When Valerie Berlage was a child, the older generation strongly influenced her creativity, and in real time. That’s why she named her woodworking enterprise Lauraine Lillie Studios after her two grandmothers.
“My grandmother Lauraine encouraged me to use bold colors and to use every crayon in the box and just go for it,” says Berlage. “I often say that I never met a color I didn’t like. My grandmother Lillie, who passed away, did embroidery and was a quilter. Now I compare my pieces to quilting with wood.”
To come up with her intricate designs, Berlage always starts with the shape of the wood and works from there. She borrows ideas from geometry, from shapes that are found in nature, and from architecture. “For a brief moment, I thought about being an architect,” she says, “and I like the image of a house. Home and family are very important to me. My grandfather was a woodworker, and I spent a lot of time around him. What he made was a kind of folk art, and I would help him paint what he made. Now he always pulls out his phone and shows off pictures of my work … whether you want to see them or not.”
Berlage is a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, and she recently made a large mirror that went to the Folk Art Center. But when going big, she’ll often take a break to concentrate on relatively tiny pieces. She may have as many as 200 works in progress simultaneously.
“Woodworking is never boring. But the big projects take a bit longer, so it’s nice to have smaller things to make for immediate gratification. It’s really fun to make jewelry, or a new line of small boxes or abstract tree sculptures.”
When discussing smaller pieces, the soft-spoken woodworker reveals her scrappy side.
“I am kind of scrap happy. I have trouble throwing away a piece even if it’s a quarter inch by a quarter inch. I will think about it for five minutes before tossing it. So I always have a few buckets full of scraps, and I get them from other woodworkers, too.” One of her favorite woods is poplar, because it has such a close, smooth grain and takes paint really well. She uses lots of local hardwoods, including oak, cherry, ash, maple, and walnut — and occasionally scraps of exotics like leopard, zebra, or purpleheart wood.
“Woodworking makes me happy,” she says, “and I’m happy when it makes other people happy.”
Valerie Berlage, Lauraine Lillie Studios, Leicester. Berlage’s work can be found at all three retail outlets of the Southern Highland Craft Guild: Allanstand Interiors at the Folk Art Center, Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway; at 930 Tunnel Road; and in Biltmore Village at 26 Lodge St.(www.southernhighlandguild.org.) Also at Foundation Woodworks (17 Foundy St., River Arts District, foundationwoodworks.com) and at Artisans on Main (14 North Main St., Weaverville, Artisans on Main on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/artisansonmain.nc/). For more information, see laurainelilliestudios.com (also on Facebook and Instagram).