A CUAA student cultivates a talent for turning reclaimed wood into art

Editor's Note: This story was written for the 2018 Spring/Summer Arbor Light magazine, a biannual publication of Concordia University Ann Arbor. Catch the newest edition dropping in mailboxes at the end of April. For your free subscription of Arbor Light, email arborlight@cuaa.edu.

It was summer of 2016, and Nate Harris was on the lookout for a creative project, so he decided to enter a community art show. The only problem was he wasn’t sure what to sell.

It’s not that the junior in the Haab School of Business didn’t have any ideas. It was quite the opposite. He had to narrow them down to the one area of art that he enjoyed most: woodworking.

Now Harris has made a business out of his beloved hobby, restoring old wooden slabs into beautiful pieces of art. His process, guided by a Concordia University Ann Arbor professor, is the beginning of the lifelong restorative work he hopes to do.A CUAA student cultivates a talent for turning reclaimed wood into art

“The earliest memory I have with this stuff is building a wooden boat with my grandpa with just a hammer and nails in the driveway,” said Harris. “I was probably only 4 years old, but I vividly remember just how much I enjoyed that.”

Harris, who has always enjoyed working with his hands, put together a few items for the show, including photo frames and a storage cabinet for drills. Then he came across a photo of wooden patterns and geometric shapes all pieced together, and he was immediately inspired.

“I made that first piece of wooden wall art and thought to myself, ‘Wow. That was fun. This could be my thing!’” said Harris.

He enjoyed it so much that he made another and another, and ended up having more than a dozen pieces ready in time for the art show.

With the success of the first show, Harris decided to make it official, and his business, Harris Design, was born. It was in a ceramics class that fall that Assistant Professor of Art Chris Niemiec overheard Harris talking with a classmate about his most recent projects with his business.

Harris showed him some photos of his work, and Niemiec realized that he was serious about his craft. Niemiec took him under his wing and has been a mentor since.

Niemiec’s critical eye helps guide Harris when making design decisions. Harris also talks to Niemiec about his business plans, and Niemiec meets him with high support and high expectations, pushing him to be better.

Niemiec’s mentorship has been especially crucial when projects don’t turn out as planned, which Harris admits can happen often since he’s constantly pushing himself to try new techniques and take on new projects.

“I made that first piece of wooden wall art and thought to myself, ‘Wow. That was fun. This could be my thing!’” said Harris.

With the wall art as a launching pad, Harris Design has evolved into a handmade carpentry business. In recent months, he has found himself taking on various home renovation and restoration projects, as well as building furniture, his favorite of which is designing and building tables.

“I’m pretty much open to work on any project if people are willing to take a chance on me,” said Harris. “If there are problems along the way, I’ll be up front, keep the clients informed, and come up with solutions, but I believe at the end of the day I’ll be able to give them what they’re looking for.”

Harris recently received a request for a square eight-person table with a steel base. He was excited about the project but had never welded before. After attempting to sand and stain the steel-based table three times and feeling unsatisfied with each attempt, an idea popped into his head to try soaking the wood before applying the stain.

“Everything I’ve ever read about wood is that you don’t put water on it; you just don’t do that, but it ended up turning out perfect, and it was exactly what I was going for. I felt like God was super in my process creatively in the studio that day.”

In his remaining semesters at Concordia, Harris hopes to learn everything about owning a business and growing as an artist. While he loves the satisfaction of seeing clients’ faces when he delivers the final project, Harris hopes to eventually use his God-given talents in the context of home restoration and disaster relief, making old broken pieces of wood beautiful again.

— Rachel Thoms served on Concordia University's Strategic Communications team from 2015-2022. Any inquiries about this story can be sent to news@cuaa.edu.

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