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Inspired by nature

  • Furniture by Collin Ricketts of Ashfield. Contributed photo—

  • Furniture by Collin Ricketts of Ashfield. Contributed photo—

  • Furniture by Collin Ricketts of Ashfield. Contributed photo—

  • Furniture by Collin Ricketts of Ashfield. Contributed photo—

  • At left, Collin Ricketts of Ashfield is reflected in one of his mirrors with wood and bark frame. Above, one of his handcrafted tables. Below, Ricketts holding a custom clock.

  • Collin Ricketts of Ashfield with one of his woodland clocks and some raw material. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • A live edge table by Collin Ricketts. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Collin Ricketts cuts a slice out of a branch on a band saw in his Ashfield workshop. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Woodland Clocks and a table made by Collin Ricketts. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Collin Ricketts of Ashfield with one of his mirrors with wood and bark frame. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Collin Ricketts works on a rustic style table in his Ashfield workshop. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 9/26/2019 10:05:50 AM


For the Recorder

While hiking in the Adirondack Mountains in New York, Collin Ricketts of Ashfield left the trail to visit Dartbrook Rustic Goods, a shop specializing in American rustic furniture. It was his first exposure to handmade rustic wooden furniture. 

“There is something about enhancing a functional piece of furniture with the beauty existing in nature that touched my soul,” Ricketts said.

On that September weekend almost ten years ago, Ricketts visit to the furniture store coincided with the annual Rustic Furniture Fair on the grounds of the Adirondack Experience: the Museum of Blue Mountain Lake.

There, Ricketts says he met accomplished artisans, saw their work firsthand and viewed some of the museum’s collection of antique Adirondack furniture — he was inspired.

“The cumulative effect was just amazing. I had a sense of ‘I want to do this,’” Ricketts said.

Back home in Ashfield, he started making his own rustic furniture with help from a couple of experienced mentors. Three years later, Ricketts ahs emerged as an artist in the field of rustic furniture with Dartbrook as his main gallery. 

To illustrate the enhancement of functional furniture with the beauty of nature, Ricketts points out a mirror frame he’s just finished. Dark, medium-size moosewood branches line its inner and outer edges; between them is a surface of yellow birch bark — its contrasting color and variegated texture stand out. Over the surface of the bark, twigs are arranged in simple, natural designs. The organic forms exude warmth and harmony. 

“Rustic” derives from the Latin rus, for country. Rustic furniture is fashioned from tree parts in their more or less natural state: bark with its varied textures and earthy colors, asymmetrical knots, uneven surfaces that are rough, stippled and striated.

Rustic furniture came into fashion starting around 1870 as Americans’ thirst for nature evolved from tent camps and simple log cabins on wooded lakes and mountainsides to the building of the Great Camps by robber barons in the Adirondacks. It was adopted by the National Park Service in the building and furnishing of such lodges as the Old Faithful Inn (1904) at Yellowstone.

“People are starved for wildness,” Ricketts said. “Our wild roots are our connection to nature. I think there’s something in our hearts that responds to it.”

Some of his woodland clocks were on display last winter at Belding Library. 

“The clocks are magical,” said Sherrie Scott, a librarian at the Main Street library, about the exhibit. “It was the most commented-on show we’ve had.”

Local residents Rick and Suzie Chandler have purchased two pieces.

“The more I saw his work, the more it grew on me. We ordered a custom side table,” Suzie Chandler said. “What draws me is their simplicity, creativity and whimsy.” 

Ricketts’ clocks, mirrors, benches and tables are made in the Adirondack style, a decorative approach to furniture making that features bark and the patterning of twigs, slices of wood, small woodland findings and lengths of sapling branches. Other rustic styles are gothic and bentwood: gothic makes use of gnarled roots for chair legs and backs and bentwood uses green wood to make sweeping curves.

In his work, Ricketts uses materials native to this area and stores many of them on his Emmet Road porch. On Mt. Monadnock, for example, Ricketts says he once found an old piece of birch bark lying on the ground that inspired a piece.

“A tree rots away for fifty years: the bark is still there and has amazing patina,” he said.

Ricketts favors birch bark for its different hues and textures. He also uses cherry burl, spalted maple (its network of black lines created by fungus), moosewood, mountain laurel, birch twigs and pine cones. For fastening, he uses epoxy or super glue and pin nails. Teak oil darkens wood as he sees fit, and layers of shellac thinned with alcohol serve as a fastener and give a slight sheen to the finish. He sands, stains and finishes the materials selectively to bring out highlights and add contrast. 

Over the course of last winter, he was particularly drawn to the natural forms of twigs — how to use them in patterns and how to attach them to other surfaces. In this, Ricketts says he has new-found freedom regarding imperfections. In the past, he wanted the frame to be a perfect fit. Now he doesn’t care if a side section of a frame is slightly splayed and reveals its inner workings.

“That was a good discovery. Freeing,” he said.

His work as an artist is relatively recent, although it was his aspiration as a child in the Midwest to be an artist. He entered Stanford University in 1960 to study engineering, then switched to psychology. His real-life education happened on trips to San Francisco, Ricketts says, where he was “part of the whole consciousness movement from the get-go.”

As a younger man, Ricketts says he was in  and out of college, in the Marines and back, lived in Haight-Ashbury for the Summer of Love and attended the San Francisco Art Institute. During this time he became a spiritual seeker.

“I studied with Japanese Zen teachers in their early days in California and was part of the EST (Erhard Seminars Training) movement,” Ricketts said.

He went on to raise children and became a Waldorf teacher in the state of Washington and in Keene, N.H. In the past, he has worked as a carpenter. For the last twenty-five years he has studied and taught Chinese Qigong (chee gong) and has led spiritual shadow work groups — getting to know the self through creative arts activities that bring the unconscious (Freud) or the shadow (Jung) to the surface. Periodically he goes to a Zen or Christian monastery to continue his inner journey. 

“Seeing these things as functional gives me the freedom to let my ego go,” Ricketts said, noting that mindset makes its way into his furniture artwork.

“It’s making a bench, a table, a clock, a mirror. You could say creativity is a function of the spirit, that you’re doing it with your spiritual energy,” he continued.

He draws a connection between his Zen and Qigong background and practice and the work he’s doing now.

“Somehow, by stilling the mind or just watching, the mind puts you in a different place. Then everything you do is a little different. What does this roof need for a border? The more focussed and still you are the better the spirit can lead you into seeing. Whatever you do is going to be enhanced,” he said.

Finding wood that was stressed and looks ugly on the outside becomes an opportunity: “You slice it open, and it has all this amazing beauty inside — the history of the living thing that has shape and form and evolved. It’s the wounding of the tree and how the tree healed that creates new colors, textures and patterns. Opening it up is a revelation.”

Jody Hall is an Ashfield resident and reporter for The Ashfield News, where this story first appeared.

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