In Petaluma, California (a forty-five minute drive north of San Francisco) a hidden world exists. Amidst low-lying hills, a double row of weathered wooden buildings slouch atop a field spiked with brown grass. Chris and I turn down a dirt road and park in front of the first building – a former chicken coop and the studio of a masterful wood artist, our friend Greg Zall. In years past, Chris and Greg shared the space together along with their love of wood art.
Greg is a furniture and cabinet-maker with exceptional skills in marquetry – the art of inlaying different woods. His work is displayed in galleries, private homes, public spaces and synagogues.
Walking into the coop, we greet Greg and a young Finnish woman named Ninna who lives in Sweden and apprentices with Greg. My eyes spot an unusual shaped box sitting on a table.
“Oh that box,” Greg says, ” I’m taking it to a woodworking show tomorrow. It’s my friends urn.”
The urn is a foot and a half tall and about eight inches wide. It’s top slopes downward in an elegant curve. Made out of black walnut and inlaid with yellow heartwood in a flower and leaf pattern, the inside is lined with aromatic cedar. I run my hand down it’s surface and feel soft velvet. The inlay lies flush with the mother wood, including the person’s name. I am moved by the obvious skill required to make such a fine piece of art. In a get it done fast world Greg’s slow and meticulous work is a testament to old-world craftsmanship.
“That box is an urn?” I asked. “Has your friend recently died?”
“Oh no,” Greg laughed.
“Well, is he ill, is he expected to die soon?”
“No, not at all,” Greg laughed again. “He’s a very spiritual guy. He commissioned this urn as a reminder of his mortality. It’s like you can just crawl in there and be cozy when you die. He wants to have his ashes kept in it. He is hoping when his daughter passes some of his ashes can be scooped out and hers added to the box. Kind of like a family hope chest, but for the dying.”
“How long did that take you to make?”
“About four weeks,” Greg said.
Now that is thinking ahead – to commission a fine wood artist to make your urn. Then again, the pharaohs built pyramids.
Greg and Chris walk into the adjoining room and Ninna shows me her first work of marquetry. Although she isn’t happy with the results I am thinking it is a great first effort. She tells me she is interested in woodworking and is in America for her first time to study wood art at the local College of the Redwoods. A friend, knowing her interest in marquetry, introduced her to Greg.
We talk more over lunch. Ninna’s tattoos peek out beneath her tank top cascading over her shoulders but my eye is drawn to the ring of unusual letters around her left forearm.
“Ninna, what are those letters, is that some Indian language?”
“No it’s Thai, it commemorates my sister who died in the tsunami,” she says.
“Really? Do you mind to talk about it? What was she doing there, that was in 2004, about eight years ago.”
“Yes, she was on a peninsula in Thailand leading a tour group of Swedes. My mom, dad and I didn’t hear from her for two weeks so we didn’t know anything but when I saw the news about the tsunami I just had this feeling she was gone – something in me just knew. But I felt her, she seemed so close somehow so it was okay. It was difficult afterwards because it was so hard on my parents. My dad went into a depression and my mom just kept working all the time.”
“Well, I needed to get away from my parents to digest everything and let it sink in. That is when I decided to go to India. Being there helped me cope with it and feel at peace.”
“So you just picked up and left Sweden for India?”
“Well, actually I worked on an oil rig building scaffoldings to make the money to go. I was the only female there.”
“That must have been quite an experience.”
“Yes, the men didn’t even care if I worked or not. I think they just liked having a female around. They treated me well.”
“How did you deal with all the chemicals and such from the rig.”
“Well it wasn’t so bad as I was working underneath, away from most of that. The funny thing though, before that job I worked for Greenpeace. But I was able to save up just enough to go to India. It changed my life being in India, I started to see things very differently. I feel there is something that survives physical death. Because of that, I could handle my sister’s death.”