The fascinating story of Henry Clay’s ‘mad artist’ younger brother

December 27, 2014

Gigi LacerPorter Clay is thought to have made this games table in his Lexington shop in the early 1800s.  Henry Clay’s younger brother made excellent furniture, and charged high prices for it. Photo by Bill Roughen from the book, Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860.

 

Henry Clay has been famous for two centuries, but almost nobody remembers his younger brother, Porter, whom the statesman once described as “the greatest man I ever knew.”

Porter Clay, born two years after Henry in 1779, was a Baptist preacher and lawyer who served as Kentucky’s state auditor and Woodford County attorney. He also was a mercurial man who lacked the people skills that made his brother the “great compromiser” — and he paid dearly for it.

But his greatest achievement came in his first career, as one of early Kentucky’s best cabinetmakers. Several pieces of furniture he is thought to have made still survive, and they are attracting new attention from scholars and collectors.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., has just published a biographical essay about Porter Clay in its online journal (Mesdajournal.org). It includes new research by the author, James Birchfield of Lexington, retired curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky Library’s Special Collections.

Birchfield will give a free lecture about him at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual Antiques & Garden Show March 6-8 at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena.

And in 2016, the MESDA Journal will publish a companion article about his furniture by Mack Cox, a Madison County geologist who has become a leading scholar and collector of early Kentucky decorative arts.

PorterClay“I think he was very bright, a mad-artist kind of a guy,” Birchfield said of Porter Clay. “He was a superior craftsman, but he was always breaking up with everybody.”

Like his older brothers Henry and John, Porter was born in Hanover County, Va., to the Rev. John Clay, a Baptist minister jailed for preaching contrary to the colonial Church of England, and his wife, Elizabeth. He died in 1781, and Elizabeth remarried Henry Watkins. They moved to Kentucky in 1791 and ran a tavern in Versailles.

Henry stayed in Virginia to study law before moving to Kentucky in 1797. By that time, Porter was apprenticed to Lexington cabinetmaker Thomas Whitley. But a year before his seven-year indenture was finished, he ran away to New York, where he worked as a journeyman amid America’s best furniture craftsmen, who included Duncan Phyfe.

Porter Clay returned to Lexington a year later — his brother having negotiated a financial settlement with Whitley — and set up shop making furniture. Henry was one of his brother’s clients, and records show that not only was he charging prices higher than Phyfe was in New York, but he apparently didn’t give a family discount.

Porter Clay, like most Kentucky cabinetmakers then, did not sign his work, so identification of pieces has been based on style, provenance and available records. Henry loved to drink and gamble, and the furniture he ordered from his brother in 1803 included a pair of games tables, now thought to be in a private collection.

Porter’s first shop was in a house that still stands at the corner of Mill and Church streets. Three years later, in 1806, he built a new house and shop behind a bank on Main Street, beside what will soon become the 21C Museum Hotel.

In 1804, Porter married Sophia Grosh, a ward of the Hart family, Henry’s in-laws. Her sister married John Wesley Hunt, Kentucky’s first millionaire who built what we now know as the Hunt-Morgan House museum.

With his craftsmanship and social connections, Porter should have been a successful businessman. He took on a partner, Robert Wilson, in 1807. But a year later, they split and Porter left cabinetmaking to become an entrepreneur.

He partnered with William Smith in 1808 in an ironworks and boat-building business. But they split up within three years, and Porter moved to Richmond, Va., to follow his brother’s path and study law. He returned two years later and practiced law in Nicholasville, Versailles and Lexington and served as Woodford County Attorney. Then Porter Clay got religion.

At the time of his conversion, he later wrote, “I determined to throw myself under the protection of my Heavenly Father and wait His good providence rather than make my thousands in an unholy calling.”

Porter Clay apparently reconciled the conflict, because in 1820 the governor (perhaps through his brother’s influence) appointed him state auditor at the then-handsome salary of $3,000.

But being both a state official and preacher brought him nothing but grief. When he audited a legislator who belonged to his church, they became embroiled in a bitter dispute. Porter Clay was excommunicated from his church in 1827. His people skills, Birchfield writes, were apparently “less polished than his sideboards and tea tables.”

In 1829, tragedy struck: death claimed Porter Clay’s wife, daughter, mother, step-father and eldest brother, John. He remarried six months after his wife’s death, but his new wife came with debts and a son who didn’t like him. Porter resigned as state auditor in 1834, and the family moved to Illinois.

Within five years, Birchfield writes, Porter Clay had become an outcast in his own home and he left for Missouri to stay with a relative. His brother then got him a job with the American Colonization Society, which urged masters to free their slaves and send them back to Africa, to a colony in Liberia.

By the 1840s, Porter was an itinerate Baptist preacher in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. He refused further help from his brother. Stricken by fever in Camden, Ark., he died Feb. 16, 1850 at age 71. He was buried in a grave unmarked for 60 years.

Porter “has gone, poor fellow,” Henry wrote his wife, Lucretia, when he heard the news. “He had but little to attach him to this life.”


Alt32 architects find niche making furniture for their buildings

December 8, 2014

141120alt32-TE0023Alt32’s architects designed and used their computer-controlled router to manufacture office furniture and wall panels for the Plantory, a shared workspace facility in the Bread Box building at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson streets. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

There is a celebrated tradition of architects designing furniture. Think Frank Lloyd Wright’s steel office desks, or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s chrome-and-leather Barcelona chair.

So when a client told Matthew Brooks and Mike Sparkman, principals of the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, it was planning to order a lot of Ikea desks and file units for office space they were designing, “a light bulb went off,” Brooks said.

“Mike and I both have a passion for making things,” he said, noting that they had rented a woodworking shop downtown a year earlier. “It started out as a place for us to work on our own stuff, for our houses and whatever.”

But the more they worked, the more they thought of ways they could create and fabricate fixtures and furniture for buildings they designed. That experimentation also became a passion for Michael Mead, a colleague who died in September.

141120alt32-TE0011It was all part of a creative evolution that Brooks and Sparkman, both 46, had been going through since they bought Lucas/Schwering Architects, a 25-year-old firm where they had worked for more than a decade. In 2012, they rebranded the firm Alt32, after a computer programming code for creating space.

Last year, the firm was hired to re-imagine a former two-car garage off South Ashland Avenue as a Greek restaurant, Athenian Grill. They used their workshop to recycle wood salvaged from the building for trim and fixtures. That led to other ideas, such as how to design and make furniture from birch plywood.

The big opportunity came as part of their work to design space for the Plantory, a shared office facility that was moving to larger quarters in the Bread Box building at the corner of Jefferson and West Sixth streets.

The Plantory serves mostly small, non-profit organizations, so its renovation was a low-budget project. Still, it was big enough to justify Alt32 buying an expensive CNC (computer numeric control) router.

With a CNC, designers use computer software to create intricate designs that can be cut from a variety of materials.

“It can do forms and shapes and geometries that traditional equipment can’t,” Sparkman said.

Alt32 made 64 desks and other furniture for the Plantory using birch plywood. Each desk was cut from a single sheet. Because the pieces were artfully arranged on the plywood before cutting, they left attractive “waste” sheets that could be used as decorative wall panels and stairway enclosures.

“In this case, the only waste is the sawdust,” Sparkman said.

Future products could include light fixtures, signage and even three-dimensional exterior wall panels made out of metal or plastic, which also can be cut on a CNC.

141112alt32-TE0065A“We’re just dipping our toe into the potential,” Brooks said. “But it’s a different kind of business from what our professional services are.”

The primary business they bought with Lucas/Schwering was designing Kentucky schools. That is still the firm’s bread and butter, and they want it to continue to be.

But they see fabrication, which now produces about 10 percent of their revenue and employs three full-time people in the shop, as a growth area that offers interesting ways to add value to their building designs.

For example, they have already made furniture for one school design. The firm designed interior space for Providence Montessori Middle School, which renovated the circa 1840s Florence Crittenton Home, and designed and built all of the school’s furniture.

Brooks and Sparkman said they have several upcoming projects, including new spaces for Crank & Boom ice cream and Lexington Pasta. They’re working on furniture prototypes that might fit the needs of those clients.

They also have thought of developing a line of ready-to-assemble furniture that could be sold online and flat-packed for shipping, as Ikea does.

Brooks and Sparkman said they want to keep their firm focused on Kentucky, and especially Lexington. Most of their non-school work is local, and they and all of the designers and interns in their firm are graduates of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. They also want to keep Alt32 small enough to be flexible and creative.

“This has opened our eyes to different opportunities for how to manipulate materials,” Brooks said. “If you look at architecture now, it’s all about how do we manipulate all the materials we now have available.”

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Fourth-generation McMahan Furniture rises from the ashes

March 31, 2014

140319McMahan0023Eugene McMahan, the third generation to operate his family’s business, does most of the wood-turning. Here he makes a finial for a four-poster bed. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

CAMPBELLSVILLE — It was a Friday afternoon and Patrick McMahan had just sprayed lacquer on a few pieces of furniture before heading out for a weekend camping trip. He switched on a fan to clear the fumes, “and the whole room blew up around me.”

“When I ran out, the guys in the back could see fire shooting over my head,” he said. “I could feel it on the back of my neck.”

The fan sucked flames into the attic, where they ignited years of accumulated sawdust. Before the burning ceiling collapsed, McMahan, his father, Eugene, and their employees waded through knee-deep water from firefighters’ hoses to rescue as much as they could of the top-quality furniture their family has been making for four generations.

Eugene McMahan & Son Furniture Co. burned to the ground within 45 minutes on Oct. 15, 2010. But a week and a half later, reconstruction began. Within four months, the largest of Campbellsville’s cherry furniture-makers was back in business.

140319McMahan0001Recovery has been tough because of the sluggish economy and furniture-buying trends. But the McMahans are exploring new products and sales venues, determined to continue the business Eugene’s grandfather and his eight sons started in the early 1940s.

Prized Kentucky antiques were becoming scarce in the 1930s, creating a market for reproduction furniture made of native cherry and walnut. Campbellsville became the center of that industry. At one point, McMahan Furniture had 38 workers. There were six other furniture-makers in town, too, a couple of them from branches of the McMahan family.

“Campbellsville cherry” became popular throughout the region. As textile factories came to small Kentucky towns in the 1960s, many women worked outside the home for the first time.

“They would save up enough money to buy a piece,” said Eugene’s wife, Linda McMahan. “And then they would come back and keep coming back until they got their whole home furnished. That’s mostly how it sold.”

But styles and circumstances change, and the number of Campbellsville cherry furniture shops has dwindled since the 1990s. McMahan Furniture is down to four full-time workers, including Patrick, who does the finishing, and Eugene, who selects the wood and does all of the turning. In addition, Linda keeps the books and Patrick’s wife, Leah, manages the website (Cvillecherry.com) and social media.

“Some people think we closed,” Eugene said. “They say, ‘I heard you all burned down.'”

One effort to rebuild the business is a new line of Shaker reproduction furniture and wooden gift items for Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. The company also is making furniture to refurbish rooms in some of the village’s early 1800s buildings.

140319McMahan0097The McMahans also hope to cash in on the popularity of mid-century modern furniture from the 1940s-60s. Patrick, 34, understands the trend. His house in Louisville is furnished with mid-century modern, and he and his wife have a business, The Retro Metro, that deals in the originals (Retrometro502.com).

Patrick recently designed several mid-century modern pieces for McMahan Furniture to produce. They look like originals, but the quality is better: solid walnut rather than veneer.

But he knows styles inevitably go in and out of fashion.

“When every TV commercial has mid-century furniture in it, you kind of know it’s on its way out,” he said. “It’s going to reach its peak and something else will turn around. But there’s always going to be a need for traditional.”

The McMahans make a lot of traditional cannonball and four-poster beds, chests of drawers, bookcase desks, drop-leaf tables, corner cupboards, sideboards and sugar chests. Their most popular pieces range in price from $1,100 to $3,500.

But about half their work is custom. People bring in pictures of something they have seen, or they want to copy a family piece they remember from childhood.

“We don’t charge any extra just to make it different,” Patrick said. “We charge you based on what it costs us to make it. If you’re a good furniture-maker, you should be able to sit down in a few minutes and figure out measurements.”

McMahan Furniture’s selling point has always been quality. Every piece is hand-crafted from solid Kentucky cherry and walnut using traditional joinery — mortise and tenon and dovetail joints. Modern lacquers make the wood virtually waterproof.

Linda said a New Orleans customer sent in a picture of her house after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

“It destroyed the house,” she said. “But there was our cannonball bed sitting in the middle of everything. It made it through.”

McMahan Furniture doesn’t take credit cards and doesn’t require deposits for custom work.

“We want to know they’re satisfied before they pay us,” Linda said. “We have never had a cold check in all those years. That says something for the type of people we deal with.”

Eugene just turned 73, but isn’t putting down his wood-turning chisels anytime soon. Patrick wants a career in the company, and for it to be around in case his 5-year-old son, Walt, wants to take over someday. “I’m not going to push him,” he said.

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New book showcases Kentucky’s antebellum decorative arts

September 15, 2013

Gigi Lacer

SIMPSONVILLE — When journalists Genevieve Lacer and Libby Howard began collecting Kentucky antiques more than a decade ago, they were surprised by how little information was readily available.

A few monographs had been written and some museum catalogs published. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., had collected some scholarship. The Magazine Antiques had featured Kentucky pieces in special issues in 1947 and 1974.

But there were no comprehensive books about Kentucky-made furniture, silver and textiles, even though they were some of the finest produced anywhere in antebellum America.

130806CollectingKy-TE0001

Libby Turner Howard, left, and Genevieve Baird Lacer. Photo by Tom Eblen. Photos from their book by Bill Roughen.

What the friends soon discovered was that considerable scholarship had been done on early Kentucky decorative arts, but most of that knowledge resided in the heads and notebooks of a few dozen passionate collectors.

That prompted Lacer and Howard to write and publish Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860. The 360-page book is detailed and exacting, yet readable and beautifully designed, with 600 illustrations by Lexington photographer Bill Roughen. State historian James Klotter wrote the forward.

“The book gives you a visual entryway into things you’ll never see, because they’re in private homes,” Lacer said, and only a few pieces from historic house museums are included “because we literally ran out of room.”

The book’s 270 “subscribers,” who paid $275 early in the process to get leather-bound special editions, receive their books Sunday at a private reception. A $75 “collector’s” edition goes on sale Monday at bookstores and antique shops around the state (for more information, go to Collectingkentucky.com).

Lacer, who lives in Shelby County, wrote an award-winning 2006 biography of Swiss artist Edward Troye, who painted America’s greatest racehorses in the mid-1800s. Howard, who lives in Henry County, is a former editor of Kentucky Homes and Gardens magazine.

In approaching their book project, Lacer and Howard wanted to document Kentucky antiques and explore their histories, relationships and craftsmen. They also wanted to explain the goals and objectives of serious collectors they knew about, all of whom live in Kentucky.

“These are people who have spent 30, 40, 50 years refining a viewpoint about their collections,” Howard said. “They all have a focus. We became fascinated with how, visually, they are telling the story of antebellum Kentucky as they understand it.”

Book Jacket w-flaps_cmyk.inddTen major collections are profiled in separate chapters. Objects from 40 more private collections are gathered by object type in an 83-page “archive” at the back. Between each chapter is a small essay that tells an interesting story about an object, its maker or the time and place in which this work was created.

Only one collection is identified with its owners’ names, because it is the only major collection now in the public domain. Over three decades, Garrard County natives Bob and Norma Noe assembled one of the most impressive collections of early Kentucky antiques. They recently donated it to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.

The Speed is now closed for a major renovation and expansion. But when it reopens in 2016, the Noe Collection will be the foundation of a new Center for Kentucky Art, the first permanent museum space devoted to Kentucky works.

Bob Noe encouraged Lacer and Howard to write Collecting Kentucky as both a primer and a reference book, and he said in an interview that he is pleased with the result.

“I think the book will do wonders to add context in an area too often neglected,” Noe said. “Kentuckians need to know more about our early culture.”

The six decades covered in this book were exciting times in Kentucky. After statehood in 1792, Kentucky transitioned from America’s frontier to being a prosperous and influential region of agriculture and trade.

Prosperity created demand for decorative art and utilitarian items that were both beautiful and functional. Because Kentucky had little colonial tradition, early decorative arts often featured motifs of patriotism, and native flora and fauna.

Craftsmen in all parts of Kentucky produced remarkable work. Some, such as silversmith Asa Blanchard and cabinetmaker Porter Clay (brother of Henry), created pieces as fine as anything then being made on the East Coast.

The book features many outstanding examples of chests, cupboards, desks, case clocks, tables and chairs made of native cherry and walnut with poplar inlay, as well as imported mahogany. The authors tried to pull together available research on the craftsmen who made these items, linking pieces to regional styles.

Early Kentucky silver, often made from melted coins, has long been prized. Lacer said one of the most fun experiences in compiling the book was when several collectors brought more than $1 million worth of silver to her home to be photographed. Roughen was able to create images comparing large groups of work that had never been brought together before.

The book includes a section about one of Kentucky’s most famous products of the era: the long rifle. Kentucky rifles were not only accurate and dependable weapons; they often were highly decorated works of art.

Lacer and Howard said they hope their book will spark more public interest and scholarship in early Kentucky decorative arts.

“We just scratched the surface,” Lacer said. “We left out big collections we know about, and I can only imagine the ones we don’t know about. This is a lot bigger idea in our state than I ever dreamt.”

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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.