1. Where did you draw inspiration start your career in making chancel furniture?
The inspiration for my work comes from several sources, and much depends upon the situation as to how things unfold. Frank Lloyd Wright brought the phrase “form follows function” into the American vernacular. This to say that furniture design starts with a practical objective. We need a chair, so someone can sit comfortably. We need a table that will hold these objects for someone who is standing. Utilitarian design often stops there.
One of the unwritten objectives for which congregations hope is that the furnishings that adorn their worship spaces, working spaces or living spaces will aesthetically inspire, please, comfort or delight. I take my cues from the congregations as to what such forms might be. Sometimes they are classical, but with a flair – such as carvings that bear witness to the faith. At other times I’m told “We like the curves, the organic feel of your work.” In either case the next step is a dialogue that takes place like Pictionary.
When I was a student, Austin College was laser focused on students being able write effectively. “No matter how wonderful your ideas might be, they will never be manifest until you can inspire others to help implement them.” I remembered that often as a pastor, constantly writing for one reason or another. Using that same concept for visual ideas involves the same pencil and paper, but exchanging letters for lines. A picture drawn with line communicates more effectively than one drawn with words, and allows us to point directly at what delights or concerns us.
As for the design ideas themselves, they come from a variety of sources. Biblical stories or images, theological concepts, congregational hopes or aspirations, forms in nature, classical forms… can all provide images that fire the imagination and stir the soul. Parables, the great rabbinic teaching form, draws its power from taking a complex idea and “throwing alongside” (paraboleuo) a more familiar idea to explain it. Recently I worked with a congregation that wanted to tie their furnishings to the arches the sail over the sanctuary. After a host of failed attempts, I tried inverted the sanctuary nave (Latin for boat) and turned it back upright. I pointed out that while the faith provides us a sanctuary, a safe place, it calls us to press forward, to venture out, to take the risk of living in a new and vulnerable way. Those arches, that boat is incorporated in the sacramental pieces – table, font and pulpit.
Those arches played to my strength. My favorite designs a based on curves. Unlike straight lines, curves combine softness with strength. They draw our eyes down their length and direct us with convergences. A good design will lead our eyes around until we are back to the starting place, and off we go again. At its best, our faith does the same thing. Like The Gospel of John, while there can be great depth and detail, the language is simple and the metaphors great. Using the metaphors of numbers and lines, a great hope can be shared simply, beautifully and powerfully.
2. Where has your passion led you to showcase your works of art?
I’m not sure that showcasing my work is exactly what I do. In so many ways this is the latest iteration of my ministry. As a Presbyterian minister, the notion of call applies. A minister might want to be pastor in a particular congregation, but until that congregation feels the same thing and extends the invitation no moving trucks will be scheduled.
As to passion, my call now is to design, to give expression to the faith, hope and aspirations of congregations. I was formally trained to do it with word and sacrament, with liturgy and pageant. But like others before me, I found that I had the ability to do it with light and line, with color and shadow. I know that I’m on track when I am able to translate the theological and practical ideas of others into objects of beauty. My energy and excitement levels go up and there is an intensity of purpose in work. So, yes, passion is an important element.
Getting back to call, I have been called, invited, to design and build by Christian and Jewish congregations, conference centers and recently a seminary. Most of my works are along the Eastern Seaboard. It includes Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in New York, Myers Park and Convent Presbyterian Churches in Charlotte; Oakland Baptist in Rock Hill, South Carolina; Montreat Conference Center; Pittsburgh Seminary; Spanish Fort, Alabama; and Tampa, Florida. But I have pieces as far west as Indianapolis, and as far south as Brownsville, Texas.
3. Did you ever doubt that you would be able to achieve success with this? If so, how did you cure your doubts?
I’ve had doubts about just about everything. But I didn’t get started with woodworking in order to succeed at anything more than making what I didn’t want to buy. I never considered woodwork as anything more than a hobby until a few years ago. I wanted to make ornamental boxes for friends and family. With each one I learned something. After several years of growth I was challenged with some interesting requests.
After I reached a certain level of accomplishment and saw how people reacted to my work, I didn’t doubt that I could be a success as a woodworker. But actually becoming one was another issue. The business portion, the marketing, management, networking – all of these were new challenges.
The point of transition was when I was tired of looking at the chancel furniture in the auditorium at Montreat and decided to design an alternative. Montreat and Mo-Ranch host a conference each summer for Worship and Music. Congregations for whom creativity, arts and beauty are a high priority attend. In 2004 I requested permission to provide the furniture for the conference. It was granted and I made the suite I had been designing. As it neared completion and the conference was upon me it dawned on me that I might have a distorted view of my work. I might be too close to it to see it for the simplistic work that it is. But it was too late, I had to load it and take it as it was. On the opening night, the suite was greeted with spontaneous applause. Six weeks later I was approached out of the blue by a congregation wanting me to make scaled down suite just like it. Wherever the work is seen, I get new inquiries. This to say that I didn’t just decide one day that I would go into business. I tested the water. I showed my work and a market found me.
I thought long and hard about it before hitching my wagon to this star. I kept remembering a line from the movie Hope Floats. A small town craftsman, a man of many talents, shows his newfound lady the house he has been building. It’s full of wonderful lines and details. She asks why he paints houses if he can do this? He says, “Too many people try to make a living doing something they love. After they’ve twisted it, changed it, and compromised it to fit the likes of others, you can’t see anything in it that you loved in the first place.” I was afraid that fate would befall my work as well.
4. Do you have any advice for students who want to lead independent careers such as yours, and are questioning whether to or not for fear of not achieving happiness and success?
In the movie Being There, Chauncey Gardener is a man of limited intellect who has grown up as the gardener in the cloistered estate of an elderly aristocrat. When the old man dies, he is turned out in formal coat and tie to fend for himself. His only wisdom is what works in the garden, but because he is well dressed, he is taken by aristocrats to be worldly wise. He is asked what he thinks of the probably for growth in the stock market and after some thought replies, “In the garden… growth has its season.” From that they infer all manner of sage advice and credit it to him. This to say that various changes, various new directions in life, have their season.
While my studies at Austin College were an important part of what I’m now doing, they were not enough. My graduation did not constitute my season for this venture. Nor did seminary, or parish ministry, or an insatiable interest in history, art, and craft. It took years to accrue the skill set to arrive at this season. This kind of work was nowhere on my radar until I was in my 40s, and I was not until I was in my 50s that I discovered that my experiences to that point had equipped me for this.
While I was quite excited about this new, mid-career change, the same cannot be said for everyone. My father, and academic and former professor at Austin College, said, “What about all your education? You have your doctorate. You have years invested. How can you leave that behind?” So I asked, “How many people do you know who are classically trained in philosophy and theology, with a love of history, skills in art, design and worship leadership, who can design and build furnishings for a worship space?” After some thought he said, “Well I know one.”
What I would say to current students is that when they leave Austin College they will have a wonderful set of skills and experiences. But the graduates who have gone before them have learned in this culture that there are no more lifetime jobs. The rigor of learning should not be left on the campus. We need to be able to reinvent ourselves for each new season and to figure out how the unique combination of skills and experiences we have accrued over time can serve the world around us. In so doing we remain a valuable and marketable asset for everyone’s sake.