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.
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.
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.
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