Mark Whitley turns furniture art into business

April 2, 2012

Mark Whitley in his workshop near Smiths Grove. Photo by Tom Eblen

SMITHS GROVE — When Mark Whitley was growing up in rural Barren County, his father’s workshop was his playground.

“I would just come home from school and make something out of wood,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was training for anything. It’s just what I did.”

It is still what he does. But now, Whitley, 36, is one of the region’s up-and-coming furniture artists. His hand-crafted pieces are winning awards at exhibitions such as the American Craft Council’s Atlanta Show and Kentucky Crafted: The Market.

He has been able to grow as an artist and earn a comfortable living for himself; his wife, Melissa, the director of a non-profit agency in nearby Bowling Green; and their 3-year-old son, Briar.

Kentucky has always had many fine artists and craftspeople. Whitley is part of a new generation that not only is pursuing artistic passion but learning how to turn it into a viable business.

Whitley credits much of his commercial success to the Kentucky Arts Council, a state agency that sponsors the annual Kentucky Crafted: The Market and many education and grant programs. He won a $7,500 Al Smith Fellowship and was a participant in the Platinum 10 program, which gives 10 Kentuckians a year of intense training in the business side of the arts.

“A few simple things I learned in that year really guided my business,” he said. “And it gave me the confidence to make a real living at it.”

The Kentucky Crafted program was created 30 years ago to help the state’s artists and craftspeople sell pieces they produced. But Whitley is an example of a new group of artists who are developing markets for one-of-a-kind pieces.

“He really likes to connect with the people he works with,” said Lori Meadows, executive director of the arts council. “It has been great to watch him get better and better and grow his business.”

Whitley didn’t set out to be a professional artist. After graduating from high school, his main goal was to get out of Kentucky.

Raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he received a scholarship to church-affiliated Chapman University in Orange, Calif., where he earned a degree in religious and peace studies. Whitley said he was accepted into seminary at Vanderbilt University, “but it just didn’t feel right.”

He studied in New Zealand, traveled the United States and worked briefly as a prototype builder for store fixture designer Corman & Associates in Lexington. Then he returned to Barren County.

“The best thing I did was move away for a few years,” he said. “I went all over the country looking for someplace pretty to be and couldn’t find any place better” than Kentucky.

Whitley bought nine acres near where he grew up and built an A-frame house with a big workshop in the basement. He started making and selling furniture, experimenting with designs and technique. But he didn’t know much about the commercial niche of art furniture until he went to Kentucky Crafted: The Market for the first time in 2005. “I said, ‘Wow, these people are just like me,'” he said.

Whitley guesses he has made about 125 pieces, 50 or 60 of them since he began focusing on art furniture. Many have ended up in Lexington homes, thanks to several years of exhibiting at the Woodland Art Fair.

Since he has become better known regionally and nationally, Whitley has been able to nearly double his prices. “Which means I’m actually just making a small profit,” he said. “We live simply, so it’s a pretty good living.”

Whitley’s furniture starts at about $1,800. His average piece sells for $3,000 to $5,000.

More than anything, Whitley said, higher prices allow him to work the way he wants to — slowly and carefully. “That’s what it’s all about: allowing yourself to take time to do excellent work,” he said. “Now, if I create 10 pieces of furniture a year, I’ve been really busy.”

Benches, tables and cabinets comprise much of Whitley’s work. “Chairs are my arch nemesis,” he said. “They’re difficult to build, difficult to make comfortable. But I keep trying.”

Whitley now goes to major shows looking more for commissions than sales of what he takes there. “I just need a few pieces to show my craftsmanship and aesthetic,” he said.

Whitley sold a $10,000 table at Kentucky Crafted: The Market last month in Lexington and got three commissions. Despite the economy, he said, “The couples with ten grand to spend are still out there.”

He also has pieces in corporate collections in Louisville, San Francisco and London, England; the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce headquarters in Frankfort and an art museum in Bowling Green.

When I visited his workshop recently, Whitley was working on his biggest commission yet — a walnut conference table for the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville. Made to seat 20 people, the table top is being built in quarters. Whitley had to go to Michigan to find enough walnut from a single tree so the grain and color would match.

When Whitley gets a commission, he talks with the client about what kind of piece he or she wants and how it will be used. He visits the room where it will be placed and observes other objects that will surround it.

“I see a piece of furniture in my head almost immediately when I talk to a client,” he said. He makes sketches, then a formal proposal, which is almost always accepted unchanged.

Whitley doesn’t work from detailed plans. “All of the details are worked out on the workbench,” he said, which includes taking cues from the wood’s grain, texture and moisture content. “I abide by the laws of the wood; all the things wood can do to make you look like a fool.”

Whitley’s favorite wood to work with is walnut, followed by cherry, ash and several varieties of maple. Hinges are the only hardware he buys; all knobs and pulls are custom-made for each piece.

He uses no commercial stains or paints, only age-old coloring techniques such as ebonizing. That process turns wood a permanent black through the use of iron, vinegar, tannic acid and other chemicals. Most pieces have oil-based finishes.

Whitley has had trouble finding good furniture lumber in Kentucky, so he buys much of his wood from boutique dealers in Pennsylvania. Planks are stacked against the walls of his workshop. “I’ll get weird boards and hang on to them for years before I decide what to do with them,” he said.

Whitley is constantly experimenting with ways to laminate, color and bend wood to achieve his artistic vision.

“I find myself identifying far more with sculptors these days than furniture makers,” he said.

Bybee Pottery marks 200 years, one family

February 21, 2009

BYBEE — You can buy more elegant dishes, more perfectly shaped dishes and certainly more expensive dishes. But only here can you buy stoneware that has been made by the same family in the same log shed and in about the same way since 1809.

Bybee Pottery is the last of perhaps 50 small potteries that sprang up during Kentucky’s pioneer days near the rich clay deposits of southern Madison County. Yet, as the Cornelison family celebrates its business’s bicentennial, family members fight persistent rumors that it is closing — and they wonder how much longer it can survive.

“All my life, there has been the annual going-out-of-business rumor,” said Buzz Cornelison, 60, who with his brother and sister represent the sixth or seventh generation to run the business, depending on who’s counting. “All my life, we have laughed about it. But in the last few years it has become more acute.”

Bybee Pottery faced its first big threat during the Civil War, when Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s raiders burned many potteries in the area because of their owners’ Union sympathies. Cornelison family legend has it that Bybee was spared because it employed an immigrant potter known for his outspoken support of the South.

In the early 1900s, as demand for utilitarian crocks and churns diminished, most of the remaining potteries went under. But the Cornelisons adapted, shifting their production to tableware glazed with bright, custom-made colors that are now a company trademark.

Most Cornelisons over the years weren’t potters; they hired potters. That was until Buzz’s father, Walter Lee Cornelison, took over the business and spent decades at the wheel, producing hundreds of thousands of pieces now prized for their quality.

“My great-grandfather made a kick wheel for my father when he was a little boy, and he said he had his own corner … his own clay,” Buzz Cornelison said. “Every once in a while, somebody would walk by and say, ‘Try it this way’ and show him something. That’s the way he learned to throw.”

Business got a boost when Phyllis George, a sportscaster and former Miss America from Texas who married John Y. Brown Jr., became Kentucky’s first lady in 1979. She made the international promotion of Kentucky crafts her personal mission. She even persuaded Bloomingdale’s department store in New York to set up a boutique to sell them.

Bybee was a big beneficiary of her efforts. For the next two decades, people would line up outside Bybee’s rustic workshop off Ky. 52 at 8 a.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, waiting for a new batch to be pulled from the big kiln.

Business has slowed with the economy, and Kentucky crafts aren’t as popular as they once were. Perhaps Bybee Pottery’s biggest blow came in November 2007, when Walter Cornelison suffered a stroke. Although he recovered, Cornelison, who turned 80 this month, can no longer make pottery that meets his exacting standards.

Now the wheel is manned by Buzz Cornelison’s brother, Jim, who also works as Madison County’s coroner; and by Harvey Conner, who started working here 44 years ago when he graduated from high school. The Cornelisons’ sister, Paula Gabbard, and two longtime employees, Brenda Cole and Rick Hall, help with other chores.

“We have had generations of families work here, and not just ourselves,” Buzz Cornelison said. “Most of the people we have hired over the years are neighbors.”

A Cornelison cousin, Ron Stambaugh, owns Little Bit of Bybee, which sells the pottery and some of his own pieces at a shop in the Louisville suburb of Middletown.

Without Walter Cornelison’s prolific work, the shop has cut back from three kiln-loads a week to two. On a recent Wednesday, the Cornelison brothers and Conner finished the hourlong process of unloading the kiln as the sun rose and the bells of Bybee United Methodist Church chimed 8 o’clock. The shop door was unlocked, but nobody was waiting outside.

Still, business isn’t bad. A handful of customers wanders in each day from all over the country to see the pottery being made and to stock up on colorful pitchers, pie plates, mugs and bowls.

“I have a cousin who put me on to Bybee Pottery; she has a whole kitchen full of it,” said Paula Dodd of Crane Hill, Ala., who stopped by while driving through Kentucky with her husband, Ed. The Dodds bought two big boxes full of pieces for their 36-year-old twin daughters. “The whole family has a lot of this stuff,” he said.

Visitors walk through the shop, past the kiln and groaning shelves of cups and bowls waiting to be fired, until they get back to the log workshop, where Conner is at the wheel. Everything is covered with a thick layer of yellow clay dust, including the floor, which has gained a few inches over the past two centuries. Tall people must frequently duck to avoid hitting the log beams that hold up the ceiling.

Conner, a skilled potter, seems to enjoy explaining the process as much as doing it. “I’d like to have a dime for every piece I’ve made since I’ve been here,” he tells a visiting couple from Louisville. “I’d retire.”

An electric motor turns the potter’s wheel, and the kiln is fired by natural gas. Clay is dug from a nearby farm with a bulldozer and backhoe. After removal of the 100 tons of clay that the pottery will use in a year, the hole is filled in and marked for the next year’s dig.

Otherwise, Bybee Pottery’s methods have changed little.

Fresh clay is run through a pug mill, which is like a big sausage grinder, to remove any pebbles or impurities. It is then formed into “logs” and stacked in burlap in a stone cellar. The only thing ever added to the clay is a little water.

After each piece is formed on the potter’s wheel, it is dried, painted with colorful glaze and fired for 16 hours in the kiln, which reaches 2,200 degrees. After cooling for 24 hours, pieces are unloaded from the kiln onto the shop’s shelves. Prices here are lower than at other Kentucky shops that sell Bybee Pottery.

Buzz Cornelison doesn’t know what the future holds for his family’s business. “There is no next generation for us to take over, unless things change,” he said.

But then, Cornelison wouldn’t necessarily have seen himself here a few years ago. An accomplished musician, he was a keyboard player with the local rock band Exile, which scored a No. 1 hit in 1978 with Kiss You All Over.

After 18 years on the road with Exile, he returned to the pottery shop where he had worked as a boy, and in his spare time, he earned a master’s degree in English literature from nearby Eastern Kentucky University. He remains active in local theater.

“There is a next gener ation,” Cornelison said. “One’s a lawyer in Chicago, and she’s not about to come back. And the other two are girls who are in high school now. They haven’t focused on what they’re going to do, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of interest from them (in running the pottery). And I don’t blame them.”

But don’t say bye-bye to Bybee Pottery just yet. The Cornelisons beat the normal odds of family business survival several generations ago. Their little shop seems to have luck — or at least inertia — on its side.

“As it stands right now, at this point in time, we have no plans to close,” Buzz Cornelison said. “I hope that doesn’t change.”