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A piece of (wood) work

By | 2018-01-15T17:44:14-05:00 April 2nd, 2009|Guides|

by Jessica Carreras

Heirloom Furniture Restoration is about the strangest hospital you’ll ever see. Inconspicuously located down a bumpy dirt road on the west end of Ann Arbor, the shop is, mainly, a converted garage. Cold, quiet and nestled amongst trees, various tools line the walls – wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers – and the floor is made of dirty concrete.
Instead of bright fluorescent lights, sunlight streams in through the windows.
Instead of disinfectants and medicines, the smell of varnish and sawdust is overwhelming. And instead of injured people, this hospital is for furniture, and the doctor is woodworker Anita Marohnic.
Heavily tattooed with tribal designs going across her arms and down her back, Marohnic is a tough-looking character. Her stern face, easygoing nature and confidence tell a completely different story than the one she grew up with: an only child, a carpenter’s daughter – and an oft-harassed lesbian.
The 54-year-old Marohnic grew up in Gladstone, Mich., near Escanaba – not the greatest place for a teenaged lesbian, especially one with a propensity for woodwork. “My dad was a carpenter, so I knew about tools,” she recalls of her first brushes with woodworking. “I would help him out when I was a kid, carry shingles and things like that or hold boards, like you do when you’re a kid. I’ve always been mechanically inclined. It came easy to me. I don’t struggle with technical stuff.”
But what she did struggle with was her sexuality. Outed at age 14, Marohnic became, as she calls it, “the town queer.”
“I was just trying to survive and not go crazy because the pressure was on at school and it was a real small town and I didn’t want (my family) to know (I was gay), because I’m an only child,” she says. “I was busy hiding it from them, and going to school and getting harassed. I was getting the shit kicked out of me and getting teased and I just wanted to graduate and get out of school.”
And what got her out of her hometown, and to where she is today, was woodwork.
Marohnic began working for a woodworking plant near her hometown straight out of high school, where she learned about different tools and machines of the trade. From there, she moved down to Grand Haven and Grand Rapids, where she was not only met with great work opportunities, but a gay scene like none she had ever known. “I had had some exposure to the gay scene,” Marohnic recalls. “Some friends of mine were living in Flint and I went down to visit and they took me to the State Bar…and it wasn’t long after that that I was out of there (the U.P.).”
As her social life bloomed, her professional life soared. Working under various experts, making everything from assembly line cabinets to bookshelves for Borders’ Books, Marohnic eventually landed in Ann Arbor, where she still works today.
A long cry from her days working in a factory in Escanaba, now Marohnic, a West Bloomfield resident, is the woodworking expert at Heirloom – and happy in a relationship with her partner of two years. Not ridiculed as the town queer.
Her tattoos, which she began getting at age 40, stand as emblems of the strength and confience she never had as a youth. Like her woodwork, they grew bolder with age, and now include several Native American symbols (to mark her heritage), a coy fish on her leg and the tribal design, done by well-known tribal artist Leo Zulueta of Spiral Tattos in Ann Arbor. The piece took almost 40 hours to do, and still isn’t complete.
Similarly, Marohnic says she may spend up to 10 hours on one piece of furniture – repairing, stripping, sanding and finishing.
And like a tattoo artist’s work, Marohnic’s expertise in her field is owed to her teachers and to practice – 25 years, to be exact. “There’s two kinds of professionals. There’s ones that are arrogant and haughty and won’t share their secrets,” she says. “But I was fortunate, I didn’t have much to do with any of those. The people that I worked with were confident in their skill and they didn’t have any trouble sharing their secrets or things they picked up over time.”
Things like how to tell a table’s age by the way the screws are made. Or the differences between types of wood and finishes. Or even why IKEA furniture, though sometimes nice to look at, is usually a bad buy.
“Some of their stuff isn’t bad,” she admits of the mass-manufactured home superstore. “But I was just talking to a customer of mine and they said they paid $300 for a dresser at IKEA. I’m asking $400 for that (dresser I refinished). That’s a lot of money for a dresser at IKEA.
“I’m not adverse to it, to be honest. I would shop there,” she adds, laughing. “But I can’t fix a lot of their chairs – I call them NF chairs, no fix – that’s why they’re cheap…they won’t fix.”
For Marohnic, that’s just no fun.
Always up for a challenge, she admits to preferring jobs that require a lot of work and use of her highly-honed skills.
“We do a lot of resurrections. People come in and we think ‘no way,'” she says. “We just did one that was stained so badly. There was paint dripped on it and – it looked like ink…and that was a serious antique, so it’s crucial that we don’t screw that thing up or oversand it.”
“We’re fortunate in that it came out really nice.”
From broken legs to oil stains to pieces pulled from the garbage, Marohnic takes furniture and makes it art. A thrift store table becomes a living room centerpiece. A broken old rocking chair transforms into a favorite spot to read on the porch. Things that used to sit in the garage under boxes and layers of dust become beautiful once again.
“The people that own these things, it’s like their children,” Marohnic says. “When they see them looking good again, I’ve had people just break down and cry.”
Like a doctor seeing their patient get well, Marohnic’s work is all about bringing the injured, broken and ruined back to life.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.