Crafting art from bark
From Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond magazine
By Joan Slack
Beyond its delicate, stark white beauty, the white birch is a tree of many uses. People have used the waterproof bark for homes, canoes, containers and maps. Shoes and shelters can be made from the birch bark, as well as medicines, salves and syrup.
Mark Pflieger, who has been creating artful furniture, etchings, and wall and ceiling installations with birch bark for more than 20 years, knows a thing or two about working with the versatile birch. He uses his etched birch drawings in furniture, as decorative wall pieces and in commissioned installations, along with sheets of white birch bark that he embellishes with twigs and half logs.
Mark and his wife, Mary, own Perennial Antiques in Harshaw, where he first began crafting with birch bark while restoring twigs on 100-year-old wood boxes. As he repaired and admired the twig work, which often secures the bark to the base, his interest grew. “I started to create birch bark baskets, inspired by antique books from the 1800s,” Mark says. The variety of basket examples from the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center in Lac du Flambeau added to his inspiration. Soon he was embellishing table tops, armoires, bureaus and buffets. Any wood object that needed a rustic makeover was transformed into an artistic and unique collector’s item in Mark’s hands, and was sought after for accent pieces by Northwoods homeowners.
Mark took a class with Ferdy Goode, nationally known birch bark canoe builder. “In the class we constructed a 21-foot, traditionally made birch bark canoe now on display at the Discovery Center in Manitowish Waters,” he explains. Mark followed his growing interest and traveled to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., where he viewed authentic twig and birch furniture of the 1800s, common in many of the regional family camps and estates. From there, Bark by Mark flourished, and his portfolio and commissions grew as well.
To create the etchings in bark, one must gather it in late winter or early spring. Though the outer bark is easier to cut in summer, the extra layer of winter bark disappears by then. By scraping lightly through this winter bark, a lighter shade of birch is revealed, creating the design. A walk through Mark’s cabin is like a birch bark craft museum, with etchings adorning furniture and his kitchen walls, and covering table tops.
But the epitome of his skill at combining etching and birch bark panels is an installation near Boulder Junction. At a private home, he was commissioned to create the ceiling in a year-round gazebo. Mark was thrilled with the commission and says, “I was given unlimited time and freedom to design and create whatever I wanted.” The spectacular triangular panels were built and designed at his studio, then installed at the site, a feat in itself to get all of the angles to align. The panels depict Northwoods themes and bring to mind ancient rock art designs.
Mark explains the coloration he used: “On some of the panels I used raw red iron oxide, as Native Americans would have done on their pictographs, the drawings on rock faces, around the Great Lakes.” The iron adds variation to the warm gold of the winter bark.
Mark gets his materials from nature and is quick to point out, “How you harvest the bark is important, and if done right, the tree is not killed.” He is careful to use proper cutting techniques and utilize the bark well. The bark must be gathered at the right time of year, stored properly and handled delicately as it is applied to forms. Mark’s love of birch goes beyond the artistic too – he has made birch beer for years, as well as birch syrup, which is used like maple syrup. The birch sap is sweet, light and refreshing.
Mark’s unique furniture can be seen at homes throughout the Northwoods, and at his business, where a collection of past projects and commissions can also be viewed. With skill, experience and creativity, he uses the versatile birch bark to transform furniture and spaces with true craftsmanship.
Joan Molloy Slack is a freelance writer, tour leader and artist who enjoys writing about creative people, interesting places and positive collaborations that are changing the world. See her posts at authentictravelandtours.com.