Meet the Sculptor and Carver Who "Welcomes Failure In"

Danielle Rose Byrd holding a wooden bowl.

Photo: Danielle Rose Byrd / Illustration: The Spruce

When Danielle Rose Byrd describes her life, it couldn’t sound more idyllic. Thanks to an unexpected introduction to carving and woodworking during her time at a small liberal arts college in Bar Harbour, Maine, Byrd learned to create and mastered her craft. 

Now, with her own studio on that same stunning island, Byrd works full-time as a carver and sculptor. 

How did you first get interested in woodworking?

Daniel Rose Byrd: I'm from Maine, a paper mill town where industry was always around me. I can't say that was the impetus for wanting to do what I do right now—woodworking wasn't really modeled for me. It was more carpentry and logging, but the material and natural world were always around. 

I was the kid who would pick up a lot of different materials and see what I could make with them, especially for my childhood cat. I would make these really elaborate houses for him, made of twigs and leaves and all these little things I collected. I didn't realize then that I was starting a sculptural journey.

Was there anyone in your life who was in woodworking? 

DRB: My father was a carpenter, and he liked sculpting and helping me out with school projects. But, I can't say that there was anyone I knew who was doing sculpture in itself. Because of where we lived, it was seen as such a frivolous thing. I thought of the ancient Romans or the Greeks; they did stuff, but not us. I never knew people were actually doing that.

As a profession, I had no idea. My sister was into art but as a painter. I thought that was quite literally the only way that people could be artists. I had no other reference to draw from. It was a lot of intuition, blindly leading myself.

Two of Danielle's creations.

Danielle Rose Byrd

How old were you when you first started in woodworking?

DRB: I knew that I liked tools and that I could relate to them, so that was a good launching pad. But, it wasn’t until college that I really started to gather materials—in that same way that I did for my cat, except I would do it for friends now! 

We live on an island that's connected by a bridge, and it feels like the end of the earth. I went to a very small school that was very environmentally focused. When I got there, I started gathering driftwood and using a pocket knife, and I would carve little things into the driftwood. I remember taking rocks and using them with old guitar strings I found in the music department. I would string it over the rocks to make resonators, to make this clear tone, and I carved this little heart. That was one of the first things I remember making.

What did you go to school to study?

DRB: We didn't actually have majors. It was such a small school with only 250 students called the College of the Atlantic. People who went there were extremely good at critical thinking, and that's what drew me in and why I stayed there. I ended up studying more music than anything else and then brought sculpture into that. I got a degree in Human Ecology, which is just another word for Interdisciplinary Studies. 

And how did that evolve into woodworking for you?

DRB: There wasn't a woodshop, there was a ground crew. For me, coming from my pretty gritty Maine upbringing, that is where I felt most comfortable—being with all these people who are fixing things. They would sit around in the morning and hang out and talk about what they were going to repair. They had a bunch of random tools, and I befriended them. I asked them if I could help as a work-study. 

They had a big burn pile next to the building that they would periodically set aflame. But before they would do that, I would go grab materials and think, what can I make out of this? I started carving spoons because that was the scope and the scale that I could do at that time. I had no idea that people were actually doing that in earnest.

Of course, now it's blown up, but that’s when I started seeing what I could do with this.

Wooden sculpture.

Danielle Rose Byrd

Were you following any plans for your creations at that time?

DRB: Back then, the internet wasn't as vast. I found a book somewhere within the library system and had it shipped to me. It was about resonating chambers, but that's as close as I could get. 

I remember trying to fuse things together, but it took a lot of pulling from really different places and asking people, like the musicians at my school, for help. I ended up making this extremely rudimentary form, cutting out all these little pieces that shaped the outside of a fiddle. Using scalding hot water, I would dip the wood in, wait until it was pliable, and then put it around this jig and clamp it.

What project are you proudest of at the moment?

DRB: I've been working on more sculptural pieces. I always bring that into the mix, but I'm most proud of having a balance of everything. I like to skip around. For my body's sake, I can't handle doing one thing all the time. I've diversified what I do: I can do functional objects and sculptural objects. It's all over the place because that's kind of who I am.

Sculptural wooden bowl.

Danielle Rose Byrd

What was your biggest fail that became a valuable lesson?

DRB: I welcome failure a lot. It impacts me, but I've incorporated it so much into what I do. I see it more as design influence than failure.

Wood is a really unpredictable material. Sometimes, I have no idea what I'll get when I crack it open and I have to take an educated guess. I'm never really in control, but I always know that I can figure it out. Honestly, some of my best designs come from that, because I never would have thought of them. Letting go, I think, is the best. 

I welcome failure a lot—I see it more as design influence than failure.

When did you realize that this was more than a hobby for you? 

DRB: When I came across bowls in 2015, I knew it was a definitive moment. I saw all that possibility of sculpture and function and nonfunction.

Long wooden bowl.

Danielle Rose Byrd

If budget and time were no constraint, what would you love to make?

DRB: I want to go larger-scale. I wish I had a big wood yard with good access for large trucks to deliver me a large piece of wood. I would love to make a garden sculpture that's supposed to be outside and get eaten up and degraded by weather over time. I would love to do that. 

What's one thing that you wish people understood about woodworking?

DRB: How consuming it can be, in a number of ways. It takes a lot of money and time to make it happen. I think that's with any creative pursuit, though.

What has been the most rewarding part for you?

DRB: I think the failure piece comes in again. I'm not the only one here to impose my will on this thing. I'm having a conversation with the material. That's the most rewarding thing.

Danielle with bowl over her head.

Danielle Rose Byrd

Rapid-Fire Questions

  • Favorite wood? A free one!
  • Favorite tool or piece of equipment? All of them. Hand tools, power tools, power carving axes, chainsaws. 
  • Favorite piece you've made in the last month? The one I'm thinking of in my head. It's basically a highly-textured wall sculpture.
  • What is your biggest goal? More sculpture.
  • Favorite workshop accessory? I do so many different things that my day is always very different.
  • Music on or off? The only thing that I can handle are movies that I know really well. I play them in the background. Really bad '90s movies, bad-but-good rom-coms.
  • What is your favorite step of the process? Conceptualizing. I can see stuff in my head really well, and that's my favorite part. I'll stay in one spot for like forty-five minutes, and I've already gone through four iterations of something and then trashed each one when I run into a problem or an issue. 
  • Favorite assistant? I don't have any assistants. Mostly alone. Or Teddy, my cat. He's my go-to even though I have another cat, who is very uninterested in the shop. But Teddy’s too interested. He’s very clumsy.