I certainly admired Krenov and Sam (Maloof). James Krenov is very well known for his cabinets. And he taught at the College of the Redwoods. Sam Maloof, also self-taught, began by making furniture out of pallets. He’s very well known, especially for his rockers. He gave a rocker to President Reagan.

NHH: How would you describe your style?

LG: When a simple line is done elegantly or just right, it can be very beautiful to me. The Shakers, I think, not only brought a simplicity of line to their creations, they also brought functionality. And I find that I also tend to do that. I want my piece to work. I want it to function as a living, working part of somebody’s life.

NHH: Describe what you mean by “living.”

LG: Living is when you have a table that the family gathers around for generations. That table has hosted birthdays and feasts and celebrations and funerals. That’s a living piece in my mind. It’s a piece that participates in the family or the home.

NHH: Are there certain Shaker pieces you really identify with?

LG: One is in the Kentucky Shaker Village, I think. It’s a set of drawers that fills the whole wall. The drawers are graduated, small to large, top to bottom, in beautiful cherry. And they’re fitted immaculately. That’s a thing of beauty, how well it blends into their philosophy—a place for everything, everything in its place. It was furniture in the wall, but it was very much alive for them.

Again, the beautiful (Shaker) stairway there that just curls around. If you climb that stairway and you look at the boards, they’re all these wide solid boards going all the way up the stairway, side panels and treads and risers. When you get to the top and you lie down on the floor in the center, and you look up, you’ll see an amazing ceiling. These Shakers made all that ornamentation and beauty, but they believed in simplicity. So, beauty isn’t excluded from simplicity.

NHH: Tell us a little more about “Have a Seat, Everything Is Fine.”

LG: We (a friend and I) tried the guns on all three mock-ups. I wanted to get a shattering effect, but I didn’t want to blow the piece apart. Once you’ve pulled that trigger, you get what you get. In the final piece, having studied these things, we decided on the range, the angle and the bullet type. It was beautiful—this brand-new, gorgeous top. We went ahead and did the seven bullet holes, from the back through the front, creating that exploding effect.

It felt like a very violent year to me.

NHH: Can you tell us about the cabinet titled “Where Do They All Go”?

LG: That’s a similar piece, more art than functional furniture. I get into these places sometimes where I have an idea and this energy. Neither of these pieces was commissioned; I just had to build them. So I follow that energy and the idea of the vision I have.

I’m a breast cancer survivor. If you touch the exterior of the cabinet, it’s very smooth and sensuous. And you’ll notice it’s shaped like a woman’s body. And if you look at the center dark walnut piece, there are these two knots that look like sagging women’s breasts.

 NHH: So, it’s like the central shape of the dark piece?

LG: Right. Each form of the woman’s body, so to speak, moves away as a door, but the central shape remains so that you still know you’re thinking about a woman’s body. The whole cabinet for me was speaking about our cultural ideas of women’s beauty, going through breast cancer, and the change of your female identity. Suddenly, I was wondering, “Am I still going to be okay, and pretty, or meet the standard?”

When you open the cabinet, there are maybe 100 ceramic breasts I made in different colors. The interior of it is a waterstained maple that I darkened with ashes, because the whole experience was a dark experience, a difficult experience. Each of the breasts that were being removed was somebody’s life, a family’s life, a mother’s life, a daughter, a sister. Where do all these women go? Where do their lives go? Where do their stories go? That was my way of working through what I was dealing with.

NHH: I really like the violin cabinet you made. During one exhibit you said you were learning how to play the fiddle. How is that going?

LG: Good. I just came back from a weekend at Fiddle Hell (a music festival in Westford, Massachusetts). What a ton of fun. Workshops, classes, jams, music, concerts. I’ve only been studying it about a year and a half, so I have a lot of practicing to do. I’m learning the fiddle and the mandolin. I’m actually working on making a mandolin.

Categories: Artwork and Design