Wendy Reed Miller, of Creekside Leaf Works, designs artisan vessel sinks with nature’s most hellish plant

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Lido Vizzutti
T he Devil’s club, or Devil’s walking stick, is a large shrub with massive, saucer-like leaves and an armor of wicked thorns. The etymology is hazy, but one could easily imagine Lucifer putting this plant to good use. Partial to moist, dense forest habitats, they grow in thickets from Alaska to Montana. According to botanists from the American Botanical Council, more than 38 indigenous groups have peeled and poked past the Devil’s club’s painful skin to find medicinal and spiritual usages, from healing broken bones to ending bad weather. A bit of stem tied in a ring and hung above a doorway is said to ward off evil influences and draw in love.

If you ask Wendy Reed Miller, you’ll find that that Devil’s club can also be used to create an exquisite vessel sink. A few clusters grow alongside the little creek in her Woods Bay backyard. By late spring, they begin to bud. By early summer, the leaves grow past the size of her palm. Mid-summer, they’re bigger than her head. When they’re about a foot across, she pulls on thick leather gloves (even the sturdiest kind don’t provide total protection) and walks upstream to harvest a leaf, one per sink.

“Each one is made with a natural leaf, and you can’t possibly replicate it,” Miller says of the sinks’ resin-coated concrete basins molded from the leaf. Of the leaves themselves, she continued, “They’re massive, so incredible. They grow right out of the creek. It’s always blown my mind how fascinating they are. It doesn’t grow all over the world.”

The daughter of a “tough-as-nails” military colonel, Miller did grow up all over the world, from Panama to Kansas. The family cabin in Montana was the only geographical constant as a kid. From the moment of her high school graduation, Miller says that she “was itching to move up here; my heart was here.”

Miller stops to say hello to Todi – a cockatiel – and her parakeet Paco.

Miller stops to say hello to Todi – a cockatiel – and her parakeet Paco.

It took her 10 years, but she moved full-time to Bigfork in 1995. She stayed for just a few years, to graduate from Flathead Valley Community College, before enrolling in veterinarian school in Charlotte, North Carolina. Miller shared a love for animals with her father, who purchased the Oceanside Pet Shop in Carlsbad, California, when he retired. Pets the family kept in Panama, like sloths, anteaters, monkeys, and exotic snakes, had captured her imagination as a young child.

In North Carolina, Miller earned her degree, got married, and had three children, Micah, McColl, and Grant. In 2010, she moved her family home, to the peaceful cabin overlooking Flathead Lake. She didn’t pick up a veterinary practice here – “in my next life, I’ll be a vet,” she says – but the family does have a dog, a cat, and two birds. Instead, Miller makes beautiful sinks.

“It wasn’t about going out and making artisan sinks,” she says, explaining how Creekside Leaf Works came to be. “Why would you [make sinks from these leaves]? You’re going to get stuck. I needed a sink, and you can see how much I love the land—I’ll die on this property— and I wanted something that reeked like the Flathead.”

Inspiration came from concrete birdbaths that Miller had made to attract birds to her lush backyard and garden.

“One day I saw the leaves and was thinking about my bird baths—like, hmm,” she recalls. “I connected the dots.”

Like she did with the birdbaths, she molded a mound of sand to size. Then—to add the touch of Flathead—she laid the Devil’s club leaf on top and coated it in concrete. When the hardened mass dried, she peeled out the leaf and poured on an acid stain, which ran deep into the leaf’s veins and pooled in the inverted thorns.

Miller uses a small paintbrush to begin the staining process.

Miller uses a small paintbrush to begin the staining process.

That sink never ended up in the cabin. It found an eager buyer first. Miller made another one, and, realizing that she was on to something, made more, perfecting her craft. She loved sharing the beautiful land that she cherishes, “being able to bring [the Devil’s club] into somebody’s home.”

Miller does have a sink now in her powder room. It’s one of few with the leaf preserved inside the bowl. That technique proved to be a headache, but Miller says she’s progressed by this type of trial-and-error.

Her first sinks were three layers—one smooth layer, one fiberglass-reinforced concrete, and another smooth. Now she can make them in one pour, with no layers, and uses a mix of coffee, olive, amber, turquoise, or metallic acid stains. A clear coat lights up the stain and the fine details, “like getting a pebble wet,” Miller says. “Woah.”

“The early ones were really pretty but they were big and heavy. I’ve refined my technique and can make them light and thin,” she says. “It went from being a fun little art project to something that I can stand behind. It’s not going to crack.”

Concrete is “tricky,” Miller noted. It’s not an exact science, and its natural purpose is not intended for delicate, leaf-like sinks. Her first basins, which she sold in the neighborhood of $900, had a rounded, even rim and wide base. Now they’re thinner and lighter, and Miller trims the sink along the edge of the leaf. She curls the edges, giving the basin the feel of a naturally cup-shaped leaf collecting water on the forest floor. These models sell in the ballpark of $1,400.

This year, six summers after Miller made her first sink, she’ll make “as many as I can.” With a new studio next to her Bigfork home, she’ll have the space and resources to ramp up production. Newly represented by the Artisans’ Home Showroom and Creative Space on U.S. Highway 2 East in Kalispell, she’ll also be able to connect with more clients, including those who want custom products and ready-built sinks.

“Making [these sinks] doesn’t get old,” Miller says. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Well, I’m an artist—that’s what’s wrong with me.”