Interviewing furniture maker Michael Puryear feels a bit like listening in on a geography or sociology class delivered by a laid-back professor with the mellow voice of Richie Havens and a warm, easy laugh. When asked where he grew up, Michael starts further back than most, with the culture of slavery in the southern states – specifically, Virginia, which was home to many of his forebears.
“Those families in the tidewater area did not grow cotton,” he begins, differentiating the area’s history from the widespread stereotype. Slavery existed, for sure, but in varied forms, each tied to a particular region and the agricultural products that would thrive there. The primary crop in tidewater states was tobacco, grown on smaller farms with fewer slaves, many of whom lived in the same house as their masters. Sea island slavery was another form, this one off the coast of Georgia and North Carolina and based on the cultivation of rice and indigo, which these slaves’ ancestors had grown in Africa. Sea island slaves lived in villages they organized themselves and spoke Gullah, the language of their African heritage. Their owners were generally absentee, living in Charleston and Savannah; while there were overseers, the slaves were “pretty much left on their own to do the work.” Finally, there was Antebellum slavery, focused on the growing of cotton in the hot, wet climate of more central southern states with well-drained soils.
Why start with slavery? As Michael says in a quote on the Smithsonian website, he wants “to acknowledge and honor the contributions of African American slaves to this country. Like my own ancestry this heritage began before the founding of the United States. African Americans have fought with honor and loyalty in every war of our nation. They have significantly contributed economically, socially, culturally and politically to American culture.”
From the South, we jumped far to the North, with more eye-opening history. Although Michael’s father’s side of the family has its North American roots in the tidewater area, his father was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and grew up in Philadelphia. Michael explains the move. His paternal grandfather, Moses, was a Baptist minister in Africville, a major terminus of the Underground Railroad.
His paternal grandmother, Elma Clark, died as a consequence of giving birth to her second child, Ruth. Moses remarried and continued to live in Africville with his children; they were still living there on December 6, 1917, when a Norwegian steamship loaded with supplies for a World War I relief effort collided with a French vessel carrying munitions to France, killing almost 2,000 people and injuring some 9,000 others, most of them Halifax civilians. In addition, the blast caused a tsunami that demolished a nearby branch of the Mi’kmaq First Nation. The horror of the explosion was magnified as locals imagined it was the result of a bomb – this was, after all, during a war. Hospitals were overwhelmed by injured people, and even as would-be rescuers headed to the area from Canada and the United States, they found themselves unable to get through as a blizzard covered Halifax and its environs with more than a foot of snow. Michael says his father, Reginald, who was 9 at the time, recalled seeing dead bodies frozen on the ground.
How had I never heard about any of this?
Michael’s grandfather moved to Toronto, where he died, likely of a heart attack, leaving Reginald and Ruth orphaned. The children were sent to live with an aunt in Pittsburgh. As a single mother who worked as a domestic, their aunt already had her hands full, so she arranged for them to attend a boarding school, St. Katharine Drexel School, outside of Philadelphia. Michael’s father went on to high school at the Saint Emma Military Academy in Virginia, and rose to the rank of captain. While there, his best friend introduced him to his sister, Martina Morse. And so began Michael’s immediate family.
The couple made their home in Washington, D.C., where Martina’s family goes back at least four generations. At a time when the highest level of employment an African-American could hope to attain was working for the Post Office or being a teacher, Michael says, “that’s what my parents did” – his father worked in the Post Office; his mother taught school, following a tradition on her side of the family.
Michael was born in 1944, the third of seven children. Early on, they lived in an apartment in the city’s southwest quadrant; the last two of his siblings were born after the family moved to a house on the city’s northeast side. “It was a very nice house,” he remembers – a detached house built in the 1920s with a gambrel roof, hardwood floors and unpainted chestnut trim. There was a garage under the front porch, and a basement, all in “a very nice neighborhood with big yards” around a park-like area that drew opossums and other wildlife. The family of nine lived with a single bathroom, which didn’t even strike them as worthy of notice, though Michael is now especially appreciative of the cooperation and mutual respect this must have required.
“When we moved there, we were the third Black family on the block; the other two were doctors. We were the first one with young kids. The neighborhood became predominantly Black with white flight. When we sold the house, we sold to the first white people moving back to the neighborhood.”
From first through third grade, Michael attended a segregated public school. After the family moved, he switched to an integrated Catholic school, where he almost had to repeat fourth grade – other students were already taking notes, writing in cursive and doing multiplication and division, all of it foreign to him. He persevered and caught up.
His favorite subjects were social studies, geography and science. But some of his most valuable learning experiences came from his parents, who took the children to cultural institutions such as the Smithsonian. “That was an amazing place to go and see the diversity of what man does and the differences in cultures and the natural world. It was really a refuge for us. We would go on our own, when we were old enough, and just spend hours looking in the museum.” He and his siblings also got library cards as soon as they could print their names. “That was also a very important part of my education. Those things [museums and books] created a sense of curiosity, an awareness of something larger than ourselves.”
Their parents also took them camping. “We were the only African-Americans we came across that camped. It wasn’t really an issue, other than that awareness.” These family trips sparked a lifelong love of the outdoors. “One of the most important things to me, as a consequence of growing up, is my awareness and interest in nature,” he says. Later, with his wife, Sarah Wells, he camped, went backpacking, kayaked (they built their own boats), made long-distance trips by bicycle (once riding the entire length of Newfoundland from south to north) and did an extended trip in Europe. He has also been to the Arctic twice with his brother Martin.
He credits his upbringing with instilling a sense of individuality, but adds that “growing up in a close-knit family, we had a sense of responsibility to others, as well. My mother demanded of us a certain level of behavior that I think was even more so than parochial school. I feel fortunate in my growing up. I think my parents basically did an amazing job of giving us what we needed to survive.”
After high school, Michael studied at Howard University for two years but dropped out because he was “floundering.” He points out that he was paying his own way, “the deal my parents made with us. They paid for our grade and high school, and we were expected to pay for our college education. In those days, that was possible. Most of my siblings got scholarships. Howard University was subsidized, so its tuition was reasonable.
“I felt like I was wasting my time and money” he goes on. “I didn’t have a sense of direction, of what I should be doing. There was an expectation that we would all go to school, so when I dropped out, I felt like I was letting my parents down.” He was surprised and grateful when they accepted his decision and said he could live at home, but “’You have to pay a little rent,’” they told him. He got a job as a page at the D.C. Library. “It was seamless,” he says with appreciation. “My guilt was stronger than their reaction.”
Two years later, in 1965, he was drafted into the Army. The Vietnam War was in full force. Because he did well on the entry tests, those in charge wanted him to become an officer. He had his own opinion. “I knew that would be a mistake; I knew as a draftee I would only have to be on active duty for two years, and if I had become an officer, I would have to have an active duty period of four years. That wasn’t a very good equation, as far as I was concerned. I was actually against the war. It was before there was a lot of counseling about being a resistor.” Besides the lack of guidance for those who might have sought conscientious objector status, he felt a sense of responsibility to his parents to fulfill his duty as a citizen.
During basic training there were so many draftees that instead of barracks, Michael’s unit slept in tents set up with six cots apiece on concrete pads left over from the World War II. “It was better,” he thinks, “because you were not under the constant eye of the sergeants.” He volunteered to be a truck driver, which got him out of kitchen patrol and guard duty.
He recognizes he was fortunate. He was trained as a medical lab tech doing biochemistry and toxicology in St. Louis, which kept him from going to Vietnam. The job wasn’t on a military base, and the hours, from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., with no weekends, were easy. All in all, he says, “it was very un-military!” He never even wore his dress uniform, because they wore whites at work.
After two years, he’d satisfied his military obligation and returned to his job at the library in Washington, D.C., where he ended up working for 11 years, advancing from page all the way to supervisor of circulation.
He traces his career in furniture making back to this job at the library. “I was always interested in design, in shape and form,” he explains. “I was teaching myself photography at that point; it was form that was very much part of the images I was making. I became aware of the Shakers and the Scandinavian furniture movement. There were books there! I started reading books about woodworking.”
At this point he brings the conversation back to the neighborhood where he grew up: it was populated by homeowners who worked office jobs for the government, but most of them worked on their own homes, and neighbors helped each other. When his father was painting their house, Mr. Morris around the corner pitched in with his ladder. Michael’s father had been trained as an electrician in high school, which made him a real neighborhood asset. “It didn’t seem like a big deal,” Michael remarks. “You figure out how to do [something], and you do it.” He and his older brother, Martin, agree that attitude gave them the confidence to pursue their interests in art and craft. The family had a workshop in the basement and access to a range of tools – chisels, planes, screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, most of them manufactured by Stanley, from the tool chest their mother had given their dad when they were first married. (“It was probably from Montogmery Ward,” Michael adds.) “I used to hang out with [Dad] and other neighbors who were handy. I was like their buddy. They would tolerate me. I would be like a go-fer. That was very important to who I have become.”
At some point while working at the library, Michael became aware of James Krenov and Wharton Esherick. “What they were doing was very interesting to me,” he remembers. Working at the library was “a great job, with nice people. But there was something about it that felt like, ‘I wanted to live what I call an integrated life.’”
He went back to college on the GI Bill and got a degree in anthropology.
Life in New York
“I’d been doing photography and had some recognition. Looking at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, there were Penn and Hiro and [other] well-known photographers.” When his girlfriend at the time transferred from American University to Pratt in New York, Michael thought he’d move to the city with her and become a photographer. He quickly found he “didn’t know anything about running a business. You can have all the skill you have, but if you don’t know how to run a business, you’ll fail.”
He had a landlord who was a plumber; the landlord happened to be working on a kitchen for a client. The brownstones in north Brooklyn were just starting to be converted from rental apartments back to single-family homes. Michael did the kitchen with his older brother. Word got around as people on the block saw him working; they asked if they could hire him. Then a friend who taught college and had invested in four brownstones asked Michael to renovate them all, which gave him significant experience.
But as much as he enjoyed the work, he says he found “being a contractor was much more about the headaches – the estimates, the crew, material procurement, subcontractors…” He decided to move away from general contracting to work of more pointed scope. Kitchen cabinets were a start; he’d built some before he even had a shop, in the basement of the house where he’d been living. But with kitchen cabinets, he said, “the only creative aspect of it was the facades.” (Ouch.)
The first piece of furniture he made and sold was a desk for the friend with the brownstones. With time, he got more commissions and the work became increasingly interesting. “At a certain point,” he says, “I decided to call myself a furniture maker.” He ended up working as a furniture maker, sharing a shop with friends at Brooklyn Model Works, whose company did props and special effects for advertising and film. He learned on the job; with each succeeding piece, he’d add “one aspect that I had not done before” to develop new skills. Again, books were invaluable – Charles Hayward on joinery, “Cabinetmaking & Millwork” by John Feirer, the “Encyclopedia of Furniture.”
In 1976 he met photographer Sarah Wells, who would become his wife. Sarah and a friend moved into a loft on the Bowery; as Michael’s relationship with her developed, he moved in with them. A couple of creatives making a home together in a New York loft may sound enviable today, but Michael is quick to bring that fantasy back to reality: “It was pretty rough. We were heating with a wood stove.” In 1980 they were bought out by the restaurant supply business across the street. “That was the first example I knew of a loft being turned back into a commercial space,” he laughs.
They moved to a loft in Chelsea that became home for the next 25 years. Sarah did photography for artists, collectors, galleries and museums. (Two examples of books illustrated by her photographs are “Against the Grain: Bentwood Furniture From the Collection of Fern & Manfred Steinfeld” and “The Newark Museum Collection of American Art Pottery”.) “People loved her,” he says. “I always considered that she was so unjudgmental. She didn’t have strong negative responses to people. So we would have community dinners – we had a tradition of having a Thanksgiving dinner in our loft where we would have 25 people. You couldn’t ask for a better life, in a way, other than that you had to always think about being evicted!”
Michael flourished as a furniture maker. In the late 1980s he was accepted to the first show he ever applied to – at no less than the Smithsonian Museum of Craft. Encouraged, he started doing more shows – the Philadelphia Furniture Show, the Philadelphia Museum Craft Show and the Ace Craft Show in Evanston, Ill. – and kept at it for about 20 years. “These were considered the top shows,” he notes. “They were run by women’s committees – well-to-do women. So the clients, the people who came, were of that class.” But despite the well-heeled visitors, he found that he and his fellow furniture makers made surprisingly few sales at the shows. “Furniture has always been a tough sell,” he reasons. “People don’t buy it just on a whim, the price point and being a large item they had to have the space and need. All my furniture-maker friends, we talked about how it was the stepchild of the craft show, while people doing ceramics, fabric and jewelry sold well. People felt free to buy [those things].” Furniture, on the other hand, required a major investment – “more than most people would do at the drop of a hat.” Over this entire period, he thinks he sold two or three pieces off the floor at shows. Instead, he says, the value of doing shows “was more about talking to people,” checking back with them later and developing a reputation based on word of mouth once people had seen his work in person. His one effort at advertising in magazines was in Metropolis early on; while that didn’t directly bring in any business, it brought him name recognition.
Meanwhile, he and Sarah shared a life rich in outdoor experiences. They took off a month every summer and went on a trip; they took a week-long back-country ski trip in the winter. “There was not a lot of money involved, but we used to be amazed how much we could do with so little money. It felt like the integrated life I wanted to live.” They backpacked in the Canadian Rockies and the deserts of the Southwest, kayaked the coast of Maine, skied New England and Canada, traveled up the Amazon while in Brazil and studied Tai Chi in China. They were paying $800 a month for their loft in Chelsea, and New York State Loft Law kept the monthly payment at that rate for 25 years.
After Sarah died of cancer in 1998, Michael stayed on in the loft. A new owner bought the building as an investment. More and more of those moving into lofts were not artists but well-paid professionals who coveted the spacious live-in studios in old industrial buildings. Michael understands. “They wanted some of that, too!” Unable to recoup his investment with rents so low, the building’s new owner asked Michael if he’d be willing to be bought out. Finally, in 2005, he was ready to move.
Making a New Life
At first he thought he’d find a place in Brooklyn, but rents were “skyrocketing,” while his income was not. His brother Martin had moved from Chicago to the Catskills; Michael was familiar with the area because he and Sarah had spent time there. He figured he could run his business there just as well as in the city. It took two years to find the right place, in part because he needed shop space, but he eventually found an 1870s farmhouse in Catskill Park. Though the property around the house had originally belonged to the farm, it had been subdivided and developed with houses.
The barn would serve fine as a shop, though it needed major renovation – insulation, electrical wiring, heating and more recently, plumbing. At 24′ x 36′ with 10′ ceilings, it’s smaller than his former shop in Brooklyn, which had about 1,000 square feet and (my heart!) a 15′ ceiling, “but it works,” he says; “I really like it.” And while Michael doesn’t have any domestic animals at present, he shares his piece of earth with bears, deer, foxes, woodchucks, rabbits and skunks, as well as lots of wild birds. “I’m pretty happy here. I have what I need. As you get older, you don’t really need a lot more.”
Michael’s work has slowed since the 2008 recession. For a few years he was part of a group called the Hudson Valley Furniture Makers, with young and older members. The group’s activities in person together “kind of fizzled,” though he says they’re all still friends.
He still gets jobs from time to time, such as a bench for Brockport College near Rochester. The college gave lumber from some trees on campus to six New York furniture makers who would design and build benches for the school. In 2015 he was a visiting artist at Australian National University in Canberra. And he would have participated in the 2020 World Wood Day event in Japan, had it not been cancelled, along with so much else, due to the pandemic.
On the other hand, as a furniture maker who lives and works alone, he says the pandemic hasn’t affected him as badly as it has many others. For fun he bikes, goes fly fishing or skis. He visits friends at a distance and thinks “there’s no point in railing against it, because you can’t do anything about it.”
He also continues to teach. His first teaching job was at Penland in 1995; he taught there again in ’96, ’97, 2002 and 2006. Since then, he has taught at Arrowmont, Anderson Ranch, Haystack, Parsons, the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship and SUNY Purchase. He’s now teaching a series of classes at the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s wooden boat school called “Foundations of Woodworking,” which covers understanding wood, the use and care of tools and joinery, and culminates in a project. “That’s a lot of fun, because it’s people who aren’t seeking a degree. They just want to learn stuff. I’ve always liked teaching, because, one, it clarifies your thinking about what you do, and the other thing is that I just like working with the people. They’re so grateful, so appreciative. And a lot of them are discovering things about themselves they didn’t know.” Classes have just started up again; he’ll start teaching in late September. On top of this, he teaches boatbuilding.
Boatbuilding? I asked. Isn’t that a specialized subject?
“There’s something about reading,” he chuckles. “I taught myself photography from reading. I taught myself woodworking from reading. It’s the curiosity that’s the important part.”
See a Smithsonian interview of Michael Puryear here.
See American Craft magazine’s article about Michael.
– Nancy Hiller, author of “Making Things Work”