Branching Out

Timothy O’Dea of Hendersonville creates finely crafted willow-branch furniture. Photo by Tim Robison.

Timothy O’Dea became a well respected, widely known craftsman the old-fashioned way — through connecting, in person, with others — no screened devices necessary.

“I must be the only person in the country who doesn’t have a computer,” he says with a chuckle. “Don’t have a website either, and if a potential client asks to see my work, I ask them which café they’d like to meet at, so I can show them pictures of my pieces in person.”

O’Dea’s method is clearly not madness, as his finely crafted willow-branch furniture has people seeking him out for custom pieces, and eager students clamoring to learn the unique art of crafting furniture whose beauty is both rustic and elegantly simple.

The Hendersonville resident spent years doing remodeling and storefront design in the Miami area, known for its Art Deco facades, using carpentry skills he gained at age 19. He got his true start in childhood, however. “At nine, I built a three-story treehouse with a couple friends. That started it all,” he declares.

From an artistic standpoint, O’Dea loves the flexibility — both figurative and literal — of the willow branch.
From an artistic standpoint, O’Dea loves the flexibility — both figurative and literal — of the willow branch.

Fast forward a few decades, and he recounts how he was initially drawn to willow-chair making. “My ex-wife admired a set of willow chairs at an art show; in typical man style, I replied that I could do that myself. Well, she called me on it, and I began tinkering,” O’Dea explains. “I’m self-taught, and started by looking at books and photos of these willow chairs.”

He admits that his first attempts weren’t great. “Nothing was symmetrical, and it took me days to make one chair. I tried my hand at tripod tables, even canopy beds,” O’Dea reminisces. He eventually hit the national art-show circuit, living a fairly nomadic lifestyle, and never looked back.

From an artistic standpoint, O’Dea loves the flexibility — both figurative and literal — of the willow branch. “It’s the perfect medium,” he claims, “because initially the branches are completely flexible. Harvesting them doesn’t kill the tree, so the art form is sustainable. I have endless interpretive possibilities — each piece is different, depending on how I orient and twist each branch.”

Next came notable commissions and the opportunity to create work for well-known clients. He made multiple pieces — a child’s chair, a small twig table, and a birdhouse — for the Nashville Aquarium’s permanent display, part of a $46 million dollar undertaking.

“From there, the woman I’d worked with for that project asked me to build a special piece for her son-in-law, who turned out to be the actor Tommy Lee Jones.” O’Dea says he learned a simple but lucrative lesson: you never know who you’re talking to.

His craft has also led to soulful encounters. During an Atlanta demonstration, a young teen boy got excited about helping O’Dea, was inspired, and built some pieces. Several years later, his parents sought O’Dea out at another show and shared that their son had been tragically killed. “Of course, I wept when I heard this story, and I got to build a table for them in his honor,” he says.

Teaching and demonstrating are as much a part of O’Dea’s much-loved work as the actual crafting. He recently taught two women how to build willow chairs, one of whom had a hard time learning how to drive nails. “With time and encouragement, she got it, and built a great chair.”

O’Dea proves that branching out is all good, every time.

To contact Timothy O’Dea about classes, call 828-551-2991.