Making the Most of Things: Elizabeth Gale, Furniture Maker

Making the Most of Things: Elizabeth Gale, Furniture Maker

Release date:

1991

Running time:

26 minutes

Formats:

Available on DVD

Closed Captioned:

No

Availability in North America:

Available in CanadaAvailable in the US

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  • Audience level:
  • Elementary School
  • Middle School
  • High School
  • Adult
  • General

This loving portrait of Elizabeth Gale, an 81-year-old furniture maker, was created by her granddaughter Gail Collins. While raising a family in an isolated Newfoundland outport, she began making the furniture she needed. She adapted designs from an Eaton’s catalogue and decorated her pieces with carving inspired by embroidery patterns and hooked rugs. With just a few tools: an axe, pocket knife and saw, she made washstands, bureaus, couches, barrel chars, picture frames and other items. Neighbours admired her work. Soon she was supplying furniture to communities along the coast. Completely self-taught, she evolved a unique style, moving her functional pieces into the realm of folk art.

Through interviews with her daughters, scenes of Elizabeth at work, and humorously-styled testimonials from her customers, the film explores the expression of her creativity. Making the Most of Things places that work in context. It examines traditional and non-traditional roles of women in rural areas. On a visit to the abandoned community where she grew up, Elizabeth discusses the influence of resettlement on her life and work.

Making the Most of Things is a vivid portrait of a remarkable woman that chronicles a vanishing outport way of life.

Folk Furniture
Folk furniture is now very popular. As in many areas in life though, women’s contributions have often gone unnoted. While the work of male folk furniture makers in Newfoundland is well documented, it was believed that women had never made furniture. Elizabeth Gale’s work has changed that.

Her work is especially notable for its intricately carved designs. Over her lifetime, she collected patterns she admired: a basket from an embroidery pattern or a scroll from a china plate, and used them as inspiration. In earlier years, she and her husband would cut pine themselves. When pine was unavailable, she used any scraps of wood she could find, even taking apart and reusing old butter and tea boxes. She made her own stains from tobacco or coffee. Nothing was wasted.

Customers ordered by mail or through a visiting friend. Elizabeth would ship the finished pieces by coastal boat or even row them to nearby communities herself. Many of these pieces are now family heirlooms.

Family Life
In outport Newfoundland, raising a family required a great deal of hard work. Alexander Gale, Elizabeth’s husband, was a trapper, fisherman and logger. He was often away from home. With the help of her mother-in-law, Elizabeth tended a garden, raised animals, spun wool, hooked rugs, made clothing and sealskin boots and helped dry and prepare fish. (Later, when her children had grown, Elizabeth fished herself for seven summers). It was a life of almost total self-sufficiency.

Elizabeth and Alexander had four children. One, Maria, died as a child. She took sick in the winter, when the bay was frozen and there was no doctor for hundreds of miles. Her son Arthur, now deceased, moved to Ontario and raised his family there. Her husband Alexander died in 1984 and daughters Maude and Margaret both live in other Newfoundland communities. In the film, they mention they'd like their mother to live with them, but she values her independence and prefers to live on her own. At the time the film was made, despite several strokes, Elizabeth Gale recovered and returned to her labour of love as a furniture maker.

Gail Collins, the director of the film, is Elizabeth Gale’s granddaughter.

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