Earlier this summer before going to bed, I decided to turn on the TV and see what still comes over the airwaves. Well Public Broadcasting does! To my delight, it was a show from West Virginia PBS on woodworking. The theme of the show was to embrace Appalachian heritage by examining a regional piece of furniture and hear a bit about it’s story. The host then headed to his workshop to replicate the piece. Instead of relaxing, I felt that this show missed the mark from so many levels. While I’m not a native of Appalachia, I’ve learned a few things living here for the past 17 years.
Veins of independence run deep.
The state of West Virginia was formed in 1863 following disagreements with slaveholding landowners in the eastern part of Virginia after seceding from the Union. Initially it was a frontier state with the terrain inhibiting easy movement across the state. But with a need for resources to support the growing nation, West Virginia soon began a long history with extraction industries. First it was salt. Then it was timber. Followed by coal. Now it is natural gas. All these industries share aspects in that they require manual labor to extract the raw material from the land and capital to transport the raw materials to the market. As a result, a select few make a lot of money while they hire a lot of people to do manual labor for low wages to extract resources from the state.
This unequal split of the spoils of the land seeds a history of conflict between those that have and those that don’t. This led to outright conflict in coal mining towns, such as the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921. This was the largest army conflict on American soil since the Civil War. At a time when labor struggles in certain parts of the country were driven by skin color, these labor struggles were grounded in financial privilege. The conflict pitted mine owners against an integrated workforce of mine workers that fought for better working conditions. In short, recent immigrant, black, and poor local white mine workers were trying to gain individual liberties denied by mine owners and their guards. While this conflict led to Federal support of labor rights, it also helped seed the power structures seen even today between mine owners and political power in the state. Yet despite the historical abundance of natural resources in the state, West Virginia is consistently ranked near the bottom in per-capita income among US States.
How does this relate to furniture?
The show focuses on furniture from Appalachia. In the days before mass-produced furniture was shipped across the globe for you to purchase from a big-box store, furniture would be made by hand. These handmade items could be roughly classified into two groups. Furniture made for people with means and made by highly skilled crafts people out of imported woods, like mahogany, and designed by names like Chippendale, Sheridan, or Hepplewhite. Because these items were owned by people with financial means, they are preserved in museums and prized by collectors. In contrast, people with little means also needed a place to sit and a table to eat on. This furniture has a fit-for-purpose style that remains similar for 100’s of years, given that human form is a constant. These were assembled out of local woods that were available by someone less skilled in the trade, maybe the owner themselves. In contrast to the high-style furniture that was preserved, when these items became worn or no-longer needed, they still had function for providing warmth on a winters eve by fire. As a result, these are considerably less celebrated forms of furniture. So on the positive side, this show celebrated pieces of this vernacular style.
The disconnect is the how the show host goes about making these items. After a discussion of a particular piece, he then goes into his workshop equipped with $20,000+ of woodworking equipment showing how to reproduce the item. However these original items were largely made by hand, using tools that any carpenter would have in his 19th century tool kit, like a hand saw, brace and bit, hammer, hand planes and chisels. Of course the skills required to build items using $20K of machines versus a compact kit of hand tools is entirely different. He ends the show saying that one should be proud of one’s Appalachian heritage. However in my eyes, this seems inauthentic in appropriating Appalachian heritage.
I think there are makers that embody a more forward facing view of woodcraft that is more accessible. One is Christopher Schwarz and Lost Art Press. His works such as “The Anarchist’s Design Book” and “The Stick Chair Book” renew interest in vernacular furniture. These books cover a little bit of why and whole lot of how to make furniture that fulfills a basic purpose. The how is not with a ruffled shirt and tri-corner hat but with a contemporary eye towards taking one that aspires to create through to completion with a minimal set of tools and a hand’s touch. Another maker of Appalachian heritage is Amy Umbel, a spoon carver and green woodworker, that with Brien Beidler explore the nature of craft in their podcast “Cut the Craft” through stories of handcraft and its makers. Both Christopher Schwarz and Amy Umbel present contemporary views of making do with less, which is embedded in Appalachian culture.
At the end of many a public event in West Virginia, the crowd starts singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver. There’s a line in the song that always makes me think: “Life is old there, Older than the trees, Younger than the mountains, Growin’ like a breeze.” Are we collectively pining for reliving days of yore, where our view of these olden days is a rose-colored fantasy. Or are looking forward, where we embrace the things that make West Virginia special, like the outdoors, family, and a diverse community shared in a common goal, unafraid to embrace hard work.
Across the broadcast television spectrum, Public Broadcasting provides a unique voice. It asks for public donations to support it’s programming. More importantly, it provides a forum for a particular voice to be heard. In short, I was disappointed in PBS’s choice for that night. I think that it should be a bit more forward looking as they develop programming. At least from the craft perspective, there are a variety of diverse voices, like Amy’s and Christopher’s, that inspire people in an accessible way to get out and make something out of wood. Wood – it does grow on trees. In Appalachia, we have plenty of trees.