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Fear Led Her Out of the Woods : Craft Therapy Became Thriving Home Business


Leslie Zurla's life changed in 1987 when her mother suffered a near-fatal stroke. After 16 trips back and forth to Pompton Lakes, N.J., where her mother was hospitalized, and hours of waiting and watching, Zurla turned to arts and crafts as a form of recreational therapy. Today, those same crafts are part of a thriving home-based business called Out of the Woods.

"My crafts started in the middle of the night because I couldn't sleep, and I was in such fear. I knew that alcohol was no solution for such intense pain," said Zurla, who before her mother's stroke produced television commercials, such as Bartles & Jaymes and Secure Horizons, for the Ogilvy and Mather advertising firm in Los Angeles.

Zurla, 46, smiles when she recalls the many times doctors said, "Your mother's not out of the woods yet." But finally, about a year later, "that happy moment did come when Mom was out of the woods, and it seemed an appropriate name for my arts and crafts business," she said.

Using a grapevine wreath as a base to work from, Zurla creates figurines and Old English cottages as decorations that tell a story or detail a client's interest. For example, Zurla had one friend who was starting a chimney sweep business. She fashioned an English cottage from plywood and designed a "sweep" using a black clothespin.

"The first pieces I created were reindeers crafted from sticks and pine cones. Then came turkeys using the same materials. And then I began cutting out teddy bear shapes from plywood," said Zurla, who had previously done some set design miniatures for television.

Zurla literally stumbled across most of her early materials--sticks, nuts and leaves--while walking in the nearby woods in Pompton Lakes as her mother fought to recuperate.

Today, Zurla continues using found and recycled items for her wreaths. But the intricate decorations are no longer just a hobby. In 1988, when her 75-year-old mother, Betty, came to live with her in North Hollywood, Zurla began selling Out of the Woods crafts and animal cutouts to colleagues.

"I sold to people I knew during holiday, gift-giving periods, and then people started giving me pictures of their homes and animals so that I could create a wreath especially personalized to order," she said of the growing business that supplements her free-lance commercial work. Zurla said individual pieces take up to six hours to complete, and she's created about 1,000 items over the past two years. But the benefits Zurla reaps from her Out of the Woods crafts go deeper than affording her a flexible schedule or great financial profits.

"Leslie's an extremely creative individual. But she was so focused on her mother when she arrived to live here that her own social life suffered. Out of the Woods really saved her sanity. And it has also been a way to involve her mother in doing something creative, to get her to interact since the stroke affected her speech," said Barbara Trotter, a Studio City resident who's known Zurla five years.

"It was a great thrill the first time she was able to paint one of the plywood pigs a bright pink!" Zurla said about her mother.

Zurla is reluctant to market her wreaths and figurines in retail shops. "I'm strictly direct-order for now, although a few shop owners who have seen my work want to carry my Out of the Woods line. Since I still produce films on a free-lance basis, there's enough pressure. My crafts give me such joy, I don't want to be so overwhelmed with work orders that I start to hate it."

Simple wreaths start at $20. More elaborate pieces, such as a bakery complete with miniature bread loaves, are about $150, she said.

Much of Zurla's artistic drive she attributes to her father, John Omelianuk, who owned and operated a deli in Pompton Lakes. "He would often say, 'When life gives you lemons, you'd better know how to make a pretty fabulous lemonade,' " she remembered.

"And that's what I did when Mom got so ill. I see things in a new light. What was a period of crisis has turned out to help stimulate my creativity even more."

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