Dextrous, Stable Hands

Photo by Gordon Baer. Courtesy of Kentucky Folk Art Center Archives.

Chester Cornett was an anachronism in post-World War II Appalachia. While so much of the region had begun its slow introduction to the trends of modern American culture, Cornett lived a close-to-the-ground lifestyle, complete with bare feet, overalls, and a wild mane of hair. When Gurney Norman wrote a lengthy piece in the Hazard Herald in 1965 about this largely unknown Appalachian chairmaker titled “Rare Hand-Made Furniture Produced by Bearded Chairmaker,” he set off a chain of events that would shape the next two decades of that chairmaker’s life.

Cornett (1913-1981), was a native of the remote Appalachian hollows and hills who spent the better part of his life making all manner of greenwood chairs. In time, Cornett’s chairs would become firmly established as remarkable and prized works of art, but what caught the attention of many of those who came to study, photograph, and do business with the rural craftsman were the extremes of both his lifestyle and aesthetic sense.

... Cornett, while certainly egged on by wildly creative compulsions, was no less a technician and master of his tools than those furniture makers who find their work exhibited as fine art, not “outsider art.” While the aesthetic and novelty of his work voice troubled thoughts and a desire for rosier times, Cornett’s work speaks to dextrous, stable hands and a mind untroubled by its ignorance of writing, instead satisfied by a mastery of rendering its imaginative ideas in solid wood.

– Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney, excerpt from “An Unlikely Masterpiece: Examining Chester Cornett’s Bookcase Rocking ‘Chire’” in Issue Five, available here.


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