This is the third in a series of visits with new artists on the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community’s (RAAC) eighth annual Artists of Rappahannock Studio & Gallery Tour this Nov. 3-4.
Most people don’t see an artistic form when they see a fallen tree limb, but Gerald “Jerry” Smith does. Smith creates rustic furniture with fanciful forms from the wood he finds in nature. And his work is indeed an art form. It mirrors the beauty of nature and transforms random sticks and branches into functional art furniture.
Smith found his artistic calling in 1986 when he read an article in Mother Earth News about making rustic furniture. “It intrigued me: The idea of creating furniture with the sense that it had stepped out of the woods, yet was also refined and functional. It greatly appealed to me,” said Smith, an avid outdoorsman who was always at home in the woods.
However, it was not until almost a decade later, after reading many books and taking workshops to hone the skills of mortise-and-tendon joinery, wood drying and finishing, that he started his Sleepywood Rustic Furniture studio in 1995. He describes his studio as a “nontraditional” woodworking shop. Although named after his first homestead on Sleepy Creek Mountain in Morgan County, W.Va., the studio name is also indicative of what he sees in his work: sleeping wood, whose spirit can be awakened and turned into something of beauty that will live on in the homes of his clients. Smith says that each of his pieces has its own unique personality, revealing the spirit that had been “sleeping in the wood” all along.
Initially a hobby and sideline to his painting contractor business, he quickly turned it into a career after taking a workshop with a well-known rustic furniture artist in upstate New York. “It suddenly came to me. I thought: ‘I can do this!’ ” said Smith.
Today, Smith is the teacher and not the student. He is an instructor at the John C. Campbell Folk School in the mountains of western North Carolina, a school which was founded to preserve the folk art of the Appalachian region. He is also a juried member of the prestigious Southern Highland Crafts Guild and the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen, the former of which sells his works in its shops.
He stresses that his art moves in sync with nature – wood with bark is harvested in the winter; wood that will be stripped is harvested in the spring. And the process from twig to furniture is not simple. There is collecting, aging and drying in a kiln to “kill the critters,” before the creating begins. That is why you will find Smith in his workshop amid mountains of branches, piles of cut saplings, driftwood and aged lumber looking for the perfect stick to complete his work.
Smith, who calls his style free-form, works with no sketches or preplanned ideas. “A lot of people who work with wood have an idea or concept of what they will create. I just start building. Every piece I create is a surprise to me,” says Smith. He frequently works on multiple pieces at a time, since he cannot always find the right branch or twig that fits a piece, but may stumble upon it as he is working on another item.
Sleepywood Rustic Furniture studio is located on U.S. 211 west of Sperryville (next to Triple Oak Bakery), where visitors will find a rich array of art, including the etchings of Margaret Rogers, who is returning to the tour this year. Rogers’ studio is just up the road behind her family business, Central Coffee Roasters, so you can enjoy coffee while you learn about her printmaking process. In addition, six of the nine galleries on the tour are in Sperryville and will be holding special exhibits. These are Glassworks Gallery, Old Rag Photography, Haley Fine Arts, Middle Street Gallery and the two galleries at River District Arts: Confluent Gallery and the working studio gallery.
The two day Artist of Rappahannock Open Studio and Gallery event is scheduled for Nov. 3 and 4, rain or shine. Tickets are $10 for the two-day event and can be purchased at the Washington fire hall, where visitors can preview artists’ work and pick-up a map to studios and galleries. Visit www.raac.org for more information.