‘Where there’s a willow, there’s a way.”
Bob Atkinson offers this curious advice with a wry smile and twinkle in his eye. Pressed to elaborate, he declines to say more though his smile widens to a mischievous grin.
Atkinson’s advice is a cryptic summary of his vocation and craft as a willow furniture maker. And he might just as easily be talking about life in general.
Where there’s a willow bush, there are the makings of any stick-frame structure you can imagine.
Where there’s a gnarled branch, there’s an opportunity to flaunt it rather than toss it. Where there’s a twist in life’s road, opportunity of a similar sort may be knocking.
In the dozen years that Atkinson has made rustic willow furniture, he has sought out and harvested thousands of bushes and trees in the Yukon countryside.
They’re not all the size and shape he prefers, but no matter. Atkinson has learned to make the most of what he collects, and to highlight rather than discard an unruly branch.
“I like to use the whole tree, if possible,” says Atkinson.
And why not, since willow grows back at the perky rate of more than a half-metre a year?
Although willow is the number one material he works with, Atkinson also harvests alder, birch, aspen and fire-killed pine or spruce.
He often uses the beefier species for legs and frameworks, and relies on willow for “benders” and surface detail.
Prior to establishing his furniture business, Willow Wonders, Atkinson earned his keep as a geophysical technician for an international mining company with operations across Canada.
When that work dried up in 1990, he came to the Yukon and found employment in his field the first summer. The following year, he worked as a surveyor for the Yukon government.
Lack of employment in 1992 proved to be a life-changing twist in the road. With time on his hands, Atkinson tried his luck with some plans for a bent willow chair. It looked pretty ugly, he recalls with a chuckle. But he tried again, and the second chair wasn’t so bad.
When friends and acquaintances saw what Atkinson was producing in his shop, they were impressed and placed orders. Those first commissions got the ball rolling. The more furniture Atkinson made, the more orders he received.
“The requests come in spurts,” he says.
“If I’ve made a few beds or tables, and people see them, then I’ll get orders for more beds or tables.”
Atkinson estimates that he has made more than 500 bent willow chairs since that first misshapen one. He has also led numerous weekend workshops, resulting in the creation of another 300-400 chairs by as many Yukon residents.
Somewhere along the way, amidst all the commission work and teaching, he picked up the nickname Willow Bob.
Surprisingly, he’s not the only Willow Bob out there. When setting up his e-mail service with Yahoo a few years back, Atkinson discovered that several versions of Willow Bob addresses were already taken.
One of Atkinson’s specialties is crafting replicas of the classic 1860’s Appalachian-style rocking chair once owned by the gold-rush-era poet Robert Service. Two of the Appalachian rockers can be found, and snuggled into, beside the fireplace at the Whitehorse Public Library.
Another Willow Wonders’ specialty is display units, which add turn-of-the-century charm to stores and government offices.
Venues include every visitor reception centre in the territory, Whitehorse city hall, and a number of Whitehorse retail outlets including Mac’s Fireweed, Murdoch’s, Northern Elegance, North End Gallery and White Horse General Store.
Atkinson doesn’t limit his repertoire to furniture, and he’s prepared to try most anything asked of him.
He savours the challenge of figuring out the engineering aspects of his creations — how the various pieces will be joined together, or how the assembled work will ultimately stand up.
“The only thing that limits you is your imagination,” he says.
This year, Atkinson challenged himself to try something new. The materials are familiar, but no one would think to call the result “rustic.”
Atkinson may even concede he outdid himself with this project, a one-of-a-kind table and chair set. He calls the three-piece set Bobby Fisher’s Breakfast Table and, rightly so, since the table top’s centrepiece is a gorgeous burlwood chessboard fit for a champion.
The chessboard alone was a week’s work. To start, Atkinson made a table base and then glued to its center a grid of two-inch squares of aspen burl.
The next job was five long hours of sanding to smooth the surface. After that, Atkinson had to stain the dark squares with straightedge precision.
With the chessboard assembled, Atkinson filled out the rest of the oval table top with a pleasing arrangement of burlwood, birch bark and caribou horn. The final step was three coats of epoxy resin, allowing 72 hours of cure time between coats.
From start to finish, including the wait time for glues and finishes to cure, the entire furniture set was a seven-week labour of love.
It is currently on exhibit at the Yukon Art Centre Gallery as part of the From These Hands show mounted by Yukon Artists at Work. The show runs until August 27.
More of Atkinson’s willow wonders can be viewed and purchased at Northern Elegance in Whitehorse, Matthew Watson General Store in Carcross, No Gold Gallery in Dawson City, and Yukon Artists at Work Gallery in McCrae.
Offerings at the latter venue include a clever new product line: gravity-defying wine bottle holders that have been selling faster than Atkinson can make them.
The success of the new item, made from scrap ends of diamond willow, is a testament to both Atkinson’s inventiveness and the allure of his medium.
Where there’s a willow … there are endless ways to manipulate its branches into functional and decorative art.
Where there’s Willow Bob, there’s someone ready to push and bend the limits of his material, his craft and his imagination. The guy’s entitled to a mischievous grin or two.