‘Backwoods Chairs’ – Worth Celebrating – Lost Art Press

Editor’s note: Andy Glenn reports that he is working on the final edit of “Backwoods Chairs” before passing it along. It’ll be in our hands in June when we’ll start the editing and layout process. “I’m excited, and more than a little relieved, for this to join the stable of upcoming LAP books,” he says. All the images in this post are from Andy’s visit to Randy Ogle’s The Chair Shop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Randy’s a third-generation chairmaker, with a chair shop and gallery just off the Craft Loop road. Randy’s also one of the few makers Andy visited with a storefront and open hours, and Andy highly recommends a visit if you get a chance.

Chris and I first discussed this book a few years back – a book on the backwoods chairmaking tradition, one found deep in the hills and mountain communities of central Appalachia. It excited me – to search for and travel to working makers still engaged in the longstanding tradition of rural chairmaking. I had no idea who I’d find still at it. There are no networks or directories for this sort of thing.

I searched and traveled for makers over a couple-year stretch. Covid complicated things immensely at the beginning. I was already an outsider requesting visits and traveling from away. Now I was visiting their shops with the uncertainty of the virus swirling about. So things paused for half a year or so before traveling started in earnest.

Randy Ogle flexing a walnut chair slat into the bending form.

One aspect that made this project such an enjoyable riddle was that I had no idea who I’d find during the search. But I came across plenty of chairmakers (which took me to splendid rural chair shops in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina) during this time to the point I needed to end the search and put the book together, or risk this thing never coming together in print.

I found that I needed to write immediately after a visit or my initial impressions would dull away. Details would muddle, smells would fade and I’d forget the punchline to the jokes told by the makers. No matter how thorough my note-taking, writings from a recalled visit didn’t share the same spark as a fresh experience. So I wrote immediately after traveling, sometimes through the night if I was visiting different makers on successive days.

The issue: I had no idea how the book fit together until after the search or how each visit would relate to the others.

The early writings weren’t chapters but more essay-like. In the best case, they were the primordial chapters. When I revisited an essay, sometimes a year after the visit, the vitality of the day would rush back. Later on, once completely finished with the search, the story arch became apparent and I could see how the independent puzzle pieces of essays fit together. That’s when the book began to take shape.

In the earliest days, I also wrote when considering an issue. The following was cut during the latest edit. Like many of the early essays, this doesn’t fit properly into the book. A few early writings were mercifully deleted (there’s nothing quite like the embarrassment that comes from reading your own bad writing), while plenty of others were adapted and absorbed into the final version.

I don’t remember what prompted the entry below, though I imagine it was in response to friends’ and acquaintances’ perplexed responses to hearing about this book. Most people responded with excitement. A few were so overwhelmingly baffled that they offered no follow-up. Just silence (I actually enjoy these responses very much). But, at times, there was a hint of dismissiveness about these chairs and the value of this book. The essay was likely written with that attitude in mind.

This survived the initial fiery purge of the “delete” button, and it doesn’t cause stomach pain or my face to turn bright red, so I thought it’d be fun to share here.

Randy’s method for putting the back assembly together. He cut the mortises flush to the cutout on the face of the back post. After inserting the slat, Randy twisted the post until the slat crossed the line running vertical from the chuck center of the drill press. He adjusts the post until the slat intersects the vertical line at the shoulder line where it will enter the opposing post.
A three-slat walnut chair with a seagrass seat from The Chair Shop. Early chairs from the family shop were woven with corn shuck.

I love the work of authors Wendell Berry and E. B. White. It is my hope that I subconsciously replicated their style and cadence. It is wholly doubtful I will achieve it, but still a resounding desire. 

Their writing styles welcome the reader to share in their experiences through the combination of humor, neighborliness and the strength of their convictions. A running theme in their writings, though maybe more of an undercurrent than a theme really, is the respect each shows toward rural America*. Respect towards its people, their communities and the environment. Seldom explicit (though Berry does speak strongly in defense of rural America against the subjugated qualities of the big, market-based economy and the destructive policies of those in positions of power), the worth of each community member is inherently implied.

To mount a defense for the rural against the urban, either aloud or in writing, immediately puts the defender in the weaker position, and should only be done so when absolutely necessary. As it relates to chairmaking; beyond this, I do not intend to spend any time arguing the value and worth of backwoods chairs when compared to “sophisticated” work or dominant design trends. The worth of the backwoods is inherent, as much as any other place, people and creative work. Rural is only devalued if we choose to devalue it, and, unfortunately, why Mr. Berry must speak to its defense.

Within “Backwoods Chairs,” I follow the chairmaking tradition, rich as it is in the hills and mountains of central Appalachia, out of the rural communities and into larger cities, and even toward different regions when the story points elsewhere. Yet these chairs are most often found in rural areas for a reason; Appalachia has abundant timber for post-and-rung chairs, remote communities in need of seating, along with the low investment and overhead, all of which created an ideal environment for green wood chairmaking.

The beauty of the chair is found in its simple form, the local materials, and the maker’s skill. It’s a subtle chair, one that’s easy to overlook because of our familiarity with the form. But it’s a chair that supported generations of makers, attracts both artists and craftspeople towards its form, and is ripe for contemporary interpretations as the tradition pushes forward.

It’s a chair worth celebrating, along with the resiliency of the makers who continue on this path.

– Andy Glenn

*During their careers, both authors left their homes and opportunities within the city (both lived in New York City at one point) for a rural life. Berry moved toward a familial farmstead along the banks of the Kentucky River while White went northwards to a saltwater farm in coastal Maine.

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