Merry Maker

Merry Maker

Woodworker Ellie Richards is dead serious about play.
Ellie Richards Broom Time series

“To me, brooms already feel like anthropomorphic creatures as they move around a room, lean against a wall, and interact with the human body,” Richards says. For her Broom Time series, she imagines the personalities brooms would develop if they could freely express themselves.

Mercedes Jelinek

Mark Twain once wrote, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” Ellie Richards finds that quote intriguing, both for the truth it contains and the possibilities it suggests.

“Work and play – there’s such a broad separation of these two concepts,” observes the artist, 32, who crafts furniture and sculpture in wood. But there’s also a sweet spot of crossover when she’s working with tools and materials in the studio: Suddenly the creative flow kicks in, and, snap, the job becomes a game. “We have to finish certain tasks in order to get to the part where it feels like play,” she says. “That blend is what I try to tap into – the space where work and play coexist and complement each other.” It’s a pretty great place to be, and Richards wants us to share in that sense of freedom and fun.

And so, with their animated forms, eccentric surfaces, and air of sophisticated mischief, her seriously playful creations are designed to bring moments of joy, humor, and wonder to the everyday. “For me, the balance between work and play is about the broader human experience, what we do to keep ourselves moving along,” she says. “I want to help people arrive at that playful space more easily and frequently in their lives. Making things allows me to give somebody something to play with.”

Take her Crusaders, tabletop-size totems she carves and paints in endless combinations of form, color, and texture, each one unique. Displayed together, they become a motley crew on a mysterious mission, to be assembled and reassembled like toy soldiers. “That’s part of the fun for me, to see how somebody might place them next to each other, all the possibilities,” says Richards, who takes pleasure in bringing an element of the unexpected to a room. “How many times do we habitually arrange our mantels? Well, throw a couple of these odd shapes into that decorative world and see how they talk to the domestic objects, the brass candleholders and gilded frames.”

Imagine entertaining your guests at her Technicolor Dining Table, a tour de force she created for the 2015 “Dining and Discourse” show at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. The top is a dramatic, sculpted slab of ebonized cherry. Below that pristine surface, there’s a party going on: a colorful apron and a riff on Queen Anne-style legs cut in funky zigzags and embellished with a geometric patchwork of hue and texture – an homage, Richards says, to the cover of People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, an album by hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.

Even the mundane act of tying a shoe or setting down a bag can lift your spirits when done on a Richards bench, like the one she adorned with cheeky scribbles, including cartoon dovetails drawn on its well-crafted joints. Boxes are another simple, functional form whose potential for expressive charm she mines in a variety of intricately carved sizes, shapes, and finishes, from a grainy black-brown stain to an exuberant Technicolor palette inspired by the Bible story of Joseph’s coat of many colors. “I’m attracted to the idea of making something that can fit seamlessly into a home environment, become part of your daily ritual,” she says. “There’s a scale to it that’s playful and toylike. You can pick it up, shift it around, and it’s a tactile experience.”

Growing up, Richards learned from her father, who loved to rearrange rooms, the powerful effect objects have on an environment. “He always encouraged that ability to change and refresh a space, make someone feel welcome and excited to be in it, and how that mattered,” she remembers. Their western Pennsylvania house was filled with traditional furniture, including pieces by her grandfather and great-grandfather; both men passed down to Richards some hand tools she still uses every day. Mixed with these classic styles were “poofy floral couches, basic Ikea furnishings, and modern plastic toys,” resulting in an eclectic environment that fed her interest in form, color, and construction.

She majored in art education and sculpture at the University of Dayton, where she first got serious about wood. “I was so jazzed. My friends were in accounting classes, and I was down in the sculpture shop making sparks and using saws.” For her MFA, she chose the wood program at Arizona State University, which she admits was an unusual choice. “I went out to the desert to study woodworking, which makes no sense at all,” she jokes. “But it changes the way you look at wood, which just gets blasted, the sun knocks it out so fast. It was there that I fell in love with a distressed, worn surface, aged by weather.” Never a fan of the hushed, hands-off vibe of a traditional art gallery – the pedestals, white walls, dramatic lighting – she began to explore interactive art, making installations where viewers were encouraged to pick up and handle the elements. This led to her interest in concepts of work and play, and a travel fellowship to study toys and tools at museums and schools in Austria, Germany, and Sweden. “The relationship between a tool and a toy became evident to me, looking at tools as items that can help you play.”

After graduating from ASU in 2011, she held residencies and shop manager positions at some of the best craft schools in the country (Peters Valley, Arrowmont, Anderson Ranch, the Appalachian Center for Craft), where she polished her technical skills and cultivated her vision. In 2015, she assumed her current role as wood studio coordinator at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina.

There, on Penland’s scenic campus in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Richards works and plays with materials that “find their way into my realm” – chunks of oak or maple left over in the woodshop, discarded scraps she stumbles across in lumberyards, or treasures she discovers by poking around construction sites (one of her favorite sources of inspiration). Her primary tool is the band saw, which she uses to sculpt patterns – both free-form and planned – on the wood. “The immediacy of making a mark using the band saw has been a huge propeller for me, because of the quickness and the ability to change direction at any moment,” she says. An idea might start out one way, “and then down the rabbit hole I go. It’s always a surprise what it comes out to be.”

Some of her more conceptual pieces pay homage to tools and labor. She’ll take old brooms and reconfigure the handles into characters, sweepers with personality: a pair of twins headed out for a stroll, or a long, lean fellow slumped against a wall, tired and over it. Her Talismanics are hanging assemblages of odds and ends, natural and synthetic – tree bark, a plastic basket, a videocassette of Dances with Wolves – that she sees as microcosms of consumer and material culture, like miniature building sites, unfinished and at loose ends.

This December, Richards takes her work-play philosophy to the next level, traveling to Ghana on a research grant from the World Wood Day Foundation. There she’ll study at the Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop, home of that country’s fascinating tradition of “fantasy coffins,” custom-made according to the occupation or aspirations of the departed. A farmer might go to his eternal rest in an exquisitely crafted onion, a professor in a pencil. Could there be a more loving and, yes, playful way to honor the deceased? Richards will share her perspective on the experience at an upcoming World Wood Day conference.

Come what may, the foundation that grounds this young artist – and frees her to play – is craftsmanship. “The lesson I’ve learned, over and over, is that when I’m making something, no matter what I do with it at the end, I want it to be the best quality that I can make it – able to stand alone without any surface on it, to sing on its own,” Richards says. “Even though I want to take my work to these unruly places, there’s a truth in the form that has to exist before I can go there.”