The wood whisperer

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Jennifer Rong

A discriminating collector of well-worn objects and discarded remains of  felled trees, Jennifer Rong remakes her prized discoveries into unusual and elegant functional art. 


A tree graveyard in Etobicoke, where an assortment of short-limbed trunks and stumps has haphazardly been tossed, is a “gold mine” for artist-carpenter Jennifer Rong.

“There’s this place where the city hires people to cut down trees that are dying,” she shared.  “The trees are thrown into a lot; it’s just garbage.”

The hunt is purposeful and selective: Rong picks out the gnarly and unusual fragments that can give a piece a distinctive shape or appearance.

There she recovered a sickly tree stump, its life claimed by nibbling worms. Its beaked edge and cupped form inspired Rong to transform it into a swivelling seat complete with an armrest. In its present state, the sculpted chair still proudly bears the scars of its demise, furnishing it with an irresistible story to tell.

Once an idea strikes, Rong can’t resist taking home cast-offs.

It was quite a feat to lug her suitcase of souvenirs home after a trip to Montreal, she recalled. In a random alley, she had rescued a yellow vintage sewing machine that to her surprise still worked. She also stumbled upon a branch from a birch tree that she later affixed with handmade metal branches for hanging accessories or hats.

Rong didn’t stop there. Her friend was getting rid of her refrigerator and decided its crispers could easily double as drawers for one of her ongoing projects. And from a vintage store, she brought home a pair of wooden shoe stretchers as ornamentation or for actual use.

Can you imagine what I had in my suitcase? A random branch, two crispers, stretchers and a sewing machine,” she said laughing. “If anyone saw what was in my bag, they’d be like, ‘This is ridiculous.’

On another occasion, coincidentally her birthday, she happened upon a round piece of glass deserted beside a telephone pole. “It was a great birthday gift. We (her former boyfriend) were going for brunch and we passed by it,” she explained. “I said, ‘We have to take that.’”

She knew it was perfect for the pine stump she was saving for a coffee table. The little scratches that mark the surface are hardly noticeable with her etchings of an extensive network of tiny branches.

It may be other people’s junk, but after Rong gets her hands on it, a run-of-the-mill metal bucket takes on a rustic charm when it is fitted with maple legs and furry cushion, and transformed into an ottoman.

“I was pretty happy with the bucket because of its details; they’ve got copper handles,” she said. “I found it in my garbage room. I like to juxtapose materials that you don’t really see together, like metal and fur.”

Rong has a finely honed sensibility that belies her short years of experience in woodwork. Many of her pieces serve a dual function, an old suitcase repurposed as a table can still store objects, and its height is adjustable; an old guitar neck’s tuners were rearranged as hooks for hanging stuff or as decorative piece.

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Her foray into one-of-a-kind, sustainable design began about two years ago when Rong did the unthinkable: she quit her job at Cottage Life magazine right after she received a bump in her pay and enrolled in a free crash course in carpentry.

“I felt half the time I was just babysitting the computer. I was bored out of my mind and I wasn’t being creative at all,” she said.

But it was through her production work at Cottage Life that her interest in carpentry developed. Rong did a one-off workshop at a trade show and made her first wine rack. The process of working with her hands immediately appealed to her. “It’s just in my blood. My dad’s a technician, he can fix pretty much anything; my mother’s really handy in terms of sewing and cooking.”

One of her first pieces of furniture was sourced from a picnic table that was being thrown out at work: she remade it into a coffee table with repurposed cinder blocks. When she heard about a pre-apprenticeship carpentry program, which would only take five months to finish, she decided to take the leap.

Her parents were uneasy with her decision but supported her in the end. She’s even able to wrangle them into collecting fallen scraps of a tree for her, like logs from the wreckage of last year’s ice storm, which she turns into coasters.

“It’s scary. There’s no guarantee you’ll be successful. They just want me to have a regular job,” she said. On the side, she dabbles in graphic design to support her creative pursuits.

Though Rong feels it may take time before she can make a stable living off her designs, she’s been making her mark with every chance she gets — from putting together an exhibit as part of Gladstone Hotel’s annual alternative design event, Come Up to My Room,  to preparing for the One of a Kind Spring Show 2014.


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