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Creativity in wood, glass, fabric & leather

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Photos submitted Don French in his woodworking shop, showing some smaller boxes he has made. From the skills taught in high school shop, he has honed his creative passion over the years with projects in wood, glass, fabric, leather and more. Above right h

Don and Beth French were married in 1978 and Don's first job was teaching kindergarten through third grade in the mornings and high school physical education in the afternoons in Douglas, Wyo.

He later moved to the high school in Douglas and taught physical education and coached sports for all the grades, 500 students in all.

But about that first job Don said, "We had between $50 and $100 in the bank and had to hang on until my first paycheck came at the end of September."

They were using a card table for a dining room table. When the first paycheck arrived, Don and Beth covered monthly expenses, with a little left over. Don suggested he take $25, buy some wood and design and build a dining room table. Beth was a little hesitant ... she was not yet aware of Don's woodworking skills.

Don bought the wood and built the table. He had no sanding plane, so the table was hand sanded.

The table can be taken apart and the pieces laid flat. That feature served them well as they moved from Wyoming to Denver to Austin.

The table continues to serve as their dining room table.

Don learned his woodworking skills, and many other skills, in high school in New Jersey.

He says, "We had a school shop, lunch ladies who actually made the lunches at school, a school nurse. The academics were decent and the sports were incredible.

"Along with basic subjects, we had art, shop, home economics and, very importantly, sports."

Don took shop classes in all the practical trades, which enables him to build or repair most items.

Home economics classes were required for both boys and girls and Don learned many practical skills in those classes.

He took art classes in high school and college.

Don and Beth live in a uniquely beautiful house at the top of the hill overlooking the Gunnison River as it flows under the vehicular traffic bridge and the railroad bridge near Austin.

They thought long about what they wanted their home to look like, what they wanted to experience inside their home, before they consulted an architect or builder.

They researched different plans that might meet their expectations. They visited houses built in the "earthship" style with a south-facing focus for sun exposure.

"Unlike the early earthships, we preferred more openness and eliminated 'compartments' divided by north/south walls," Don explains.

"The openness and the high ceilings support great acoustics, allowing the sounds of piano, guitar and voice to travel throughout the home."

Beth has her insurance and financial services business in two adjoining rooms on the upper level.

She says, "Clients who enter the home for an appointment the first time are amazed at the panoramic view beyond the 20-foot window span at the south end of the home."

Don and Beth knew where their house would be located, two houses away from the house in which Beth had grown up as the daughter of Harry and Peggy Gilbert. Much of the land in that area was held for a long time by Harry's maternal family, the Coffeys.

Harry and Peggy owned some of the land and Beth and Don purchased their lot from her parents.

Don and Beth engaged John Monroe of Garnet Mesa as architect and Earl Bonine of Delta as contractor and the four worked together closely.

Their partnerships produced a curved, carpeted stairway to the lower open level, a striking floor-to-ceiling chimney, with a rounded kiva area for seating on one side of the fireplace and the dining area on the other.

Openness is achieved by inside walls of different height and strategic indentations. One can see all the way through the house from the lower level because of a tall window at the west end of the upper level and an open space where a door would have been in a traditional design.

"It's our spiritual home." Don offers, "we are in partnership with the earth. We are able to experience differences as the seasons change. We watch storm patterns come through and lightning looks like fireworks. In the winter there is constant change.

"Every day and every night is different."

Beth says, "The Scripture phrase, 'Give thanks with a grateful heart', comes to me daily as I sit at the table -- the table Don made -- for breakfast, looking out over God's creation."

For openness in the dining area, Don built three units to house the items used for a well-appointed dining table: a table with a glass top, on which is a chest to hold smaller items and, under the table, a larger chest with a rounded top to hold larger items.

Don created a beautiful table with a glass top to display trophies and memorabilia from Beth's equestrian activities.

He often used wood left over in the building of the house to create some of these items. He uses glass for the tops of tables to continue the openness throughout the house.

Don credits Steve Donavan, a creative artisan himself, as his inspiration for building Irish Keeps. Steve built Irish Keeps to display his mother's and father's memorabilia from World War II.

Irish Keeps are two-level cabinets with a glass top on an upper shelf and a larger storage space beneath. Larger items can be kept in the bottom part and special smaller keepsakes in the top shelf where they can be readily seen through the glass.

Don builds Irish Keeps for nieces, nephews and children he works with in different volunteer activities.

He made an Irish Keep for their daughter, Phaelen, to hold keepsakes from her years at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Phaelen graduated from the Academy in 2013 and is now a 1st Lt. in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.

Don's latest Irish Keeps are for family friends, the Richards twins Alysha and Ayasha, who are entering their freshman years at college.

In working with wood, Don says, "The wood was alive; it grew and was shaped by the forces surrounding it. I look at the wood from that perspective and seek to determine what it can become. Then I consider the person for whom I'm crafting the item, their character and potential.

"It's important that the grain shows in the finished product because wood is something that grew," he said.

Don also designs clothing and hats.

His art and home economics classes taught him about form, texture, color and fashion. When he first moved to western Colorado, Delta's Western Tanning had an unlimited variety of leathers. "Since the Frenches needed the deer and elk meat, I began having my hides tanned and designed a coat for me and special garments for my beautiful wife," he says.

Don believes an outfit isn't complete without the proper hat. He works with Mary Tyler at Delta Floral in designing hats for Beth.

"Just like in most solid relationships, each partner contributes their strengths. Don's flare for artistic design, colors and styles is uniquely his and I get to be his model," Beth says with a smile.

The French home sits at the top of the hill overlooking the Gunnison River as it flows under the railroad and highway near Austin. The lower level includes a striking floor-to-ceiling chimney, a rounded kiva sitting area on one side and a dinner area on the other. Beth says the 20-ft. window span on the south is great for “looking out over God’s creation.”
Beth French is wearing the peacock dress Don designed for her to wear to a formal ball held in San Diego, Calif. Don contacted a dressmaker in Hong Kong online and told him what he wanted to achieve. Several messages traveled between Austin and Hong Kong. The dress met Don’s design and Beth’s dimensions and it was a smashing hit at the ball. Don attached peacock feathers to Beth’s shoes, also.
Don believes an outfit isn’t complete without the proper hat. He works with Mary Tyler at Delta Floral in designing hats for Beth.
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