Wood Sculptor Elana Kann: Branching Out in Life through Branching Out WoodWorks

Sometimes, it is amazing the twists and turns our lives take when we pay attention and listen to what our innate wisdom tells us. In the early 1970s, Elana Kann attended the University of Wisconsin, enrolled in an independent study course focused on how people learn. Along with her research, she felt it would be helpful to take classes in the education department. She made an interesting discovery: the professors were teaching students how to teach – but not how students learn!

This line of education ran totally contrary to her independent studies, and she found herself arguing with the professors to no avail. At this juncture, Elana decided that formal university classes were not where she was going for her education. The book most influential in her decision was Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich, in which he wrote about alternatives to schools that included creating learning networks. His theories inspired Elana, and she continues to invoke his premise to this day.

Out of the formal education system and with little money, Elana moved into a collective house with a group of friends and secured a job at a daycare center. This was in the ‘70s and the height of the Women’s Movement in Madison. The women who lived in the collective published a women’s newspaper and everyone participated in the decisions, writing, art work, photography, interviews, layout, and sales. This was a rewarding learning opportunity for Elana and became a valued lifelong experience.

Although she had very little in the way of furnishings for her living space and a small salary from her job, she had the creative drive to be resourceful which led her to the lumber yard a few blocks away. Gathering scraps and asking questions, Elana created a crude lamp, and then found fabric to fashion a lampshade. To cover her bare window, she strung together wood strips, added a pulley, and made a functioning window shade.

Growing up in Indiana, Elana found an outlet for her love of creative exploration by traveling by train each week, starting at age eight, to take classes at the Art Institute in Chicago. These studies, and a love of learning and thinking things through, inspired her to expand her early wood creations into designs which, although somewhat crude, were delightfully practical.

Friends saw her work, and asked her to create lamps and window shades for them. Soon, Elana received an invitation to a craft fair with her lamps and shades; though still crude, they were appropriate for the times and quickly sold.

Along the way, she met another woman interested in woodworking. To further explore their growing talents and expanding education, they started driving school buses which gave them five hours midday to set up shop and learn together. They told friends, “We will make anything you want out of wood. We can’t guarantee it will be good, but we will not charge for our time, only for materials because this will be our learning.”

The two soon gathered books for resources, asked woodworker friends many questions, and befriended the hardware store owner, all harkening back to the learning networks that inspired Elana in her university studies. The owner became a very good friend and patient teacher. He always greeted the women with his full attention, even when involved with another customer, and happily taught them about finishes, veneer, tools, and so much more. Others were also happy to be effective in teaching them while watching them absorb knowledge and grow in their skills.

They learned that, “We are ALL teachers; we humans were born to learn and to share what we know.”

More than once, the two women, when invited to a party, tired of the party chit chat and ended up underneath a table with sketchbooks to study how the pieces fit together and sketch why that worked. From that information, they figured out how to use their sketches in their workshop. “It got to be a joke with friends and sometimes people joined us under the furniture just to hang out and relish our enthusiasm. It was a lot of fun… this was how we learned,” Elana says with a chuckle as she remembers.

“By my late twenties, my work was becoming steadily more complex. I got involved with a group of seven who decided to open a storefront business with a shop in the back.” It became the Seven Circles Collective and was located on a main street of Madison, Wisconsin’s, Near East Side. Elana continued, “We did everything: fine furniture, cabinetry, building decks, house additions, sandboxes – whatever came in the door.” The group was still learning; some were more advanced than others and a few were apprentices. “When someone called to ask if we made beds, chairs (which are the hardest), or dressers, we always answered ‘Yes!’”

In fact, they trained themselves to always say “Yes!” on the phone confidently, and, “When can we meet with you?” After they hung up, they groaned “Argggh – we never did that before! What are we going to do?!?” Off to the library they went for books and to study so that when the client meeting time arrived they were confident and familiar with the request. When they needed help beyond their book learning or collective knowledge, they found someone to teach them, discovering that instructors at the local technical college were happy to informally provide valuable information. They always filled the orders to customer satisfaction. “Although the learning curve slowed us down… we always provided good quality in the finished project. We just had to pace ourselves to include the learning process.”

Elana became one of the senior members in the collective and was honored to have several pieces of her custom furniture included in the national publication Fine Woodworking magazine’s yearly book of best work. This inspired her to keep moving forward and supported her conviction that she was on her right track.

In the late 1970s, Elana got a hankering to help build a house. Again she put out the word within her community and soon an opportunity surfaced in Celo, North Carolina, near Mt. Mitchell. A week later, she purchased a van, packed her tools, and headed off to the rural largely-Quaker community. She happily lived there for eight months as one of three on the house crew. “Mountains were all around… it was beautiful,” Elana reminisces. She made lasting friendships in the community, including with the woman whose house she helped build. When the project was completed, she returned to Madison with North Carolina planted in a special corner of her heart.

“Life has taken many turns for me. I was making furniture that basically consisted of flat surfaces such as tables and bookshelves. Quietly, at first, the woods started talking to me saying, ‘We want to be contoured, we want to show our grain structure, we want to come out of the flat surface and you can help us.’ The woods wanted me to help them express what they held inside,” Elana notes, her eyes glinting with the excitement of the challenge these new ideas presented.

Once back in Madison, Elana felt a restless stir and realized she wanted to live in a new part of the country. Once again, she packed her van with tools, belongings, and a makeshift bed to begin her new adventures in Portland, Oregon, heading to wherever the road took her. When she ran out of money, she stopped and, with her woodworking talents, easily found a job, worked awhile and was soon back on the road. At the end of the year, she returned to Portland, went to work in a cabinet shop, and on the side made her own custom furniture and three-dimensional wall sculptures. A large body of her furniture and sculptures can be found in homes of happy collectors in the Madison, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon areas today.

Soon, another year of change arrived. Elana married, and she and her husband moved to Asheville to be closer to his family. It was time for Elana to build a studio and settle into a more stable work space and the couple planned to adopt a child. They bought two acres, and Elana’s parents purchased two-plus adjoining acres to possibly build their own house some day. Nearby, in a quiet wooded location where the noise of her tools would not bother anyone, Elana built a magical studio with the help of her husband and two of her longtime friends, including the woman with whom she first learned woodworking. The energies of positive inspiration radiate from her studio. Elana had some of her wood sculptures hanging in Asheville area galleries, but most of her time was involved with the restoration of the farmhouse on the property, a massive job that took six years. The marriage did not survive the chaos; however, Elana continued the work and still lives on the property.

One day, Elana’s mother found an article on co-housing (a community concept originally from Denmark), and they both realized that it would be a perfect utilization of their combined four-plus acres. With Elana and her parents as developers; Elana as Project Manager; new friend Bill Fleming as mentor, functional co-developer, and engineer; and a group of buyers participating in the design and marketing phases, along with years of learning and work, the land evolved into a twenty-four townhouse eco-community. Completed in 1998, Westwood remains an outstanding example of energy efficient, eco-conscious co-housing.

Always looking forward to raising a child, Elana realized that her time had come. As a single mother after adopting her daughter, Elana put her woodworking plans on hold. She turned to her editing and publishing skills, using the experience she gained in her years in the collaborative house back in Wisconsin and the Women’s Movement publication she helped create. What amazing circles our lives create. Her daughter now in her teens, Elana has returned to listening to the voices of the wood and bringing their stories into creation.

“My head is full of shapes, and my hands turn those shapes into tangible form when I make mosaic wood sculptures. I imagine endless variations on what the shapes can do,” Elana expresses with great joy on her website. She finds that a visual language emerges as she combines the clients’ themes and esthetic tastes with the shapes in her mind and then executes that story in the undulation of the selected wood. Each piece is a glorious sculpture individual and alive. “… The shapes become metaphors which allow me to explore and express our inquiry more deeply than with words,” she continues.

Along the way, Elana has come to realize that “. . . not everything needs that little slip of paper from a university that says you know how to do something. There are a lot of fields where what matters is what you do and what people can see in your work.” From there, people will judge the quality of your work and that alone makes or breaks a career. We agreed that it is more important to follow your passion. If that passion requires or leads you to a college education, then that is the path to take; if not, find the teachers and mentors who will direct you on your path to your passion.

Elana has listened to the wood, and, in addition to amazing sculptures, she creates many other useful space-saving ideas including lofts, bike racks, and furniture items. Branching Out Woodworks is her talent and her passion. She concludes, “I’m very glad to have found something that has become a life-long love – working with wood. I’m grateful that I can once again, 25 years after I first moved to this area to do this work, continue to bring my woodworking into new life with my re-debut in Asheville.”


Roberta Binder is a Writer, Photographer and Editor who enjoys working with authors to bring their words to life: RobertaEdits.com. As a Feng Shui Master, she encourages Peace and Balance for Body, Mind and Spirit in client’s homes and businesses throughout WNC: SacredEarthWisdom.com and Facebook page Facebook.com/AshevilleFengShuiMaster featuring wit and wisdom.