As a young girl visiting her grandmother’s cabin on the Delaware River in the 1960s, Elizabeth Clarke-Shaw fashioned necklaces from acorns, crafted fairy gardens on old aluminum pie plates, and collected rocks in the time-honored tradition of adventurous children everywhere.
“Nature really sang to me,” says the longtime Columbia resident.
That persistent melody inspired Clarke-Shaw, now 57, to create one-of-a-kind furniture pieces that sprout branches in all their pristine glory as they pay homage to those halcyon days of innocence and imagination.
Though four decades have passed since those summers spent at Grandma’s “camp,” nature still beckons to the woodworker in the basement workshop of her Hickory Ridge home, which is headquarters to Out On A Limb Rustic Furniture.
Slender branches of stripped maple seem to grow out of dozens of plastic trash bins, creating a thicket of ready supplies. All were amassed from numerous scavenging forays over the last 10 years into such locales as utility rights-of-way during tree pruning and friends’ properties following storms.
“They are clean and glistening pieces of wood, and they’re white, almost like bone,” Clarke-Shaw rhapsodizes about her cherished inventory. She collects branches mainly in the spring when the sap is running and the bark peels more readily.
The hand-crafted pieces she creates by raiding this treasure trove could easily have been lifted from the Three Bears’ bungalow after they endured a home invasion by Goldilocks, or been taken from the forest cottage where Snow White lived with seven dwarfs.
Clarke-Shaw, whose father taught her many years ago to use a wood lathe as they listened to opera music on the radio, doesn’t use many power tools in her work today. “Their whirling blades scare the heck out of me, and I don’t like the noise,” she explains.
Instead, she carves and whittles by hand and opts for traditional wood-joining techniques that forgo nails. The result is a vast array of unique pieces, each curiously different from the last.
Chairs, which are her favorite project, have natural branches for supports. She’s made tables, benches, stools and coat trees, as well as smaller cash-and-carry items like walking sticks and canes, napkin holders and doll chairs. She also brings spritelike figures she calls Spring-a-ma-things to life. All convey her unique, rustic approach.
“I’ve always loved that you could take a piece of wood and turn it into something else,” she says. “And I see motion and animation in everything.”
The artist attended the Philadelphia College of Art as a drawing major for two and a half years until she “ran out of money and quit” in 1975. A year later she married Pernell Shaw, whom she’d met in high school when she worked as an elf at The Mall in Columbia one Christmas season and he was the mall’s first black Santa. They have one grown daughter named Hannah.
Through the 1980s she worked at the once-popular Creative Pastimes, now defunct. She was employed by Head Sportswear as a designer of T-shirt graphics for several years, until the company moved the business from Columbia to New Jersey. She followed that by a stint at Fila sportswear in Hunt Valley, until that company left Baltimore for New York.
By the late 1990s, after his wife lost two design jobs she loved, Pernell, who’s a reality therapist, asked her to carefully consider her next move. Heart-to-heart conversations revealed her interest in spending more time creating furniture from her own designs.
She exhibited some of her pieces at the Meredith Gallery in Baltimore and sold some, though for several years she was tightly focused on furniture making and not sales. She became more active on the craft show circuit about six years ago and has made valuable contacts at the American Craft Council convention held annually in Baltimore.
Clarke-Shaw now accepts the occasional commission, but with a twist: She’ll make a piece of furniture she likes and that she thinks her clients will like, but there’s no obligation to buy if they don’t.
“I don’t want to do what other people tell me to do when it comes to my art; they might as well be telling me to wash the dishes,” she says. “And I don’t do what I do so that people see what I see, but I love it when they do.”
Jean Arp, who has purchased a number of Clarke-Shaw’s children’s pieces, says she’s “rather charmed” by the furniture sets and the artist’s vision.
“What I find appealing about Elizabeth’s work is that it’s so artistic and yet it’s so incredibly sturdy,” says Arp, a Silver Spring resident.
“I have grandchildren, and I want to sit in one of their chairs at their table and do things with them,” she explains. “Plus it’s all so beautifully made that they’ll be able to hand it down to their children. That makes it a treasure.”
Clarke-Shaw is currently office manager at Oak Tree Furniture, where some of her handiwork is displayed in the showroom on Red Branch Road, and she has established a website, outonalimbrusticfurniture.com. Photographs of sold and available pieces tell a large part of her story online.
Her association with the Howard County Woodworkers Guild fills in other pages, as she has networked with and learned from a number of the 176 members who are similarly smitten with using their hands and minds to turn trees into functional and/or decorative objects.
Bob Lewis, a fellow guild member, says Clarke-Shaw was wise to choose to build in an unusual woodworking style “where the competition isn’t so great.”
“She’s got a good thing going,” observes the Ellicott City resident and past president.
Leon Bezdikian, who employed Clarke-Shaw when he owned Patowmack Toy Shop and Creative Pastimes, calls her “a very creative lady, a very innovative lady.”
“What she has flows from the brain to the hand,” says Bezdikian, who is retired and a stained-glass artist in Ellicott City. “She’s inspiring to me, and she’s more of an artist than I am.
“A normal person looks at someone’s art and says, ‘I can do that,’ but, no, they can’t. There’s a disconnect between the mind and reality when they think that,” he says.
Clarke-Shaw agrees that there is something mystical about the creative process, describing her penchant for creating her rustic designs as “something I am compelled to do.”
“There’s a large part of this that’s just magic. You never know what will be revealed to you,” she says. “But nature is the primary designer; I’m just along for the ride.”