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Local craftsmen team up to create functional art with philanthropic project in the works

By most standards, the nearly year-long quarantine was a punch in the gut marked by canceled plans, constant fear and social isolation. But a Southwest Portland wood crafter has utilized the isolation and slower pace of life during the past year to lean into his hobby, and forge an unexpected partnership, while bolstering his community in the process.

Ted Coonfield hesitates to call himself a wood worker. He's crafted tables, benches, even toy blocks for children by hand, but "artiste" feels like a better fit.

"As an artist, you get a lot more leeway," Coonfield said. "A wood worker is too dang precise."

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Ted Coonfield (left) and Dan Johnson at Johnsons Laughing Dog Forge studio in Southwest Portland. The two have teamed up to make tables and benches using repurposed items, including pieces of the original OHSU tram car cable. Coonfield comes from a family of wood workers and has honed his own skills over the years.

"I started doing (more) wood projects," he said of the past year. "I had done some before, but during the pandemic, you're staying home more and cancelling two-month trips to France and not going out much."

Despite the constraints of life during a pandemic, his latest endeavor is the byproduct of artifacts from a Portland landmark and a newly forged friendship.

Coonfield tried his hand at making river tables a few years ago, while making a gift for his niece. The tables are made using live edge slabs of wood, with a blue-green epoxy-resin mixture poured through the middle, to resemble fresh water.

His table making is a true labor of love. The Southwest Portlander doesn't sell his wares. He gives them away.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Ted Coonfield shows a piece of cable from the original Portland Aerial Tram. Coonfield recently commissioned local metalsmith Dan Johnson to use pieces of the discarded cable in a table he helped make."People say, 'You could sell those things!' but it's like my mother, who was a quilter all her life said, 'why would I want to sell something that's priceless, that I could give to someone I love?'"

His latest gift went to longtime friend and former Neighborhood House Executive Director, Rick Nitti. Coonfield, a retired airline industry and government consultant, served on the Neighborhood House Board of Directors when Nitti worked there. During their time with the nonprofit organization, the two worked to help feed, clothe and provide shelter to Portlanders in need. It only made sense for Coonfield to try to craft a table that paid homage to the city they'd poured their hearts into.

The meandering blue stripe down the middle of the gifted table represents the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. The table's most unique features are the legs made from recycled Portland Aerial Tram car cable. The tram is used each day to transport OHSU patients between the two healthcare campuses, but it also provides stunning overhead views of the city to those who want a skyline joy ride.

COURTESY PHOTO: RICK NITTI - A river table hand-crafted by Ted Coonfield and Dan Johnson was recently gifted to Rick Nitti. Nitti formerly served as executive director of Neighborhood House in Portlands Multnomah neighborhood.  At each side of the table are arched metal supports reminiscent of the St. John's Bridge.

The river table is the only known piece of furniture in the world that contains the original tram car cables, Coonfield noted.

Nitti's wife, Jan, is part of the Weidler family, the namesake of Weidler Street that runs through central parts of the city.

"The table is particularly meaningful for us because Jan is descended from George Weidler," Nitti said. "Weidler was an important business leader at the turn of the century and was strongly tied to the river. He owned the Willamette Steam Mill which produced the electricity that powered Portland's first street lights and he was actively involved in the bridge development and streetcar line on First Street."  

COURTESY PHOTO: RICK NITTI - A river table hand-crafted by Southwest Portland residents Ted Coonfield and Dan Johnson was recently gifted to Rick Nitti. Nitti formerly served as executive director of Neighborhood House in Portlands Multnomah neighborhood. The tables are an ode to Portland and this one uses recycled cable from the aerial tram at OHSU.Coonfield's gift to Nitti was a team effort. He crafted the table top, but the metal cable legs are the product of local metalsmith Dan Johnson, who owns Laughing Dog Forge.

"I've always been fascinated with metal most of my life," Johnson said. "I learned how to weld 35 years ago."

After taking an auto body course at Portland Community College, he found a way to meld his craft into a career.

By trade, Johnson is a facilities manager for a group of auto body shops around Portland, but his home studio space is part-workshop, part-museum. Amid the hulking metal machines used for welding and forging are early and mid-century relics that have been repurposed, like a 1920s headlight fashioned into an airplane.

"I love doing recycled art," Johnson said. "I like bending and heating metal and forging. To me it's fascinating."

He's always on the hunt for old metal with a backstory. Johnson was able to acquire pieces of the tram car cable when he was contracted to do some restoration work on the gondolas.

Johnson and Coonfield met by chance. As the two recall, Coonfield was walking by Johnson's Multnomah Village shop one day, when Johnson yelled out to compliment Coonfield's Pendleton jacket.

Coonfield stopped to chat and was fascinated by Johnson's work. "We became fast friends," Coonfield said. Their newfound partnership is a fusion of their combined creative ingenuity and the lost art of what Coonfield calls "community connection."

"It's bringing people together that can do things in the community for the good of the community," Coonfield said.

That line of thinking has guided him for most of his life. Coonfield was an early organizer of the Hillsdale Farmers Market and recently had a large part in raising money to keep it going. He isn't done giving things away.

Johnson and Coonfield's latest collaboration is a gym bench fashioned out of wood and a barbell with plates, slated to be donated to the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, where Coonfield exercises regularly.

"They carried the weight of the pandemic during COVID, so I want to give back to them," Coonfield said.


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