The best way to get onto Bainbridge Island is via a half-hour ferry ride from Seattle. Stroll off the ferry, walk through Waterfront Park, and you will be in the downtown area, replete with a 70-year-old hardware store, quaint shops, health food stores, galleries, small inns and a nice pub overlooking the water. Drive around the island, and you will be surrounded with green growth so thick that you often can not see homes that are just a few yards away. Nestled in Washington’s Puget Sound, this tiny island has only about 20,000 inhabitants, but fortunately, one of them is Cecil Ross.
At sixty-one, Cecil Ross has been a surfer, a sailor, a draftsman, a boat builder, a sculptor and a furniture maker, and has traveled the world doing so. These days, his one-man shop turns out everything from a massive 70-foot table for the new Bainbridge City Hall, built to resemble a boat deck, to a trio of identical funerary urns for a family to share their father’s ashes. His bread and butter, however, consists of artistic pieces made with spectacular wood, though he has done a good bit of Arts and Crafts, as well as Nakashima-style slab furniture.
“Most every leg I make has a curve in it,” Cecil told me. A good example of his style is the pair of guitar and ukulele stands that won first place in the recent WoodCentral guitar stand competition. Like much of his work, their fluid lines betray his past as a boat builder and surfboard maker.
Ross started out as a mechanical draftsman after graduating from high school in South Africa, where he was born and raised. He left in the sixties due to political problems and moved to London, working winters as a draftsman, and taking summers off to both surf and build surfboards. He met his wife while surfing on a beach in France. Together, they bought a boat with the intention of sailing around the world, but life intervened.
They stopped sailing and moved to California in 1970 after the oldest of his three children was born. There, in the Bay Area of San Francisco, he morphed into a full-time boat builder. Soon the stress of a too-successful business convinced them to pack up and move to Hawaii to pursue a more relaxed lifestyle. He continued to make “cold molded” boats laminated of thin layers of epoxy-impregnated cedar. He also started working with local Hawaiian woods, and developed an appreciation for wood’s beauty. “The wood excites me a lot,” he said. “Even when I come across wood with wormholes, it gives me ideas of how to use it, not how to replace it or avoid the holes.”
The need to change careers, and to stop handling so much epoxy, inspired a move to England for three years. While there, he was awarded a Silk Cut Nautical award by then-Princess Diana for the best built small boat of the year, an aluminum catamaran with inflatable hulls. Next came a move to Florida, in part as a way to get back to the U.S.
Finally, the family moved to Bainbridge Island in 1990, where he set up a furniture shop, building boat interiors part-time during the transition. He’s been building furniture and dazzling wood sculpture ever since. About 80% of his work stays on Bainbridge Island, and most all is by word of mouth, since he does no advertising beyond keeping a website.
His furniture borders on sculpture, often using some spectacular wood as the centerpiece for his creations. One such piece of wood, which has been carbon dated at over 30,000 years old, was found in the swamps of New Zealand’s North Island. In his hands, it will become a coffee table. Another slab he owns was taken from a tree under which the Daughters of the American Revolution met on July 4th, 1861. The bigleaf maple was cut down because it was rotting, which has resulted in some beautiful spalted wood. “Sometimes,” he said, “I feel so privileged to be able to handle and use such wood.”
Currently, he’s working on an elliptical glass-top table whose top frames the Oriental-influence legs he designed. Not surprisingly, he also makes wall hangings and sculptures, some of which showcase the history of the wood’s travails. A plant pathologist has been helping him interpret how some of the wood patterns are created when a tree tries to defend itself against fungal and environmental attacks.
Locally, he is a member of the Bainbridge Chamber of Commerce and the island’s Arts and Humanities Council. His shop is one stop on their annual studio tour, and also plays host for visits by the local arts school project. In October, the island’s Gallery Fraga will host a one-man show of his wall hangings, sculpture, and furniture called “Spirit and Matter.”
“I have more energy and enthusiasm for my work these days than ever before, in spite of my age,” he confessed. That’s not surprising, seeing the satisfaction he gets from creating such beauty. There’s a good reason, though, as to why he chooses to make finely crafted pieces of furniture, one at a time, and this line from his web site says it best.
“Combining function and art is my challenge. Surrounding ourselves with mass produced mediocrity slowly erodes our spirit.”