Ellie Richards is up in the wood studio this winter, making tables.
She started with one, commissioned for the exhibition Dining and Discourse, curated by Kathryn Hall at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. One of the exhibition’s aims is to examine how the lavishness of our decorative arts past might surface in today’s “artisanal” and “farm-to-table” dining culture. With this in mind, Ellie designed her table. She painted bands of color on the apron and legs–the shape of the legs riffing on a Queen Anne cabriolet style. “I was thinking about the cover of an album by A Tribe Called Quest,” she says about the polychrome surface. “It had all kinds of geometric shapes working with and off each other.”
A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm has the song “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” on it. In the song, Q-Tip tells an epic story of driving west out of Brooklyn with his friends in a Dodge Dart while his mom’s away on an ocean cruise. Out west, one friend drinks the fruit punch while our hero enjoys the enchiladas. Inevitably, all encounter a “beautiful wicked lady.” Q-Tip is mightily distracted. He loses his wallet. He’s got to go back.
When Ellie Richards went west after finishing undergraduate work in Ohio, it was to make sculpture in the graduate program at Arizona State University. She liked the quickness involved in sculpting–the impulse to create, fast. But she missed being in a woodshop, and sought out ways to become more facile at making furniture.
“I walked out of graduate school more of a construction worker than a woodworker,” Ellie admits. She went back east, looking for something she hadn’t forgotten (both her grandfather and great grandfather kept woodshops) and wanted to pick up again.
As Ellie talks about making a leg for a new table from a square, tapering and sawing new shapes along the path, she sounds like she’s exactly where she needs to be.
When Q-Tip repeats “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” you’ve got to pick it up. Your ear, heart, in hook, in rhythm: “I gotta get it, I got-got ta get it.” A play on another hit written in Brookyln, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “I Left My Wallet” is about getting your gold–whatever real thing you need most–and losing it, finding it, losing it again. Meanwhile, traveling with friends who love you is key.
Ellie, on her own instinctive travel following graduate school, picked up residencies and studio assistant gigs at Peters Valley, Arrowmont, and Anderson Ranch–experiences that would bring her in direct relationship with her material and tools. Eventually, she landed a residency at the Appalachian Center for Craft. Now, as Penland’s wood studio coordinator, she’s managing a shop, and enjoying the collaboration to be found there. She’s making tables. She’s making totems. She’s getting her gold. “I’m still discovering what can be done with wood,” she says, showing us a new table she’s making with a curly maple top, and a few totems on a high shelf.
You could call Ellie Richards’s jam “Geometric Shapes Working Off Each Other.” You could call it an ongoing play between woodwork and sculpture. You could call it losing your wallet in El Segundo–and being game for losing it again.–Elaine Bleakney. Photographs by Robin Dreyer (except where noted above).
Listen to A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” here.