Eastern Kentucky Floods & Chester Cornett’s ‘Appalshop Chair’

 The Whitesburg, Ky., Appalshop building (center) following the late July 2022 floods.
Credit: Appalshop staff via Smithsonian Magazine

The early title leader for my upcoming book about Appalachian chairmakers was “Backwoods Chairs,” but I’m now leaning toward “Upwards into the Mountains.” The decision needs to happen soon because my book is nearing the final stages. The search is complete (thank you to those who sent me names and leads after my previous blog posts about the project [post 1, post 2]), the interviews and visits have all happened and the narrative is written. I’m currently editing, adding the photography and working through the chair builds.

As a first-time author I’ve come to recognize two things: 1) I enjoy the process of writing a book and 2) I’m slow at it. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel at this point.

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I’m working toward having the manuscript to Lost Art Press this fall.

Late last week I reached out to Eastern Kentucky chairmaker Terry Ratliff (he’s among those featured in the upcoming book) about a teaching opportunity. That was before I was aware of the severe flooding to hit communities in eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. I followed up with a text to Ratliff to wish him well. He was at a local lutherie shop on the main street in Hindman, Ky., at the time, scraping the thick mud off anything salvageable in the bench room. He relayed the overwhelming mess he saw all around him.

The School of Luthiery in downtown Hindman after the floodwaters receded.
Credit: Zoe Oldham

Once the waters receded the full impact and devastation became apparent. The floodwater climbed higher than any time on record in some places. In the charming mountain town of Whitesburg, Ky., near the Virginia border, the North Fork Kentucky River rose more than 20′.

For those unfamiliar with the terrain of eastern Kentucky, there are lower lying, narrow bands of land between the rocky, rugged knobs and mountains. The lower land frequently has a creek or river running through it. Heavy rains funnel into these waterways – this time more than ever before. This was deemed a “once in a millenia” storm: water over rooftops, refrigerators caught up in treetops, homes carried downriver and significant loss of life.

An environmental tragedy immediately became a human tragedy. Entire communities were slammed in the storm. The tight-knit Kentucky towns of Jackson, Neon, Hindman, Whitesburg and Hazard, among more rural other places, were hit hard.

There’s also an impact on the cultural centers within the mountains. The Hindman Settlement School and the Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Company are digging out, working to salvage as much as possible. At Appalshop, an Appalachian cultural archive and media center in downtown Whitesburg, a crew works to recover soiled materials before they deteriorate. Those in the community collect what’s floated away.

Clean-up efforts at Appalshop.
Credit: Justin Skeens

From an article in Smithsonian Magazine: “‘Some of the film from Appalshop was all through the streets and everything,’ Austin Caudill, a Whitesburg resident, tells the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Billl Estep and Austin Horn. ‘We could lose not just businesses but history.’”

Why mention this here?

Because below I share my travels to Whitesburg in April, 2021, to photograph and study Chester Cornett’s “Appalshop chair.” And because the affected communities are home to a group of eastern Kentucky chairmakers, both past and present. The floods impact Terry Ratliff’s community (while also hitting those of the late Sherman Wooton (Hyden) and Chester Cornett (Perry County). And because within Appalachia, more than any other place I’ve lived or visited, the strands of craft, community, people and place are all tightly woven together.

But most importantly, these communities need immediate resources to aid in stabilization, recovery and rebuilding. There are opportunities to help.

Red Cross
Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund
Hindman Settlement School

Now to the unicorn that is the “Appalshop Chair,” created by the visionary chairmaker Chester Cornett (visionary: as in some of his chairs came to him in visions and dreams), crafted during the recording of the 1981 Appalshop film “Hand Carved.”
Appalshop then purchased the chair. It resides in their archives. I do not know its condition after the flood.

Cornett working on a low bench, in a photo from the Appalshop archives.

It was unusually cold for April, with flurries in the afternoon. No leaves on the trees just yet. The North Fork Kentucky River ran low and quiet beside Appalshop’s building.

I traveled to Whitesburg to visit Cornett’s chair. I’d wanted to see it in person since reading Michael Owen Jones’s book “Craftsman of the Cumberlands.” In it, Jones shares a photograph of the 13-slat double-rocker, making mention that this was the last chair Cornett built, meaning this was the culmination of Cornett’s fabled and prolific chairmaking career, the pinnacle of his skills and final iteration of his making choices. I hoped to study it myself and photograph it for my book.

The Appalshop chair from the back.

The archivist met me at our arranged time. Wearing white gloves, she brought the rocker out of storage. My first impression was how solid and substantial the piece looks in person. Each chair part was shaped with the drawknife before being scraped smooth. Cornett added an extra-special touch to this piece before applying his mystery concoction of finishing oils. He stayed up all night before final filming to add a little “old-timeyness” to the chair by scorching it with a Coleman campfire burner to create a mottled effect. The initial impression by those who witnessed the chair the following day was best described as “aghast.” The scorching has mellowed over time. It’s most noticeable on the back slats.

Filmmakers Herb Smith and Elizabeth Barrett with Cornett’s Appalshop Chair.

I was delighted when Elizabeth Barrett and Herb Smith joined us to talk about their time working with Cornett. They are the filmmakers behind “Hand Carved,” and continue to work with Appalshop 30+ years later. It was their skill and insight that brought about the film. Near the end of the recording process, they realized the chair was something special – something Appalshop should own and preserve. They found the money to make it happen (not the easiest thing to do; creative rural organizations are not known for deep pockets) and it’s lived within Appalshop ever since.

While the chair has always resided with Appalshop, it has not lived a life of ease. Terry Ratliff shared that, years back, he was asked to repair the piece. A summer intern’s dog gnawed on one of the rockers. A rung had worked loose. The chair was a fixture in the staff meetings and was available for everyday rocking. Ratliff, who holds Cornett in high esteem and knows the specialness of the piece, suggested the chair receive a more protected status.

Functionally, the double rocker is not a comfortable chair. The sitter must spread their legs or sit cross-legged to avoid the middle posts. The front rungs rake against the sitter’s calves if they’re not careful.

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The underside of the Appalshop Chair.

It was not made for comfort; it was made for attention and to earn a decent price for the labor needed to make it. During my visit, someone at Appalshop shared a memory of Cornett carrying his chairs to Hazard on a Friday, setting up beside a busy road to sell them, and him still being there – with his chairs – into Sunday afternoon. He made beautiful, traditional chairs but there was little local market for them. This pressure pushed him toward new ideas, in hopes of recognition and higher income. If people didn’t want his gorgeous traditional rockers, maybe a double rocker would catch their attention. Though it didn’t work exactly as Cornett intended, he began making more fantastical chairs which garnered him increased recognition (including in Jones’ book), though it did not fully alleviate his financial situation.

Photos from the Appalshop archives of Cornett’s chairs. At center is Cornett working on a double rocker.

A few details: The Appalshop double-rocker is 47″ tall overall, with the seat at 17″ from the floor; it’s 18″ deep overall at the seat (not including the rockers). It’s made of sweet gum, with (likely) hickory rungs and a hickory bark seat. The writing on the slats:

  1. Chester
  2. Hand Carved
  3. For the fiming
  4. The Appleshop
  5. Moviey Caled
  6. Check the Chiremaker
  7. Direxed buy
  8. Heirb Smith
  9. Elizabeth Barret
  10. President Applshop
  11. Pine Mountin Wood
  12. Mad I.N. N. OV. A, DEC 1977
  13. With Our Lords Help

Scholars debate whether Cornett was an artist or a traditional craftsperson. Being the last of his illustrious career, this chair would fall on the “art” side of Cornett’s creative timeline. But that debate doesn’t interest me all that much.

The left arm.

I’m drawn in by the form, the silhouette that appears compact, well-proportioned and balanced when glancing at the rocker from across the room. It’s hefty but not grotesque. Confusing maybe, but I’ve visited the form enough times to enjoy its uniqueness. Move closer to it and the intricate, tightly woven seat becomes apparent, along with scraped surfaces and the octagonal posts and rungs that became a defining characteristic of Cornett’s work. But I’m most drawn to the carved pegs and the drawknife work – details that are only noticeable on close examination, and that elevate the rocker because of the skill and the time involved and the commitment of the maker. These details are noticeably irregular, because Cornett was human and handwork is not perfect.

With Chester’s chairs, there is incredible beauty found in the imperfections.

The left rocker.

— Andrew Glenn

Source: lostartpress.com

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