The loud hum of a bandsaw fills the cool cellar air of an old Victorian twin on Morris Street in Germantown. Master craftswoman Dona Dalton glides a wooden snake through the blade, and the creature begins to take shape. For one-of-a-kind pieces like this will become, she lets the sawing process drive the final piece and lets go of what she thought she wanted.
“So much happens on the saw,” she says, that “whatever you draw, it’s different anyway.”
In her basement workshop and airy third-floor painting studio, Dalton has been creating wooden toys and crafts for 40 years. With Christmas season upon her, she’s been flooded with orders. But, you won’t find nativity scenes, Santa Claus, or even snowflakes in her collections.
What you will find are Egyptian sphinxes, sun gods, goddesses and a plethora of carved birds ranging from small Carolina wrens delicately carved, sanded and painted in detail to sleek magpies teetering on pedestals lining her bookshelves. Birds are her best seller, and an obvious favorite as a quintessential bird clock chimes in her living room.
She used to carve children’s toys earlier in her career but prefers sculptures to playthings. Her real passion involves exploring the Egyptian myths with wood.
She says she tries to lighten the subject by putting statues and important figures on wheels like a pull-toy. For example, her piece “Sky goddess rolling sculpture” is based on the Egyptian myth of creation, but is perched on wheels and can move like changing scenes of a play.
“We’re so serious about religion and spirituality. I view religion as an accumulation of stories that we can get a lot from,” she said.
The artistic process
Dalton is a one-woman show. She runs the business and creates the art down to the last brushstroke. She even carries in her own lumber and says working with wood is a dirty and exhausting job.
“I’m dusty, cranky, and I cut my finger,” she said referring to her now bandaged thumb from a saw accident. “It just slows me down.”
Dalton’s time-consuming process starts a rough cut of the poplar wood with a bandsaw. Then, it heads to the machine sander. The works are smoothed further by hand, glued and painted.
Jelly jars of hand-mixed paints overflow on a table in her studio, though most of her work uses common latex house paint. Many times, instead of painting the wood, she rubs the colors into the woodgrain and then layers specialty acrylics to give the colors depth. The end result is a metallic glisten.
And this time of year she’s on a deadline with one website that guarantees a ship date in time for Christmas – no exceptions.
More than a Christmas gig
The displays in Dalton’s home only represent a fraction of her collection. She says that most of her work though is being shown in galleries across the country from Texas to Massachusetts. However, you can catch some of her sculptures locally at the inside the Woodmere Museum gift shop in Chestnut Hill. Prices for her work vary depending on the size; small birds can fetch more than $100 but larger pieces like a mirror with wooden birds costs at least $500.
A full-time artist, Dalton says her secret is diversity. Her work sells online, at galleries that specialize in American-made crafts, national craft shows, museums and libraries. Don’t look for her at local shows, though. She labeled a recent one “dismal,” what with many kind words but very few cash-register fillers. (“I don’t think people have a clue how hard it is to do a show, especially how we age. We’re all starting to grumble about our aches and everything,” she laughs.)
Dalton feels the recession, too.
“People are broke right now,” she said. In an effort to cope with changing realities, Dalton offered her art on consignment to a long-time gallery where the owner wouldn’t have to pay for pieces upfront. Sales picked up, but not to the point that it’s a reliable income stream.
For now, Dalton is busy with orders for the holidays and plans to open a store on Etsy, a website dedicated to handmade crafts soon.
Still, Dalton says that Germantown plays a role in her work. She says its natural assets have been inspiring her since the 1970s when she moved to the neighborhood.
“It’s beautiful up here,” she said. “Every few doors, there is someone interesting. There’s a lot of unknown things to find out.”