Profile: Turning scraps to treasures on Chester Gap

Alex Sharp
Cathy Wolniewicz at her studio in Chester Gap, where she makes a variety of pottery and “spirit boxes,” fashioned in part from wood scraps left over from her husband’s furniture making projects. Alex Sharp

Burning east Indian rosewood in the woodstove would be wrong. Purple heart, choke maple, bloodwood, these can’t be burned and lost forever.

But one man’s scraps are another woman’s treasures.

Cathy Wolniewicz collaborates with her husband Mike — who’s been designing, building and finishing custom furniture for nearly 30 years — to upcycle scraps of wood from furniture projects to create “spirit boxes” with fired clay tops crafted by Cathy in her pottery studio above Mike’s woodshop.

Alex Sharp
Cathy Wolniewicz’s “spirit boxes,” Alex Sharp

A spirit box contains the spirit of all things: earth, wind, water and fire. These decorative wooden boxes with plush ornamentation of pottery and discovered artifacts adorning the lids are used for incense, ashes, candles, jewelry storage, or for looks alone. Cathy is displaying and selling several pieces, including handmade bowls, frames and other pottery at this year’s Sugarloaf Crafts Festival at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, from Jan. 29- 31.

Upcycling, also known as creative reuse, is the process of transforming waste materials or unwanted products into objects of better quality.

Not only are the scraps of wood used for the box frames upcycled, so is Cathy’s upstairs pottery studio and workshop. Mike’s son discovered a hidden room above the garage woodshop two years after the couple had bought the place. Once Mike cut an entrance hatch into the enclosed loft space, they discovered a processing station for hanging, drying and trimming marijuana.

The Wolniewicz property formerly housed the largest known marijuana grow operation in county history, an advanced hydroponic indoor grow buried underground near the garage.

The former residents of 23 Red Haven Lane collaborated to create a more sinister use for the property: growing marijuana to trade in New York City for heroin to redistribute in our region. Kenneth Kratz, 38, and his wife, Melissa Dawn Kratz, 29, were arrested in March 2001 after authorities seized more than a half-million-dollars worth of marijuana and heroin from their home in Chester Gap. The couple’s scheme included a buried storage trailer filled with high-tech lighting and watering equipment to grow marijuana underground, according to police. Kratz had a storage shed behind his home with the trailer buried beneath, accessed through a trap door.

Now a wrap-around staircase connects Mike’s woodshop to Cathy’s Treetop Studios, where Cathy and Mike throw pottery for sink bowls, sculptures, and flatten clay on a homemade slab roller, to be glazed, painted and fired. Paintbrushes replacing pruning scissors, art replacing addiction.

Coincidentally, both Mike and Cathy are New York natives; Mike of Buffalo and Cathy of Long Island. They met in Northern Virginia at the turn of the millennium, Mike working for Hardwood Artisans in Manassas and Cathy doing web and graphic design in Tysons Corner. Mike is the owner of MW Furniture Design, a custom furniture and functional art design company, though he mainly operates as a corporate trainer, doing a few custom jobs for longtime clients.  

The two dated, married and bought their house on Red Haven Lane in 2004.

“We just fell in love with the area,” Cathy said. “He was doing woodworking in Woodbridge and I was working as a graphic designer in Tysons Corner — and it was a heavy commute, but when we came home it felt like we were on vacation.

“Our dream had always been to be part of an art community,” Cathy continued, noting that she and Mike registered their shop on the Rappahannock Artisans Trail, provide tours of their house full of custom furniture and sell spirit boxes on site.

Young people, go forth, return with knowledge

Cathy moved from New York to the Los Angeles area in the late ’80s, returning East ultimately to Virginia by 1999 — an experience that she said was invaluable to her growth. She went from dressing hair to designing websites and pursuing a college degree in a span of just a few years.

“In California, I was a hairdresser, and then I started going to college,” Cathy said. “I worked for a computer company [that] pioneered high-speed scanning, so when everything started to go digital, the guy that started the company actually was one of the guys that invented the scanner. So it was really high-tech, kind of a geeky place, and so there I started getting really interested in computer graphics and the internet.

“If young people can expand their minds and maybe go out of the state, to work, to study, to live for a while, they can really grow. I think that’s a lot of what holds people back,” Cathy added.

“There’s a whole world out there, and if you go out, and then bring that knowledge back with you, that’s how you can infuse the community. And if you bring that to the community, maybe there are new industries that we never even thought of. I think Rappahannock is a beautiful county for traveling, and experiencing a return to nature, to the arts. It’s a little haven for that. Now why not build that up?”