In the expansive meadow at the base of a snow-capped Mount Shasta, butterflies rest their diminutive legs on white tulips. While this scene evokes a real sense of place, it’s far from that place, yet beautifully reinterpreted in maple, poplar, padauk, walnut and Brazilian cherry woods, on a queen-sized headboard. Sweet dreams, indubitably.
In today’s contemporary, often cookie-cutter and artistically malnourished society, there’s a gaping void of true craftsmanship in the dime-a-dozen home furnishings and accessories found in most chain stores. That’s changing, perhaps to some extent courtesy of the exquisite, three-dimensional creations of woodworker Mike Smith.
“I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, as a hobby,” says Smith, 43. “The first time I ever built anything, I was 5 or 6 years old. I built an end table for my grandmother. My dad helped teach me some rudimentary skills, and he let me use tools. Beyond that, I learned a lot on my own, either through books, trial-and-error, or some experience working with other folks. Other than that, it’s all self-taught.”
Today, Smith says he considers his gleaming designs, intricate details and intarsia carvings—mosaics in wood—an art form. Butterflies, lilies, hummingbirds, roses and eagles are common motifs in Smith’s smooth, stunning and distinctive tables, mirrors, cutting boards, lazy Susans, wine and quilt racks. An emerging artist in a vanishing craft, Smith gets some of the woods from a local supplier and some from Pacific Northwest mills. About a year ago, in the comfort of the Sparks home he shares with Viki, his wife of 16 years and their two children, Smith started Out of the Box Custom Wood Designs. Like a sculptor, Smith says he allows each piece of wood to speak to him, to emerge and manifest into what it’s meant to become.
“A lot of the woods and the figures in the wood, influence my designs,” he says. For the most part, I try to incorporate things occurring in nature or shapes that are natural. Some are just interesting to me.”
A third-generation serviceman, 23-year “naval aviator” and veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Smith’s piercing blue eyes and easy smile immediately turn respectfully reverent when he speaks of his country, his work and their essential correlation.
“I do get quite a few orders [of these],” Smith states, proudly displaying a “prototype” maple shadowbox that cradles a cherished American flag and “some of my old medals. I started doing those about four years ago, when I was still on active duty at NAS Fallon. I saw that folks were retiring, and I wasn’t satisfied with boxes I’d seen. A lot of [them], unfortunately, are made overseas, and I think it’s a dishonor to our service members. You can’t honor them with a box made overseas, and they’re made cheaply. I wanted to make them something special; not only high-quality, but also to represent a person’s service in the most appropriate way.”
Smith’s essential expressions in wood soothe both the artist and the buyer, a timeless touch of a long-held handiwork.
“It’s a rarity, in today’s society,” he says of his work. “I try to do something unique and heirloom-quality. These are pieces that, if you take care of them, you’ll be passing them down to your children and grandchildren. They’ll be around for a long time.”