I came across an image of a hand-carved crucifix that caught my eye. it had rough craved ribs and was painted in a haphazard fashion and adorned with human hair. The photo made it look small and intimate but it was huge, about eight feet tall and four feet wide. It would be a truly dynamic thing to see. I knew nothing of its maker, Chester Cornett. This wild expression, while effecting in its presence, didn’t give me any real idea of the story behind the name or of the nature of his true special talent.
You see, Chester Cornett was born and raised as a traditional chairmaker from the hills of Kentucky, learning at the knees of his grandfather and father. He was born in 1912 and died in 1981, living a life filled with hardship as the world surged progressively into the modern era, moving further and further away from the need for the handmade. But Chester persisted, perhaps because he knew no other way or because his special talent, his genius, was too great to forsake.
He made all sorts of chairs, simply built traditional chairs and rockers. But it was when he moved beyond that form that his genius manifested itself. Folding chairs with eight legs. Rocking chairs with bookcases built around them. They were masterfully crafted with innovative joinery and intricate engineering. Just amazing creations.
I’m just learning about Chester Cornett so I’m not going into much depth here. There’s not a wealth of info out there outside of a film, Handcarved, from 1981, and a book that features him among other mountain craftsmen, Craftsmen of the Cumberlands. But I find his work and his life captivating. There’s something special in seeing ingenuity show itself in unlikely places and conditions. And Cornett seems to me an unlikely genius that deserves greater examination.
I like this exchange from the book, Craftsmen of the Cumberlands:
“I don’t b’lieve so,” he said.
“You think anybody could be a chairmaker?”
“No, I don’t b’lieve just anybody could… too hard a work.”
“Does it take some special skill?”
“Yes sir, it does. It takes a skill specially for, uh, you got to learn how to use that drawin’ knife—use it just right to take off hick’ry bark with or whatever you’re making.” (Though other chairmakers used a drawing knife much less frequently and for fewer tasks than Chester did.)
“Can anyone learn how to use a drawing knife?”
“I’d say so, excepting uh, you got to learn to get interested in anything to learn it… you have to learn to get interested in a thing like that before you could learn it. And anyway, I b’lieve anyone could learn how to use a drawin’ knife and do that work.”
“Anybody could learn how to be a chairmaker, then?”
“Well, yes, they could, but they’d have to learn to be interested in that first.”
Maybe that’s the whole point of life– finding that thing that we can learn to be interested in.