Where some see just a weathered piece of wood covered with fungus, woodworker Laurens Cotten sees its uniqueness in a form that has its own story to tell. From his first woodworking class at UAB’s department of Industrial Arts in the 1970s to teaching shop classes in Shelby County schools for 30 years, it was not until his retirement that Laurens was able to build his own personal shop in Bluff Park. There he’s creating works of art that are being revealed in the process of their creation.
Laurens says each piece of wood is like the human spirit, unique with their own qualities. There are no two pieces that are the same. Rather, each piece has its own story to tell. With his woodworking tools in hand, Laurens is like a storyteller putting pen to paper writing each chapter.
In his shop carved out of the bluff and overlooking the crest of Shades Mountain, Laurens creates. His medium of choice is almost exclusively locally harvested hardwoods. “The wood comes from trees that are lost in storms or are removed by landowners for one reason or another,” he says. “Most of the wood comes from local mills that commercial mills reject due to blemishes or defects. Things like insect holes, bark inclusions, even nails and buckshot are found in the material that I like to use—it adds character.” Laurens also uses air-dried wood that takes several years to season but produces wood of superior color than kiln drying.
His company and shop name, Wild at Heart Wood, reflects that conflict between the twisted and blemished imperfections of what nature creates and the color and grain that is revealed within the wood. Laurens points out that often the most difficult wood to work yields the most beauty within.
From his choice materials this artisan turns wood into decorative boxes, tables, chairs, and lamps, just to name a few of his creations, but he has a favorite from among them. “I love building boxes,” he says. “Boxes are a beautiful form of concealment. They are used from storing anything from the mundane such as remote controls, to precious jewelry. One of the most meaningful uses for my boxes is crematory urns, for both pets and people. Loved ones commissioning these pieces will provide a narrative of the person’s life and grant me creative license to express those qualities in the works I create.”
While they can be tedious, and though relatively small, the museum quality boxes require a lot of time to complete. They are built with wood that others would toss and, since no two boxes are the same, the work never gets old. Boxes are easy to ship, and Laurens packages them up personally up for his customers.
Likewise, his furniture finds its way to the as far as California, Oregon and Washington, transporting his live-edge style where the natural edge of the wood is part of the design. He also designs them with organic tops and bases made with traditional joinery. All in all, “My work is highly finished, while leaving enough of the wood’s form to tell its story,” he says.
His creations have shipped far away as England and Japan, and sometimes he finds design ideas from beyond home too. For example, he recently built a table inspired by George Katsutoshi Nakashima, a woodworker, architect, and furniture maker considered a father of the American craft movement. Laurens’ piece was created from walnut slabs he had transformed from from rough log to milled lumber. He’d held onto them for several years, but all along knew their future form and use.
Other times a work in progress can become challenging, like a nine-foot long dining table made from cherry that Laurens found in West Blocton. “The table took months to complete and even though it was designed to be broken down for transport, the top weighed over a hundred pounds,” he says.
Others have certainly taken note of his artistry too. His work has been featured at the Alabama Designer Craftsmen show and the Bluff Park Art Association’s Bluff Park Art Show, where he won the Angie Dodson Show Judge Award in 2019. Even in pandemic times, you can find his work at his Etsy store and on Amazon—or commission a piece.
In fact, Laurens commissioned work has been the most rewarding work for him, including a custom table for a home in Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts. “Knowing the complexity of the build and the cost of crating and shipping, I encouraged her to look for a table closer to her home, but she persisted and wanted a custom table,” he recalls. “It was a struggle to find just the right pieces of book-matched pecan that would yield the right size for the intended space.” But in the end it was pure delight—for the customer and for Laurens, who was happy to see it in such a beautiful place.