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Chester Cornett: Beyond the Narrow Sky

May 12 - July 26, 2015

With his mane of wild hair and beard, and uniform of overalls and work boots, Chester Cornett (1913-1981) seems to embody the common conception of the Appalachian craftsman: dedicated, naïve, and anti-intellectual. But Cornett was also a visionary, able to create impeccably crafted chairs that are steeped in tradition while pushing the form of a functional object into more sculptural conceits. In later years, after he had earned acclaim for his work, he designed chairs that reflected the personalities and desires of his clients and, despite constant financial need, he would not take orders without getting to know them first. (right: Chester Cornett (1913-1981), Snake Rocker, 1970s, Honduran mahogany. Collection of Dwight and Sharon Butcher. The Snake Rocker, or Dream Rocker as it is sometimes called, is considered to be Cornett's masterpiece. It is a massive chair with every visible part curving back and forth, resembling a slithering snake. This design came to Cornett in a dream.)

Cornett's life was marked by financial and emotional poverty and lifelong bouts of depression. His parents separated when he was eight, and he bounced between family members in Letcher and Harlan counties in eastern Kentucky. By seventeen, he had achieved only a fourth-grade education. He was far better schooled in the knowledge of trees and the quality of the wood, but he learned the craft of furniture-making from an abusive uncle, who would sell Cornett's work as his own. A stint in the army during the World War II added post-traumatic stress syndrome to childhood traumas. On top of that, by the time he returned from the war, traditional crafts were being replaced by cheaper, machine-made goods.

Through it all, Cornett remained obsessed with innovative chair design. In 1961, he made his first "two-in-one rocker" with a very wide seat, eight legs, and four rockers. One of his most inventive chairs belongs to the Museum. It was intended as a gift to President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated before it could be delivered. Now known as the Mayor's Chair, it is sheathed in hickory bark splinting that is woven like a basket.

The armrests feature lidded containers, and a pull-out footrest slides in and out from beneath the seat. In 1973 Cornett made a chair of sassafras wood for Richard Nixon and was invited to the White House to formally present it to the president.

While enthusiasts like Wendell Berry collected and preserved Cornett's chairs, the location of most of them is unknown. Matt Collinsworth, director of the Kentucky Folk Art Center, spent five years locating collectors and combing junk shops to track down close to forty pieces of Cornett's furniture. Along with former KFAC artistic director Adrian Swain, he organized this exhibition, the first to seriously consider Cornett's achievement as an artist. It illuminates the life and work of a complex man who aspired to be "king of the chairmakers."

The project was made possible through a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University.

 

(above: Chester Cornett (1913-1981), Mayor's Chair, 1963, Black walnut and maple with hickory splinting. Collection of The Art Museum at UK. Created in 1963, this chair was commissioned by Willie Dawahare, then mayor of Hazard, Kentucky, as a gift for President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated before it could be delivered. Now known as the Mayor's Chair, it is sheathed in hickory bark splinting that is woven like a basket. The armrests feature lidded containers, and a pullout footrest slides in and out from beneath the seat.)


Editor's note:

Chester Cornett: Beyond the Narrow Sky is on exhibit at the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky from May 12 through July 26, 2015.

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