Woodworking Talent

Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón

Austin Heitzman (Photo by Ashley May Heitzman)Austin Heitzman ('02) has a great imagination.

When he was a student at UNT, he sold memorabilia and his baby pictures in the Downtown Mini-Mall on the Denton square. The business's name? "John Wilke's Booth."

"It was a very Denton moment," he says. "I had a few of those."

And now his imagination and education at UNT helped lead him to design furniture that draws inspiration from trees' natural colors and textures. He uses the outside edges of trees — the gnarly bark — as a sculptural embellishment to mimic the classical furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries.

His highboy piece, featuring such an embellishment, won the notable 2012 NICHE Award for Cabinetry from the Buyers Market of American Craft in Philadelphia. His business, Five Fifths Furniture, has won fans in the Pacific Northwest and he hopes to expand the business to wholesale markets.

Heitzman, who majored in drawing and painting, credits his teachers at UNT — especially Matthew Bourbon, associate professor of studio arts — for giving him the freedom to create the art he wanted to make.

He never made any jewelry for his jewelry class, but his pieces — which included the "Chair Suit," an apparatus worn on the body that forms into a functional chair when sitting down — were discussed seriously and graded on their merit.

For his painting classes, he created his own historical artifacts, such as a dime novel cover and a costume, for a character he made up that he claimed was a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and was his great-great grandfather.

"The conversation in class with my professor Annette Lawrence was never 'Why would you do such a thing in a painting class?' but 'What intellectual merit does this idea have?'" he says.  "I believe without this I would never have had the audacity to move out of painting and into the craft of furniture making."

The furniture came by accident. After he graduated from UNT, he earned his M.F.A.  from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia He was growing bonsai trees as a hobby, and he became fascinated by how lumber is derived from trees.

He made a plan. In five years, he would make all the furniture in his house from trees. He built a desk, nightstand, lounge chair, coffee table, blanket chest, entertainment center, bathroom table and a few shelves.

"At the end of that five years, I was doing it for a living," he says.

Friends and strangers requested pieces of the furniture and Heitzman had a business. Now living in Portland, Ore., Heitzman and his wife also operate an artist studio building, where he runs the woodshop. He's currently working on a commissioned project, a large coffee table display case for a 36-inch fossil.

"The moment the first coat of finish goes on a piece is one of the most exciting moments for me," he says. "Through experience I usually know what to expect, but since I'm working with nature, there are always surprises. The finish is the window into the wood that finally lets me see if my efforts will be rewarded or not. After this point, I'm ready to send the piece on its way and begin the next one."

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