Aaron Bork has combined his passions for antlers and art into a craft that is raw, wild and beautiful
Story by Kay Bjork | Photography by Justin Franz and courtesy
On a cold winter day in 2002, Aaron and Jill Bork were married in their parkas and jeans while the sun set overlooking Cook Inlet in Anchorage, Alaska — the end of a day, but the beginning of a life together. The newlyweds then bought property in a remote area of one of their favorite places.
“We built a log cabin with our own logs, a little sweat and a dream,” Aaron says.
The couple worked and played hard, and when they weren’t at their jobs or at their house, they were out hunting and filling their freezer with caribou or moose and gathering antler sheds, which Aaron used to combine his passion for the outdoors and art into something raw and wild and beautiful.
All these years later, Aaron is still creating beautiful custom antler lighting and furniture from deer, caribou, elk and moose antlers that often become the handsome centerpiece of a home, as well as detailed and intricate scrimshaw and carvings on antlers that merit a place in fine art collections.
And Jill has remained a critical partner in his artistic pursuits, primarily handling the business end of Montana Antler Works, which was originally called Alaska Antler Works.
Even though the Borks grew up 15 miles apart in the Flathead Valley, they didn’t meet until Jill was in college and Aaron in the U.S. Navy and their paths crossed while celebrating the Fourth of July at the Garden Bar in Bigfork. They caught each other’s eye and ended up talking into the wee hours of the morning. A few years would pass with only occasional letters, calls and meetings, but eventually the two were reunited and shared the dream of moving to Alaska.
Though they were in love with their lifestyle and with Alaska, in 2006 they made the decision to return to Montana to be closer to family. Since then, they have bounced back and forth between the two states. With three young children now, homeschooling allows them the flexibility to spend autumn and part of winter in Alaska. Most of the rest of the year is spent in Somers, where they built a home and a studio-shop for Aaron. It’s a catch-22 for them because when they’re in Montana, they miss Alaska, and when they’re in Alaska, they miss Montana.
Both locations bring unique elements and inspiration to Aaron’s antler work. Trips to Alaska include hunting for moose and caribou antler sheds, and the search for sheds encapsulates much of what they love about the adventurous spirit of that wild and vast state. Their stories include close encounters with grizzly bears and the thrill of finding sheds after following the movement of an animal for weeks during shedding season.
One year Aaron was tracking a bull moose for a month when he scoped the moose and discovered it only had one antler. He immediately set out on a hike into the rugged landscape to search for the other antler. He not only found the shed, but also found himself 10 yards away from the magnificent creature. The moose looked at him and responded with a shake of its head, and the remaining antler dropped: a gift from the wild.
Aaron says he has always been intrigued with antlers and has loved the treasure hunt for searching for sheds since he was a kid.
“Antlers are God’s most fascinating creation,” he says. “They fall off and come back a little different each year.”
Aaron has often collected antlers from the same animal for several years, noting that “each antler is unique and tells a story,” with distinctive shapes, textures and colors that ensure each of his creations is truly one-of-a-kind.
Another early passion was art, one of his favorite classes in school, and he loves to draw.
“I also took wood and auto shop,” he says. “I wasn’t much of a book learner. I seemed to do much better when I could have solid, real things to work with and work on.“
After Aaron and Jill moved to Alaska, those two loves merged when he began doing scrimshaw, an art form that originated with American whalers who carved whalebones to pass time while out at sea. Today Aaron uses scrimshaw on antlers to create cribbage boards and intricate antler carvings, transforming a moose paddle into an eagle by carving the button end of the antler to create an image of the eagle’s head while the graceful tines depict feathers in flight.
A job in furniture repair led him to another dimension of his work when he began creating coffee tables from moose antlers, topped with glass to showcase the antlers. He then started to experiment with other furniture, including chandelier and pendant lighting, sofas and chairs. The results were a refined rustic style that mountain homeowners especially loved.
He credits one of his first clients with helping establish the business and his reputation as an artist and a craftsman. The Alaska doctor ordered two large moose chandeliers and ended up ordering multiple pieces of additional furniture to decorate his employee lounge.
Aaron says he is very particular and must be happy with the piece himself before he will deliver it. He builds his own crates and carefully packs the furniture and lights to ensure safe delivery. This hands-on approach prevails in everything he does to maintain the quality of a product for which he takes great pride.
His attention to detail includes taking the time to epoxy screw holes in the antlers and carefully paint the epoxy to match the varying colors of the antler. He has created large chandeliers that utilize as many as 120 antlers that can take over a hundred hours to complete.
Aaron’s work constantly evolves as he comes up with new ideas and techniques.
“I have always loved to dream up and create things that I can make,” he says.
He recently started incorporating wrought iron into some of his chandeliers. A local blacksmith crafts the iron frames, but Aaron hopes to learn blacksmithing — partly to have full creative power over his work and partly because he loves to learn new skills.
The Borks have expanded their product line to include more affordable items, such as wine openers, ice cream scoops and cribbage boards. Jill also makes silk-screen shirts with the couple’s outdoor-themed designs. In the future, Aaron would like to concentrate on scrimshaw more.
“It is more of an art form and I like the quietness of carving,” he says.
As a business owner and operator, Aaron values the freedom to be creative and work his own hours. The artistic nature of his work doesn’t always happen on the clock, and sometimes he ends up working late into the night or on weekends. It also allows him to schedule more around treasured family time.
In the 10 years he has been doing his antler work full-time, he has completed hundreds of chandeliers and furniture pieces. He enjoys working with clients who want to be part of his custom creations’ process. It doesn’t necessarily make the process easier, but it often makes for his best memories and friendships. Orders come from throughout the U.S., often to furnish large vacation homes suited to the rustic style of the antler furnishings. He also gets orders from people who can only afford one piece, which he says makes it extra special because it often becomes a home’s signature piece.
One client ordered a chandelier that she entrusted Aaron to make with her late father’s prized antler collection. She was thrilled with the result, calling it a “work of art that makes my heart sing.”
“My trust in his ability was well-founded,” the client continued, “and I regard the chandelier he created to be not only one of my prized possessions because of the beautiful engineering and artistry that now graces my home, but because it is a tribute to my late father — and Aaron sensed that.”
This is one more way that Aaron and Jill have revealed that it is as much about heart as it is about art — doing what they love, in places they love and with the people they love, as they journey to their next adventure.
To see more products and read more about Aaron and Jill Bork, visit their website at www.montanaantlerworks.com or call (907) 306-9535.