Like many of her friends and classmates, central Ohio woodworker Lisa Bova had a “coming out” party. However, hers didn’t come around until she was 48.
The celebration – a wine and cheese event held at Gallery M in Dublin, Ohio – marked Lisa Bova’s arrival, not in society, but in the arts. It was her formal announcement to family, to friends, and to the world that she was ready to be seen as an artist.
On the night of the event, the Gallery M’s main room was adorned with Bova’s depictions of athletes – in particular athletes on the ice – executed in a technique that borrows from both intarsia and marquetry. On the floor below, gallery owner Treva Matalon had arranged several small tables and chairs Bova made using – in some cases – techniques acquired from watching Arizona furniture maker Kerry Vesper’s appearance on HGTV’s “Modern Masters.” Another piece was influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Bova’s work is a mixture of representational imagery – the depictions of athletes, for example – and the abstract.
Bova never intended to keep her artistic aspirations hidden from family and friends. In fact, many knew she was acquiring woodworking tools and materials, but prior to her “coming out” party, few knew of the passion she brings to the work she creates in the basement shop of the North Carolina cabin she shares with her husband, Nick.
Her passion energizes her work. It also energizes her demeanor when she talks about that work. At such times, it’s hard for Bova to keep still. Her hands are in constant motion, indicating sizes and shapes, working tools only she can see, describing a surface texture with a fingertip staccato registered on air.
Reaching a crossroads
Bova doesn’t look the part of an artist. She looks more like the lady next door who serves up homemade cookies to all the kids in the neighborhood; the woman with the big smile and a funny story for every occasion. A good neighbor.
Nevertheless Bova seems comfortable in this new role as artist, not intimidated by the attention she’s received as a result of her first one-woman show.
Her interest in woodworking was likely sparked by her maternal grandfather, who maintained a small garage shop in Wellston, a tiny burg tucked into the rolling, forested hills of southern Ohio. There, under his benevolent guidance, Bova first applied tools to wood.
“I know I wasn’t very tall,” she says about her earliest woodworking recollection, “because in my memory of this I can see the door handle of a car at eye level. I’m standing there and I’m saying, ‘Grandpa, I need a piece of wood. I’m going to build something.’”
Her grandfather made and repaired furniture, and although she didn’t participate in any of this work, the time she spent watching her grandfather taught her at an early age that it was possible for real people – like her grandfather and herself – to make useful and beautiful things with their hands.
She also learned from her grandfather that creative work isn’t just about product, but also process. She remembers her grandfather sitting contentedly in front of the television with newspapers spread across his lap to catch the shavings as he carved.
Although her childhood took place away from urban centers of art and culture, it was a childhood surrounded by people who made things with their hands from wood, clay and metal. She remembers traveling with her family to a craft festival in Ripley, W.Va., and she can still recall her excitement at what she saw in the booths of the craftsmen who worked with wood.
At the time, she was also going through a disappointing experience as a high school art student. Despite the fact that she had entered her art classes excited, Bova’s experience was, on balance, negative.
“I was at a crossroads in life,” she explains. “I was very good at science and math and those kinds of things, and I also had this love of art. And I always thought that I was going to go the art route. But when I got into high school and I finally got to this particular place – it’s a small town and there was only one high school – I don’t know what happened, but I walked away from there thinking I had no talent.”
Meanwhile, she remembers how her biology teacher was telling her what all high school kids need to hear.
“‘You’re smart. You should do this.’ So I’m getting praise on this side and so I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if the art teacher said, ‘Your stuff stinks.’ Who knows? I have no idea.”
As a result of these parallel experiences, Bova went to college to study the sciences, not the arts, graduating with a degree in human growth and development.
During her years as an undergrad at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, Bova tested the water in the university’s art department several times, partially motivated by a desire to keep her grades up.
“Whenever I got worried about a class that I wasn’t doing so well in, I would take a five-hour art class and get a good solid ‘A,’” she says, laughing. “A two-hour ‘C’ and a five-hour ‘A’ keeps the grade point average up there.”
However, despite the high grades in these classes, her art experiences in college, too, were not accessing that part of her psyche that needed expression because the art classes she took were mostly entry level: theory, rather than practice.
After graduating from Ohio University, Bova moved to Washington, D.C. and briefly taught human growth and development at Northern Virginia Community College. It became clear early on that adult education was a career she wanted to pursue. This was an interest that eventually led her into the corporate world where she taught computer classes, including one 12-year stretch at Bank One in Columbus, Ohio. She enjoyed the work, but it required her to spend several days on the road each month, which began to diminish her quality of life.
The way was in the wood
The decision to create her first workshop caught even Bova by surprise. It was a decision that revealed itself several years ago when she and her husband were standing in the basement of a cabin they had just decided to purchase in rural North Carolina. They were considering how best to use the space when her husband turned to her and asked her what she saw there. Without even being aware the idea had been percolating in some back room of her mind, Bova said, “A workshop.”
At least initially, the idea was driven by the need to create a particular work of art – they wanted something to hang above the cabin’s stone fireplace. At first, they had intended to buy a piece of art, but after the workshop idea entered her mind, she thought, “You know, if I get a scroll saw, I could make the piece of art I want up there.”
The form of this piece had taken shape in her imagination long before she started work. This approach – mental construction before physical construction – is one she has followed ever since, although, she adds with a smile, “The wood sometimes tells you the way it wants to go.”
A lot of ideas come to her on the six-hour drive from her Columbus home to North Carolina. Others come to her in her sleep, like the sculpture of koi swimming in their pool. “In my dream, I was walking into a white room, and this was sitting on a pedestal kind of thing, and when I woke up, I sketched it all out. And that’s how it got started. It was so compelling.”
Typically she begins projects with thick stock that she resaws on a bandsaw before dressing the resawn material on a thickness planer, the material finishing out at about ¼" thickness. This resawn and planed material is then cut to the proper size and shape using one of her two scroll saws. One, a Dremel, is set with its table surface 90 degrees to the blade. The other, a Delta, is set so the blade/table angle is a few degrees off perpendicular. By cutting adjacent edges of her pieces at a slight angle she can bring the top surfaces together tightly with no visible gaps.
This refinement in her technique has allowed her to more consistently achieve good results. Nevertheless, she still sometimes struggles to give tangible physical expression to her ideas. “In the beginning,” she says, “my projects were fancy kindling, and I still make more fancy kindling than I make anything else.”
Historically, women were about as welcome in the woodworking field as they were on the football field. They could sit in the bleachers, but they weren’t allowed out on the turf. Men played the game; women simply celebrated the outcome.
In the woodworking arena, gender bias is diminishing. But when she started, a roster check of local woodworking organizations revealed only a token female presence, resulting in a prejudice that Bova and other female woodworkers sometimes experienced at woodworking supply stores.
Bova notes that her unhappy experiences may have been because – at least initially – she didn’t speak the arcane language of the craft, but she also believes her gender was responsible for some of the condescension.
“Sometimes, they ignored me,” she says. “There were times I would get so mad that I would refuse to go to one store or the other. But then I started getting buddies in both places, and now if I go in and need something and they are not there, I wait.”
Recently, however, due either to staff turnover, a better direction from store owners, or a general improvement in attitude toward women woodworkers, the condescending treatment is becoming the exception rather than the rule. “Most of the time you find woodworking people that are really terrific.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “there are no second acts in American life,” but he was wrong – at least according to Bova. After a satisfying professional life as an educator in the business world, she has picked up a new set of tools and embarked on a new career, one she identifies as her second act in life.
This is a career that connects her to warm memories of her childhood, allowing her to feel both centered and balanced, and offering an endless succession of technical problems to challenge her knowledge and imagination. This is also a career that has allowed her to build meaningful bridges between herself and the men and women who buy her work to display in their homes.
You can see more of Bova’s work at rootsandwingsdesign.com.
Kerry Pierce has been a professional furniture maker for more than 20 years. He is the author of a dozen woodworking books and more than 60 articles for woodworking magazines. His most recent book, “Authentic Shaker Furniture,” was the main selection of the Woodworker’s Book Club.