BEMIDJI -- Patrick Riley knows something about the arts. He has been the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra’s principal cellist for 46 years.
But as a relative newcomer to woodworking, he’s hesitant to call his work art.
Riley, 73, creates cutting boards, boxes, even guitars and a viola da gamba in his home shop northeast of Bemidji.
“As a musician, because of his instruments, there’s this fascination with the wood and the work that goes into it,” said Lori Forshee-Donnay, executive director of the Watermark Art Center. “His work really celebrates wood and how he presents it. The colors are happy because that’s how the wood is. To him it’s just wood, and it’s just fun for him. But really the end result is this beautiful piece of art.”
Perhaps it’s because of his considerable skill as a musician that Riley uses the word “craft” to describe his woodworking.
“I’m not a sentimental guy,” he said, “but the more I play with the orchestra and the older I get, the more I cherish that feeling of sitting down with my colleagues and making something beautiful. I don’t have that feeling with woodworking, because I’m just not very good at it. But I do get a feeling of pleasant warmth when I come into the shop. I think it’s because there’s no pressure on me. It’s not because I love woodworking the way I love making music.”
Folks who visit the Watermark gift shop and see Riley’s cutting boards might question Riley’s modesty.
“Some of his pieces have been just amazing,” Forshee-Donnay said. “He makes his cutting boards so they’re durable. Over and over we have people say, ‘Oh, they’re too pretty to cut on.’ And he’s like, ‘I want you to cut on it. That’s what I made it for.’ So they’re little pieces of art but they’re functional as well.”
They’re also donated to the gift shop by the artist.
“Patrick has been incredibly generous with his work,” Forshee-Donnay said, “so anything we sell we are able to keep the proceeds to help the art center.”
Riley was introduced to woodworking by his father, who was an amateur boat builder. After completing two boats in their garage in Mankato, Minn., and starting on a third one, Patrick’s father died, leaving his 16-year-old son to finish it. After that, he stayed away from tools that might jeopardize his budding music career.
“Between the ages of 16 and just recently, I hadn’t done any woodworking at all, because there’s the issue with the hands,” Riley said. “Everything in the shop is dangerous. Even a sanding machine, you can very quickly sand off a fingertip. But I always had this desire to buy a saw and do some woodworking.”
Riley took some college courses at Mankato State during his high school years, and was planning to continue his education there until a chance cello audition landed him a full scholarship to the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University. He also earned full scholarships for his master’s degree at Peabody and American University and his doctorate at the University of Iowa.
“It’s always about the playing,” he said. “If you can play well enough you could get the scholarships.”
Riley joined the faculty at Bemidji State in 1973 and taught musicology for 38 years. He still teaches part-time in the music department, but when he retired in 2011 he built a woodworking shop at his home and continued learning a craft that he started seven years earlier.
It was during a 2004 sabbatical from BSU that Riley caught the woodworking bug.
“I bought a table saw and put it in the garage and I started making simple things, like small boxes, and I kind of got hooked,” he said. “When you make something with your hands it’s there, you can touch it, turn it around and look at it, and if it’s not quite right you can probably fix it. But with music, it’s gone. You play it, you don’t have a second chance at it.”
Once his shop was built, Patrick started getting serious about woodworking. He started with something near to his heart: musical instruments. He built the gamba, which required some carving skills, and also a few guitars, the first from a kit and the rest from scratch.
“I was in way over my head,” he said. “Why did I do that? But I realized that I just didn’t have the skills. So I talked to some people, (the late) John Lembi for one, who was a fabulous woodworker, entirely self taught. I eventually managed to figure out how to make a square box and put a lid on it. It took until 2008 or maybe even 2010 before I made anything that was good enough for the Watermark standards.”