In the ruins of a firestorm, Jeff Moorhead finds beauty.
He sees it in every blackened branch, every charred trunk of a forest in the Seven Mile area.
Burned by wildfire two years ago, the trees are dead.
Too messy even for firewood.
But for the past year, the Spokane native has chopped these burnt logs to make furniture.
Using tools - some of which he made himself - he removes the crusty bark and carves pieces that become bed frames, benches and shelves.
“It’s a source of freedom, being able to express yourself like this,” Jeff says.
He compares this work to meditation: “You don’t have a boss telling you what to do. You just let your imagination go.”
A laborer for a temp agency, Jeff came up with the idea when he first saw the “Black Forest,” 20 acres of burned pine and dirt in North Spokane.
He couldn’t afford to buy wood. But nobody wanted these trees. So he talked to the owner and got permission to cut them down.
“I thought it was very unique,” says John Colburn, the property owner who has seen photos of Jeff’s work. “He impressed me. It’s one way of recycling the wood.”
Each time Jeff goes to work on his furniture, he comes home with soot all over his hands, face and clothes. He scrapes the scorched logs with a drawknife in his garage to expose wood with pale hues of red, brown and orange.
Even in his youth, Jeff drew his ideas on paper and built things - lamps, vases, intricate knickknacks. His wife, Evelyn, who has known Jeff since they were both 15, was often surprised at his ability to make three-dimensional objects from his doodles. Like his work today, he has always used recycled materials.
“I don’t like to waste things,” the 35-year-old says.
His mother, Jesse Rhae Godard, inspired Jeff to build things. She was a single mother for many years who raised six children. To make ends meet, she rebuilt furniture and gathered herbs. She did her own carpentry and plumbing. Last September, she died of cancer.
“She was such a free spirit who had tons of energy,” Jeff recalls. “There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do.”
The youngest of the boys, Jeff was the one who worked by her side. He helped by doing the gardening and fixing the cars.
He gave his first piece of fire storm furniture - a bench - to his mom for Mother’s Day.
Although he’s always made gifts out of wood for his wife and friends, Jeff didn’t devote much time to his hobby until 1991, when military cutbacks ended his 12-year career with the Air Force.
He moved his family to Bigfork, Mont., where he hauled a 1930s house into the woods and rebuilt it. His older brother taught him how to make furniture with logs. Two years ago, the Moorheads moved back to Spokane and Jeff’s hobby took over.
He makes furniture because he has so much energy, his wife says. When he’s not playing with his son, 7-year-old Zachary, Jeff tinkers with cars, alarm clocks, anything he can tear apart and put back together.
“What he does is so easy for him,” Evelyn says. “It would be frustrating for most people. Jeff just looks at it and does it.”
He’s also never satisfied with his work, she says. He is his biggest critic.
Jeff gets bored easily. That’s why no two pieces are alike.
It takes a few hours to several days to make the furniture. It has a rustic yet modern look - rough logs and branches that would endure a Grizzly Adams lifestyle, but assembled so spontaneously it has an edgier, almost avant garde flair.
Jeff has made at least a dozen pieces in the past year. Most were given away as gifts.
“It’s unique because something beautiful can be created from something as ugly as a forest fire,” Evelyn says.
But for Jeff, it’s simply fulfilling his need to create.
“It’s about learning,” he says. “The best thing in life is to do something you enjoy while making something for other people.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (2 color)
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