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Woodworker creates superior marquetry in northern Minnesota studio

Using four hand tools, Morgan precisely cut the 650 pieces for the table's outer ring. "I'm not satisfied until a piece looks alive, almost living and breathing," he wrote in his artist statement. (Submitted photo)1 / 5
Joe Morgan's "Labyrinth Table" has earned numerous awards this year. (Submitted photo)2 / 5
Morgan crafted "Opportunist Cabinet" with mahogany, jatoba from South Africa, white ash and various marquetry woods. "I'm really about the fine details," he explained. (Submitted photo)3 / 5
In an inside corner of the cabinet, a pair of nesting swallows take refuge. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)4 / 5
The spring blossoms on the cabinet were inspired by Morgan's time growing up on a local farm. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)5 / 5

A win at a national competition is the latest in a string of plaudits for woodworker Joe Morgan.

His "Labyrinth Table" earned praise at the 2017 Veneer Tech Craftsman's Challenge, the 13th annual competition recognizing excellence in veneer woodwork design. The panel of judges involved experts from the fields of woodworking, education and manufacturing.

Competitors included "well-established, professional guys I admire and look up to," said the self-taught craftsman, designer and artist from Park Rapids. "I was completely surprised to win that category. I'm basically an unknown woodworker from northern Minnesota. To have my piece recognized within that circle is pretty special."

Morgan captured first place in the furniture category and received $1,000.

"I've already started to buy more hand tools to explore more options with woodworking and try new things," he said.

Morgan's specialty is marquetry, the art of creating an image using pieces of veneer, a thin decorative covering of fine wood.

The labyrinth pattern on the outer ring of the table comprises 650 pieces, all cut by hand. A marquetry image of an octahedron is inlaid at the center. The 104 pieces for that image were also cut by hand.

"The precision veneer work and optical effects display exceptional craftsmanship," wrote the judge.

Morgan conceived the design a couple years ago. He'd seen the 16-piece, repeating pattern in paintings or using old, stone tiles on Greek tables.

The outer ring of the table was most time-consuming. Morgan labored on it for several months.

"It was wintertime and I really had nothing better to do," he said. "Each piece must be cut the same size. Any little deviation would be noticeable."

The octahedron was inspired by an image on Pinterest.

"I saw it and thought, 'That's kind of cool. I think I could do that in marquetry,'" he recalled.

All told, some 250 to 300 hours went into the table's creation, using only four types of hand precision tools.

"I nicknamed that table 'Patience Test," he said.

"Labyrinth Table" is currently displayed at The Art of Fine Furniture in Rochester. It received the Judge's Award of Excellence and Excellence in Veneering at the 2017 Northern Woods Exhibition, an annual competition hosted by the Minnesota Woodworkers Guild.

Morgan is using a Region 2 Arts Council grant for his marquetry endeavors and regional art shows. This summer, he exhibited at six art fairs.

"This year, it's evolved back to wanting to sell my work," he said. "I'm learning woodworking is an art form."

Mass production of furniture taints people's notion of woodworking and the kind of intricate, impeccable craftsmanship that Morgan seeks.

He carefully selects each piece of veneer based on color and shading to create a three-dimensional look. Morgan purchases veneer from around the world. Its delicate nature — often at less than ⅛" of an inch — makes it easy to slice with scalpel.

He admits to being extremely patient — and a perfectionist. Any minor error to the naked eye

"I can putz and do little pieces of marquetry all day," he said.

His masterpiece is "Opportunist Cabinet."

"Judges looked for defects and mine basically had none," he said.

Crab apple blossoms and a family of birds bespeckle the tall, lean cabinet with tapered legs.

"Growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota, I was always fascinated by how trees were determined to sprout inside old, abandoned buildings even though there was no direct sunlight. It is also hard not to notice the many barn swallows taking residence in these buildings," he said.

Over 1,050 pieces create the vivid marquetry images and geometric parquetry patterns.

"With furniture making, it all starts with furniture design and proportion," Morgan said.

"Opportunist Cabinet" was a 2017 award finalist in the Niche Magazine. It was named Best in Show at the 2016 Northern Wood Exhibition.

Morgan is considering teaching his craft "because I have a skill set and I'm pretty much 98 percent self-taught that I'd like to share."

In the meantime, the "hermit in the woods" enjoys being creative and working with his hands.