Second Act
Page 5 of 5

Artisans of Antiquity
Marie Clough Oedel '76
and Richard Oedel '76

It makes perfect sense that Marie Clough Oedel '76 lives in a historic Boston brownstone that still has its original library, complete with ornate woodwork, tiled fireplace and tall windows that throw early-morning sunshine in long, dusty beams across the bookshelves that line these walls. Oedel is, after all, a woman with a passion for books--especially old ones. Often as not, though, she isn't reading them, she's repairing them, remaking them from fragile, crumbling, water-stained collections of pages into books that can be held and appreciated once again.

Buddhist texts from the National Library in Bhutan, a leather-bound 1750 set of the complete works of Shakespeare, a church Bible, a family heirloom on the history of fox hunting--each day, when Oedel sits at the workbench in her tiny in-home studio, she holds a piece of history in her hands. Each day she undertakes a process so painstaking, so exacting, it seems one slight tremor of the hand, one inadvertent sneeze could ruin the whole effort. "It's not glamorous work," Oedel says, laughing, as she unwraps her latest project, a rare edition of The Song of Solomon, whose cover is detached from its spine. "It can be tedious. You have to really love it."

Behind her, Oedel's boxes of artisan supplies are stacked to the ceiling. Embroidery floss, clamps, buttons, Byzantine closures, fish gelatin, dry cleaning sponges--the hand-lettered labels read like fragments of mysterious poetry. And then there are the tools of her trade: microspatulas, burnishing irons, wheels, stamps, gouges and fillets; long rolls of fabric, stacks of hand-marbled paper, Japanese tissue that comes in nearly two dozen varieties, each one carefully chosen for a different purpose.

"It was very humbling," says Oedel of her early days learning to restore books at Boston's famous North Bennet Street Trade School. She had left behind a successful career in the financial investment industry, followed by a stint managing a nonprofit agency. Now she was trying to turn a longtime hobby into a career. "When you're at the top of your game in another field and then you start over as an apprentice," she says, "people don't really care who you were or what you did before." She pauses. "What's really cool, though, is learning something and getting it to a high level where someone really wants your work." Which is precisely where she's finally arrived. Along with more private clients than she can handle, Oedel is also the book conservator for Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, restoring precious editions for its collection.

While she admits to the occasional pang about her career change--especially when she talks to former colleagues who are being appointed to important boards and having dinner at the White House--Oedel has not forgotten the stress of her corporate days. "I was rushing all the time, leaving my son in daycare from 6:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night." The pace, she readily admits, was relentless. And it was hard to find time for parenting. These days, she still works long hours, but she makes her own schedule, so she is there when her son comes home from school. And she relishes the satisfaction of placing beautifully restored books into the hands of grateful clients.

"I know I made the right choice," she says. "I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Marie's husband, Richard Oedel '76, works on the other side of the city in another light-filled space--a giant warehouse on the edge of Boston Harbor in a shared studio space with several other fine furniture makers. While Marie spends her days making old treasures look like new, Richard designs and builds new pieces of furniture that look like beautifully preserved, exquisitely made family heirlooms. A Queen Anne chair, a mahogany gateleg table, a secretary with curved glass muntons (recently featured in the magazine Fine Woodworking), a three-piece sofa of Southern American rosewood, a reproduction of Albert Einstein's music stand. Each one of his furniture pieces is commissioned--by a collector, perhaps, a private estate, a museum or university. "The vast majority of people," Richard points out, "are satisfied to go to Ikea. But a small group of people are very interested in quality, design and aesthetics, and have the money to spend on something unique and truly special."

Richard chuckles when he muses on his career change. "You know those little drink stirrers you see at McDonald's? We made billions of those," he says, recalling his years in manufacturing when he ran the family business. "Injection-molded plastics. Countless things with low intrinsic value. Now I'm at the other end of it. I make one piece at a time without any employees." When he finally sold the much larger and highly successful business in 1999, Richard followed in Marie's footsteps and enrolled at North Bennet Street, hoping he could learn the skills to transform his longtime passion for historic homes and furnishings into a second career.

The art of creating fine reproduction furniture cannot be rushed, says Richard, who makes only a dozen or so one-of-a-kind pieces each year. When something isn't working, you simply have to stop. "You leave it where you can see it and eventually it comes to you what's not right," he says. "It's almost an osmosis problem. If you're in the same room with it, you eventually figure out that the curve isn't right or it looks awkward in some way or it doesn't stand proudly."

A number of pieces of Richard's furniture adorn the Oedels' home. One of Marie's favorites is an unassuming footstool in the library. A close look reveals that each gracefully carved leg stands on a distinctly different style of foot--all of them exquisitely carved. A project from Richard's North Bennet Street days, the footstool now holds a large white oak display box. Resting inside, and visible through its glass top, are four long narrow Buddhist texts rescued from a pawn shop in Tibet and lovingly cleaned by Marie. Lifting one from the case, she runs her fingers over the carved wood cover, opens it to pages of palm leaves covered with Sanskrit lettering, feels the weight of the past resting in her palms.

Each day is the same for Marie and Richard Oedel. It could be a perfectly proportioned leg or an exquisitely bound spine; a vellum cover, cool and supple and beautifully stitched or a wooden table top so perfectly polished it feels soft to the touch. When these artisans sit down to work, they are both driven by the same thing: a love for fragile beauty, a passion for the past--and the knowledge that the power to preserve these things for future generations to cherish lies, quite literally, within their hands. ~

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