How did an American artist from Detroit end up living in southern Puglia and designing olive wood cutting boards?
Located in the heel of Italy, Puglia is known for its fertile soil, plentiful sunshine and miles and miles of olive groves. The region is home to millions of olive trees which produce over 45% of Italy’s prized olive oil. Puglia is also the region I call home and the source of inspiration for Olivewood, a business my husband, Andrea, and I launched together to preserve the memory of Puglia’s dying olive trees.
But before I go further, let me explain how I got here.
For years, I had been searching for an arts residency in Italy. I wanted to spend time in this fabulous country, immerse myself in its culture and history, and see some of the art in person I had been marveling over in books my entire life. I applied for a month-long residency hosted by the New York-based Bau Institute in Otranto, a quaint town overlooking the Adriatic Sea, and left home without thinking twice.
After three flights, some trains and a van ride, I found myself in a lovely apartment and a private studio in the town’s 15th century castle, overlooking the sea. It was bit like a monk’s monastery space, with a high vaulted ceiling that I came to learn is characteristic of most houses in the area. With its twisting lanes, morning espressos at the bar and sunset aperitivos overlooking the sea, Otranto was a far cry from anything American. It was my first time traveling to Europe, and it was a beautiful, surreal experience — a dream come true.
I fully embraced the Italian lifestyle and took advantage of what the area had to offer, including its nightlife. Just like in the perfect rom-com, I met my husband at a charming restaurant in a nearby village. Puteca de Mieru was the hangout for local musicians on Monday nights when they gathered to play the region’s famous pizzica Salentina with their guitars and tambourines, accompanying their chant-like vocals. It was during this extremely infectious folk music that Andrea and I spotted each other. He spoke some English, but I spoke no Italian. Despite this, we promptly went traveling together, and the rest is history.
Cut to the present: Andrea and I are married and the parents of two small Italian-American children. We live on a beautiful piece of land overlooking an ancient tower and the Sea in the countryside near Otranto. I’m still able to paint, while Andrea consults as an agronomist. But the road hasn’t always been easy, and we are living proof that necessity is often the mother of invention.
When I was pregnant with our first child, Andrea lost his job, so all of a sudden, neither of us was working. Andrea had always been busy with creative projects at home and enjoyed working with local olive wood, which prompted us to launch and name our company Olivewood. I was in charge of the initial drawing and design, while Andrea dedicated himself to the art of woodworking. He is completely self-taught and mastered the craft through trial and error, and by watching many videos on YouTube: he was particularly inspired by traditional Japanese methods, which lend a clean, minimalist feel to our products.
We began crafting cutting boards and small stools from the pruned branches in our olive groves for friends and families, and the gifts were so well received, we decided to share them with a broader audience. Our signature touch is the “farfalla” (butterfly) shape we inlay to keep the naturally occurring cracks in the wood from growing any further.
Tragically, Puglia has lost many fields of olive tree since the devastating CoDiRO disease, carried by bacteria called Xylella, began to surface in 2013. This disease slowly kills the tree, and since there is no cure for it, local farmers are currently tearing out Puglia’s centennial trees and replacing them with more resistant varieties in the hope the new olive trees will grow to be as productive as their predecessors.
Much of the wood from the dead olive trees is used to make biomass, a material burned for energy production; however, we prefer to turn this tragedy into something beautiful.
Our mission at Olivewood is to preserve the history of the territory by using this centuries-old wood to create as many cutting boards and stools as possible. All our products are sustainably made to order, so as not to waste the precious wood. These beautiful objects are functional for everyday use, but are also gorgeous additions to your home décor. And, each piece pays homage to a region so many of us know and love.