Fine Art, Off the Beaten Path

By Beacon Staff

LIBBY – With fine furniture, delicate pottery and art from around the world, the display room at Cabinet Mountain Furniture, Pottery and Gifts may seem more at home in downtown Whitefish than Libby, a working-class town 60 miles to the west. And owner Christi Ellwood said that was the initial reaction she and her husband received when they opened the doors in 2005.

“In the beginning, I’d get older ladies saying, ‘This isn’t Whitefish,” Christi joked recently.

Located on Mineral Avenue in Libby, Cabinet Mountain Furniture, Pottery and Gifts has become an artistic outlet for Christi and her husband Don, who started the business making handcrafted wood tables, beds and bureaus. The couple first met while in art school in Minnesota – he was an illustrator, she a graphic designer. After Minnesota, they settled in Spokane, Wash. and started a family, but Don always had an urge to go elsewhere.

In the early 1970s, Don had visited northwestern Montana to find summer work on the Libby Dam. He fell in love with the area and when Don and Christi married, they honeymooned in Libby. But finding work in graphic design and illustration in a mining and timber town would prove difficult for the young couple. So they headed west.

In Spokane, Christi worked as an illustrator for Republic Airlines and then became a school teacher. In 1996, the family purchased a small tract of land near Libby and a few years later they moved there, just as Don had always envisioned. While Christi taught at Libby High School, Don began making furniture, mostly because “I couldn’t work as a graphic designer in Libby,” he said.

Even though Don has never been formally trained in furniture making, he sees that as an advantage because he was never taught how to cut corners and costs. He only uses dead and fallen trees from his property.

“My furniture is built the way it was 100 years ago,” he said. “I don’t use staples or glue.”

In 2005, Christi retired from teaching and with more free time the family began looking into opening a storefront to sell Don’s furniture. Soon after, Cabinet Mountain Furniture became a new staple in downtown Libby. Realizing that “diversity is huge,” the couple also began selling art, jewelry and pottery that Christi made. In due time, the pottery became just as big of a draw as the furniture.

Christi first learned the craft when she was teaching and school administrators wanted her to include pottery in her curriculum. One summer she headed up to Eureka, learned from a friend and then spent the rest of the season figuring it out in her front yard. “There was a lot of clay thrown across the lawn,” she said.

Libby Pottery

Coffee mugs in Christi Ellwood’s studio.

Watching Christi work in her studio, it’s clear that she is no longer a novice. On most winter days, Christi is adding to her inventory, hoping to make enough mugs, bowls and plates for tourists who start walking through the front door in May. Every year she makes and sells about 250 pieces and one of the most popular is the “Hucklebear,” a simple bowl with a bear face inside. She estimates she’s done about 500 bears in the last few years and, to keep pace with seasonal demand, she tries to make 15 pieces a week.

“When you buy a bowl, you’re buying a one-of-a-kind piece,” she said. “No two are alike.”

Christi said many customers comment on the shop’s low prices, but items are marked as such for a reason. The couple realizes that Libby doesn’t have the same tourist traffic as Whitefish or Bozeman and items are priced to sell, not sit.

“It’s the mountains and beauty of Libby that brought us here and I know that sounds cliché, but artistic people are drawn here,” she said. “One thing I’ve found is a lot of people in Libby are artistic.”

She also said that Libby is welcoming to business, mostly through affordable property, but added that the town needs to do more to “mine” tourism.

“We’re determined to go after business and we’ve been lucky to get Canadian visitors,” she said. “We’re doing fine – we’d like to do better – but I like to think that if you go after business, you’ll get business.”

Don and Christi are diversifying even more by looking into constructing tiny homes. Don is working on a prototype with a friend this spring and, depending on how it sells, they may make more. At 9-by-14 feet, buyers will likely have to get rid of some of their possessions, but Don thinks the compact homes will become more popular in the future.

For now, however, Don and Christi will keep focusing on the furniture and pottery that has made the store a success – even if it seems a little out of place to some.

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