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Juanita Ellias

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss / photograph by Peter DiAntoni

Growing up on 6th and North near a lumberyard, Juanita Ellias, age 10, didn’t have to look too far for raw materials. “I had a hammer and I had a saw and I wanted furniture, so I built it,” she said. “It looked pretty crude, but it worked.” She would walk over to the fire station at 7th and North for instructions on how to build what she wanted. “They would get me wood — it was kind of a neighborhood project.” The lumberyard was at 9th and North; she’d walk there, pick her wood, and carry it home. Decades later she finally got to put some of these do-it-yourself woodworking skills to the task again. She explains how it came about over the ringing of her cell phone and the techno beats throbbing through Fuel Cafe that morning. “We bought a house here in 1978,” she says. She and her husband moved from Shorewood, which they found too expensive, with “too much of a suburban mentality.” Her house is on Weil Street, a hop skip and a jump from Fuel where we’re having coffee. “It was a wreck.” She and her husband decided to rehab it themselves. “I began to develop skills that corresponded with interests I’ve always had,” she says, referring to her childhood building days. There were countless hours of work to do on the house. The basement was a simple dirt floor. It had a huge coal burning furnace and a big ash pile in the middle. 10 yards of material had to be taken out and carted away so they could lay a basement floor. She also removed every sash on each window in the 58-window house, redoing them all over the course of a couple years. These were just a few of the monumental tasks she undertook. For a while, she taught architectural history on the East Coast. Her husband teaches at UWM. She tired of the commuting and decided to come back to stay in 1993. At that point, at an age when many women are settling into mid-life activities and looking forward a decade or two to retirement, Ellias decided to apprentice herself to a wood-worker in Milwaukee. She took a few classes, and when he went out of business, she decided to open her own shop. She has not regretted that decision. “As opposed to having a job, I have a business that’s integrated into my whole life,” she says. “That’s something I like — even though I have had 9 to 5 jobs in my life, I’ve never really liked them.” Her background in architectural history naturally prepared her for the kind of work she’s doing. “I fell in love with the way materials affect the kind of environment in which you live,” she said. “The idea of being able to craft things that make people feel a certain way — that appealed to me.” She gives some examples. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Greek Orthodox Church makes her feel warmly encompassed. “If you go inside and sit there, it’s like the building has its arms around you. The colors, forms, textures that the architect has thought about — it’s like putting yourself in a painting.” She isn’t so fond of the Art Museum — “the original building was assaulted when they put on the first addition,” she maintains. “There are three different blocks glued together with different styles and ideas about architecture; it’s really pretty awful.” While she doesn’t do building design, she focuses on some of the details that make an interior or exterior stand out. At Rivercity Woodworking, her shop at 607A S. 6th St., she does specialty windows, spindles, columns, lamp posts, and other specialized projects. She has little respect for much of today’s “quick and dirty” woodworking, and hopes to learn some of the older styles of joinery to use in her work in the future. Each of her creations is a work of art. And like other artists, she lives with both a blessing and a curse: “My life is my hobby… I try to make money at it.” Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 8 – August 2003