Asheville Woodworker Branches Out

by Carol Motsinger, Asheville Citizen-Times
March 2, 2012

Elana Kann has been transforming wood for decades. These days, Kann, of Asheville, is working toward transforming words instead.

Kann is redefining “gallery,” saying she wants to pioneer when and where the public has access to art.

Kann, who now specializes in wood sculpture, is already chiseling away at the traditional gallery definition. She and Mike Fortini, doctor of chiropractic medicine, will celebrate her new piece, “Spinal Wood,” Saturday at Fortini’s office at Merrimon Family Chiropractic.

The sculpture appears in the office’s waiting room, fulfilling Kann’s goal of introducing the transformative quality of art into the mundane, the routine — like annual tasks that get written on your calendar months in advance. It’s a fitting mission, since Kann, whose company is called Branching Out Woodworks, actually first explored woodworking to complete errands of sorts. In the mid-’70s, she was living in Wisconsin, “trying to figure out what I wanted to do in my life.” She was sharing a home and needed a lamp and window shades.

“I was living next to a lumber yard and went through the scrap pile,” Kann said. “I just figured it out.” Soon, her housemates requested their own lamps and shades, and before long, Kann was asked to be a part of a craft fair.

“I just decided I really loved wood,” she said. When I asked what really spoke to her about the material, she just laughed. “When you have a love affair,” Kann said, “it’s not a rational thing.”

But she can trace the roots of the relationship to her love of trees. She even loves raking leaves.

Kann‘s art is really just about her and the trees: She is primarily self-taught and sought experience and knowledge through books and fellow woodworkers.

“There were teachers everywhere,” she said.

Along the way, she learned how to build decks. Custom cabinetry. Sandboxes. She even designed a home.

She settled in Asheville in 1986 and set up shop in her new hometown. But her shop tools got dusty and dull when a new love entered her life: Kann‘s now-13-year-old daughter. She told me she took time to focus on her family, but woodworking remained her “big love,” and she knew once her daughter reached a certain independent age, she would return to her craft.

Fortini and Kann met through their schoolmate daughters, and soon after, Kann came to his office for an adjustment.

“The walls were lacking something, and she saw something that I didn’t see,” Fortini said.

He didn’t see his waiting room recast as a gallery, with original, well-lit art on the wall. Nor did he see himself as the type to commission art, he said. Kann can add “art patron” to the phrases she is helping to broaden and redefine. “I just wanted something special for the office,” Fortini said. “It starts a lot of conversations in the office.”

This duo’s partnership demonstrates the potential for other Asheville artists to pursue nontraditional ways of sharing their art — and getting paid for it. Art has already made its way into so many businesses in town, from bars to restaurants to salons. Why not doctor offices? If Fortini‘s colleagues need any convincing, he already can talk about how the art has helped his business in ways I found surprising.

“The office feels a lot more elegant,” he said. “It brings importance to the office and to the staff. It”s hard to express how art can change the character of the staff. It’s like they want to live up to the art.”

This is the opinion of Carol Motsinger. She can be reached at cmotsinger@citizen-times.com or www.facebook.com/ct.carol motsinger.