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Playfulness found

Shaun Fleming’s award-winning fine art woodworking comes with 2 scoops whimsey

Shaun Fleming’s “Just the Essentials” Hawaiian cupboard captured the marquetry category of the 14th Veneer Tech Craftsman Challenge, which included some of the nation’s top woodworkers. -- Photo courtesy of SHAUN FLEMING

If only the wood inlays in Shaun Fleming’s award-winning marquetry kitchen cabinet could chuckle . . .

“Just the Essentials,” which recently captured top honors in the marquetry, or inlay, category of the 14th annual Veneer Tech Craftsman’s Challenge, was a “customary Hawaiian cupboard” holding wooden replicas of sake cups, poi, Spam, shoyu and mochiko flour, the Haiku woodworker said.

But it had a broken door ready to fall off, or so it seemed.

Cue the chuckle.

The marquetry and design with three visible rustic broken hinges hid two functional hinges that tricked viewers to reach for the wrong side when opening the door.

The cupboard features a broken door for show. It actually opens from the other side with two hidden functional hinges. -- Photo courtesy of SHAUN FLEMING

“The playfulness within the trompe-l’oeil fools the eye, creating a sense of wonder,” said judges in the contest that attracted top woodworkers from across the country.

Fleming, the owner of Wooden Touches, said making the cabinet was “fun for me to create because it has the illusion of a broken door.”

“It was exciting and new for me to create an interactive piece like this,” she said.

The cabinet also reflected the island life ingrained in her and her family.

“I was really excited to share the flavors of Hawaii and to create a piece that was unique to the feeling of the islands and my upbringing here,” she said of the piece that won her $1,000.

Fleming comes from an old kamaaina family, a Hawai’i Forest Industry website said. Her great-great-grandparents came to Maui from Norway on a ship in 1880. Her great-grandfather ran the old Kahului Store, and his brother played a key role in the Kahului Railroad.

She is an avid surfer, according to the Wooden Touches website.

“Shaun is an artist whose brave, precise work reflects a lifetime of riding the ocean’s waves,” the website said.

Woodworking at the level of Fleming, who has been honing her skills for three decades, is way beyond slapping together 2-by-4s and plywood to make a cabinet, especially with marquetry.

The process uses thin veneers of wood, cut into pieces and fit together to create an image, she explained.

“It is a very delicate, time-consuming process that requires precision and patience,” Fleming said.

Pieces of wood are cut with a jeweler’s blade and carefully put together like a puzzle. She creates shading by dipping pieces individually into hot sand before being assembled.

“Of the few artists nowadays who practice inlay, many use a computer and laser to cut the veneers,” she said. “However, I prefer the traditional method and the outcome which hand-cutting gives me.

“My pieces are truly one of a kind.”

“Just the Essentials” was one of her more challenging pieces, she said.

With the tones, Fleming said a painter can create virtually any color by mixing paints “but being limited by the natural tones of woods makes this process challenging.”

“Choosing the right species for every little piece was important,” she said.

Koa, wenge, milo, mahogany, poplar, anigre, European beech and pheasant wood were part of the award-winning cabinet.

The design was time-consuming because of the complexity of marquetry, Fleming said. It starts with a hand-drawn design and wood selection for the right grain pattern and color.

The building then can begin with the machining of the wood, a process that involves planing, cutting the joinery, sanding and dry-fitting.

At this point, the marquetry can begin. The design is transferred to the veneers, overlaid, cut, shaded and assembled, “one piece at a time.”

“I have done projects where I have several hundred individual pieces of wood in one image,” Fleming said.

She uses a vacuum bag as a press to glue the image. The finishing process involves oiling, lacquering or both to pieces, curing, rubbing out the finish and polishing.

Fleming, 57, is self-taught and began woodworking as a hobby.

“I’ve always enjoyed tinkering and working with my hands, fixing whatever needs to be repaired,” she said.

Her first woodworking job was as a sander in a cabinet shop.

“After about six months of that, I had had more than enough of the repetition of sanding and figured I could make small projects on my own,” Fleming said. “One small project led to another and eventually I began acquiring some tools. I caught the bug. I read a lot and also attended a few demonstrations by visiting woodworkers.”

Her mentors have included John Wittenburg, also known on the island as “German John.” Silas Kopf, one of the top masters of marquetry in the country, has been an inspiration. She was introduced to marquetry when Kopf came to Maui to do a demonstration for the Maui Woodworkers Guild many years ago.

Fleming started Wooden Touches about 30 years ago. She builds custom furniture, including beds, dining foyers, coffee tables, entertainment centers, desks, boxes and cabinets.

Her clients come from Maui, the Mainland, Japan and Canada and most of her work is commissioned. Her pieces also can be found at Viewpoints Gallery and Hana Coast Gallery.

She averages creating between six to 12 pieces a year.

“I have been very fortunate as business has been good for me,” she said. “The majority of my clients find me by word of mouth.”

She believes “being a woman in a male-dominated trade gives me a different perspective on my art.”

When asked what she enjoys about woodworking, Fleming did not cite the creative process or satisfaction of her customers. It was sustainability.

“Much of the wood I use is salvaged from dying trees, like koa, native only to Hawaii,” Fleming said. “The act of taking a dying tree (much of the wood I use is salvaged), hauling it out of the mountains, cutting it, drying it, and machining it is hard work but very rewarding.

“This process can sometimes take years to get it to the point of actually turning it into a finished piece. The feeling of being involved in this transformation is hard to explain, but it connects me back to nature and is a reminder of the gifts that surround us.”

To see her work, go to www.woodentouches.com or on Instagram@shaun_fleming.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.