Chester Cornett at the Kentucky Folk Art Center

cornett_double_rocker_IMG_1718

For many years, I have been an undying fan of the work of Chester Cornett (1913-1981), a traditional Eastern Kentucky chairmaker who crossed over to become an artist who lived out his last years in Cincinnati, just a few miles from where I am right now.

Cornett’s story is long, tragic and documented in the book “Craftsman of the Cumberlands” (University Press of Kentucky) by Michael Owen Jones. My personal copy of the book is dog-eared and always within grasp.

cornett_folk_art_center_IMG_1688

For years I’ve known that the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead, Ky., had some of Cornett’s work, which it acquired for an exhibition and its permanent collection. But despite my long love of folk art and woodworking, I’d never made it down to the Folk Art Center until Wednesday.

It was a bittersweet journey.

Kentucky’s state budget is in turmoil. And though I try to steer clear of politics, I am deeply saddened and angered at our governor’s proposed budget cuts, which would shutter both the Kentucky Folk Art Center and the University Press of Kentucky, which published the book on Cornett. (And has a 75-year history of publishing fantastic books about the Commonwealth.)

If you dislike funding for cultural institutions, don’t bother leaving a comment. I don’t want to hear it. We’re talking about pennies.

Anyway, we arrived at the Kentucky Folk Art Center on Wednesday and spent a couple hours with the director, Matt Collingsworth. We arrived unannounced and unheralded. But Collingsworth enthusiastically gave us full access to all the pieces and all the paperwork the museum owns on Cornett – including the only known drawings and descriptions Cornett made of his pieces.

Side note: Some of you know that I have been collecting folk art/outsider art for as long as I have been a woodworker. My home is full of it. The Kentucky Folk Art Center is – hands down – the best folk art museum I’ve ever visited. (Yes, I spent a day at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. I went to the Garden of Earthly Delights in Georgia while Howard Finster was still alive. I’ve been to every folk art museum in every town I’ve ever visited.)

In fact, when I arrived home on Wednesday night I spent the next hour showing my family all the photos from my trip, and I cannot wait to take them there as soon as possible.

OK, back to the woodworking.

cornett_megan_IMG_1701

cornett_regular_chair_IMG_1704

The Kentucky Folk Art Center has three of Cornett’s pieces on display: an early side chair that resembles a heavier version of Jennie Alexander’s chair from “Make a Chair from a Tree” (Taunton). There’s a standard rocking chair that looked to be a “sample” chair because the slats were scrawled with Cornett’s sales pitch on the slats.

cornett_finial_IMG_1696

And there was one of Cornett’s “chair-and-a-half” rockers in walnut, ash and hickory bark. This chair, which Cornett also called his “fat man’s rocker,” was stunning. Octagonal seat. Four rockers. An astounding amount of drawknife work. Pictures do not do the piece justice.

Brendan Gaffney and I were stunned by it. Brendan took lots of measurements and vowed to produce a version of it. I tried to capture its essence in photos (and failed).

We also got to see one of Cornett’s tables, which is eight-sided and has octagonal legs with a most unusual taper. And the table broke down into two pieces.

As I made the drive back home up the AA highway, my head spun with the joy of seeing Cornett’s pieces (and getting to sit in one of his rockers) and the foreboding feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to make many more of these visits in the future.

If you have a free weekend, please make the trip to the Kentucky Folk Art Center, which is deep in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, before the axe falls. And know that we’ll do our best to keep writing about Chester Cornett and his unusual and incredibly well-made chairs.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Personal Favorites, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Chester Cornett at the Kentucky Folk Art Center

  1. nrhiller says:

    Sending an embarrassingly inadequate fistbump. Love this.

  2. Tom Bittner says:

    Thanks for telling us something we never would have known about otherwise.

  3. jkvernier says:

    About 10 years ago I saw a really good exhibit of Cornett’s work at the Mathers Museum, the anthropology museum at Indiana University Bloomington. As far as I could tell from how the exhibit was labelled, the materials were all from the Mathers’ own collection, and included a number of chairs featured in Jones’ books as well as Cornett’s tools, low benches and bending jigs. The Mathers Museum doesn’t have searchable collections information online, but I think they are the repository for a considerable collection of Cornett’s work. i need to get oveer there and see if anything is on display.

  4. Dave Reedy says:

    A video of his process is available here https://www.appalshop.org/store/appalshop-films/hand-carved/. I also remember seeing a video of him on PBS several years ago.

  5. Yancey Holmes says:

    Thank you for the article Chris. I had no idea such a treasure was so close to me. I’ll be making a visit there soon!

  6. pfollansbee says:

    thanks, Chris. I’ve never seen Chester’s chairs in person. Nice to get a snippet of the story. Do I remember correctly that he used to turn chairs and his lathe broke, thus the shaved chairs? Or his uncle turned them…something like that. Not terribly different from JA’s shift from the lathe to the drawknife.

    • Hey Peter,

      Chested had a treadle lathe and used it until he couldn’t find a blacksmith to repair the metal parts. After that he rived, shaved and carved his parts (ending with a pocketknife).

      So there is an interesting parallel there.

  7. Wonko The Sane says:

    Tough piece to read. Tough piece to have a measured reaction to. Tough piece to forget.

  8. jenohdit says:

    That table sold for $270 a little over a year ago. Surprisingly low for a “known” folk artist.
    https://auctions.bidsquare.com/view-auctions/catalog/id/1937/lot/664868/cowans-auctions-rare-chester-cornett-table

    It reminds me of a crude version of a Peder Moos table to some extent.

    As far as funding an institution like that goes, from the looks of it they might do much better being rolled into an institution with a real curatorial vision. They have a few interesting things swamped by what looks like a middle school art festival. Yep, that’s some genuine elitism. It’s how the art and design worlds work though.

    Creating the impression of specialness is the key to opening people’s pocket books when it comes to arts funding. That particular art world niche inherently creates its own obstacles to that since it celebrates the common man. Madness and/or genius (if there is a difference) are tags that can be applied at times, but only believably when a creator has something to say as Cornett seems to have had. Aunt Mable lived on a farm and carved pigs that Uncle Jehu painted is cute but just isn’t enough on its own even if it happened in your home state.

  9. SSteve says:

    Funding for cultural institutions is one of the few redeeming features of large governments.

  10. Andrew Sistrand says:

    too bad about the state of arts funding. now that I’ve read this article, I want to visit the museum, and I hope it will still be open. I first learned about Chester at Drew Langsner’s place, where he had a video documentary about Chester, and later I got a copy of “Craftsman of the Cumberlands.” Chester was one of a kind for sure.

  11. Tom Heller says:

    A beautiful cultural treasure. I recall you were in Wales a year or so ago looking at chairs – did you note any similarities between Cornett’s work and that which you saw across the pond? Like certain ballads and other ‘folk’ type music (I’m thinking the movie “Songcatcher”) I’d bet Cornett’s craft/design, and that of his fellow Cumberland craftsmen, has it’s roots in the British Isles. The ‘quirkiness’ of Cornett’s work also reminds me, in part, of the work of an 18th craftsman in what is now West Virginia – John Shearer.

  12. fagacea says:

    A beautiful cultural insight. I recall you were in Wales a year or so ago looking at chairs – did you note any similarities between Cornett’s work and that which you saw across the pond? Like ballads and other ‘folk’ type music I’d bet Cornett’s craft, and that of his fellow Cumberland craftsmen, has it’s roots in the British Isles. The ‘quirkiness’ of Cornett’s work also reminds me of the work of an 18th craftsman in what is now West Virginia – John Shearer.

  13. kv41 says:

    Very nice. Thanks, Chris.

  14. Jrosekelly says:

    Thank you for this. I’m making a trip in that general vicinity in March and will have to stop. I’ve been enamored by Chester Cornett since reading “Craftsman of the Cumberland” about a year ago.

  15. Such a shame that something historic will be affected by political turmoil. Anyway, it was great that you had the chance to see Cornett’s works in person. I really appreciate the details and uniqueness in his designs. I especially love the table, I don’t think I’ve seen an eight-sided octagonal legged table before.

  16. neitsdelf says:

    >Pictures do not do the piece justice.

    Sometimes I find I need to turn on my camera’s video.

  17. If anyone reading this is making the trip to the museum soon, you might consider sending a note to the governor’s office saying, hey, what a great museum, thanks for making this available, and note casually that you spent money at other local businesses while you were in town. May not help but it can’t hurt, especially the economic impact part. (And thanks, Chris, as always.)

Comments are closed.