By Brian D’Ambrosio
On a cold, austere-feeling weekday morning, Martha Downs studiously saws, styles, and sculpts wood to fit the full scope of her imagination. In the chalky calmness of her Black Earth shop, trailed around by an old, sawdust covered dog, she harmoniously works in an earnest, thoughtful quiet.
“My shop gives shape and form to my thoughts,” says Downs, a lean, witty, experienced craftsperson, most comfortable wearing torn dungarees, ankle deep in sandy surroundings. “I walk the fine line between being a tradesperson who has a job to do and an artist who creates and interprets and has visions, I think I’m somewhere in between. It’s not totally important to me that what I’m building isn’t my vision, I’ll influence it, and balance its aesthetic elements. “
Here, Downs designs and builds durable tables, shelving, headboards, cabinetry, beds, and doors. Her pieces mainly come commissioned with her clients’ tastes and ideas in mind, or she often accepts referral work from contractors. She is the brains, boss, and brawn at Downs Woodworking, the theorist, the captain, the follower, the artist, and the quality control specialist.
“Things do not leave the shop until I am satisfied,” says Downs. “Sometimes I’ll try materials out on myself first, and I spend any quiet periods I have between projects poking around, experimenting with wood.”
When possible Downs sources local wood, primarily walnut from Mount Horeb, and utilizes local materials. Multitasking, though, is a skill best left for those pushing pencils in their cubicle nations, not something that feels natural for an invested woodworker like Downs, for she can only exert her energies on one piece at a time.
“I don’t like working on multiple pieces at once,” says Downs. “When I’m working I do have ideas in mind for other projects, but I prefer to focus. My average day is spent in the shop working; I’m not much of a nighttime worker. “
Stylistically, Downs draws heavily from Scandinavian and American mid century modern design influences, spending whatever down time she has brushing up on the various technical aspects of woodworking, furniture building, and workshop management.
Population 1,320, the village of Black Earth, boasts rich soil, thawed glacier beds, wavy pastures, a restored train depot, a five star supper club, and some fine trout fishing. Undulating and pastoral, a drive through the countryside here is indeed inspirational. Alas, it can also be a bit isolating for a lone commercially active cabinetmaker, especially when she is searching for some conversation.
“I’m away from everybody so I don’t get a lot of input,” smiles Downs, who has lived in Black Earth for five plus years. “There’s nobody to talk to near the water cooler. I have to search for input. But you know, I’ve had plenty of other so-called normal jobs in my life, working for other people, and that type of work lacks too many other things for me.”
As a woodworker, it is always tough to break through the clutter of competition, and it is a heck of a lot tougher still, for Downs, when it comes to debunking the cherished concept of American Big-Box-addicts that all custom furniture pieces are too expensive, or, perhaps worse, too elitist. It seems we have conditioned ourselves to forsake genuine quality in favor of lesser cost, shun heirloom preciousness in favor of expendably poor, mass-produced purchases, and eschew those generational keepsakes built by our neighbors for cold, austere disposable items, shipped from the dimmest corners of the earth.
“The assumption usually is that it is going to be too costly,” says Downs, a former wine consultant, with a college background in sociology and history, who has worked with wood for more than twenty-five years. “But the truth is, my expenses are high, between the shop, material investments, rent, and liability insurance, I can’t afford to be cheap. And the perception exists that custom is unaffordable, yet people spend a lot or the same amount on similar pieces that come out of factories.
“I make things for those who want something long lasting,” she continues, “and who are proud to have it. In the end, a custom piece of furniture needs to make sense. It should be well built, thorough, and something the owner can take pride in. “
Indeed, upon examination of Downs’ work, it is easy to see custom furniture building as something steeped in the management and practice of nuance. That she has honed her hand skills with planes and chisels, developed an eye for delicate curves, and has a sixth sense of what a prospective customer may want, is clear. Uniqueness results from these subtleties. A subdued arch or dimension here, or a tiny variation or characteristic added there – these refinements accentuate unique furniture. It is sort of like having a unique copy of an ancient manuscript, but, well, much bigger, and with a utilitarian bent.
Notwithstanding the benefits of sui generis labor, it can still be most taxing for autonomous artisans such as Downs to market, or exploit, the rich depths of their creativities and talents.
“I probably don’t do enough to make myself known,” says Downs, then adding, “I believe that it’s best for me to communicate through the emotive nature of my work.”
To read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s Wisconsin travel, history, artist profiles, and roadside conversations.