Monthly Archives: April 2012

From the Hands, with Heart

Today I’m taking part in the My Most Beautiful Thing Blogsplash to celebrate beautiful things, inspired by Fiona Robyn’s sweet and touching new novel, “The Most Beautiful Thing.” Bloggers from all over the world are taking part and writing or posting pictures of their most beautiful things today. Find out more at Writing Our Way Home here, and see everyone else’s blog posts here

I have far more beautiful things than I can count, some tangible and some not. This is the one (or three, if you’re counting) that I wanted to share today. 

With our move from an apartment to a house, my husband and I have found ourselves in the ironic position of downsizing and upsizing at the same time. We purged a lot of things before packing and heading south from the Washington, D.C., area back home to North Carolina and purged still more after we unpacked. But then we realized we needed to add a few things here and there to make the new space work — such as a bed for the spare room, assorted office furniture and a kitchen table. Yes, this is a first-world problem. Some choices have been more successful than others, working or not working with what we already had. One of the final things we needed, and by “we” I mean “I,” included end tables for the living room.

After being overwhelmed by trips to antiseptic, warehouse-sized stores with cookie-cutter decor (even Cindy Crawford can design furniture!), I decided to hit the Raleigh flea market one sunny Sunday morning. Amid the old and new junk and treasures was a collection of tables. They were outside, occupying a corner lot. I was instantly drawn to them — the low end tables, hip-high consoles and butcher-block pieces. Some were made of a single type of wood, all light or all dark, and others were a mixture — a light outer frame with a dark main body, and vice versa.

The lacquered tops gleamed in the sunshine, the craftsmanship of the Shaker-style pieces readily apparent. I browsed, ran my hand along the tabletops, took mental measurements and chatted with the vendor, an unassuming, soft-spoken man. He was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, so I couldn’t see his eyes. He was alone in his “stand,” quietly eating a slice of pizza. “Breakfast?” I joked. It was about 11 a.m. He smiled and said something like, “Yes, ma’am.”

I’m no expert on furniture, but I complimented him on his work, and he politely thanked me. I wasn’t ready to buy anything, so I asked for a business card. Alan Tingen, it read, with an address and phone number. Turns out he lives just a few miles from us in Apex, and he said he took custom orders. Oh, happy day! I was excited about the possibility of buying local, so to speak, and especially such gorgeous pieces.

His card didn’t list a Web site, so I Googled him. He has a Facebook page but no Web site, though some of the craft fairs he has participated in have posted photos of his work. The images showed a variety of tables, some made from variegated wood, unlike the solids I’d seen at the flea market. I was entranced. A few weeks later, after deciding what I wanted to order, I went back to see him at the flea market. He didn’t have pieces in the style I wanted, but I arranged to go to his workshop a few days later.

Alan lives on a rural stretch of road on land that his family has owned for a century. The road is in fact named for his family. The shop was full of fresh lumber — banal, unfinished planks of wood lying around at all angles and in various stages of becoming furniture — and the floor was coated with sawdust. He didn’t have many finished samples on site, but I’d printed out a picture of what I was looking for from one of the craft fair Web sites, and we went from there.

I asked if he had a catalog or Web site. He grinned and shook his head slightly, as if he’d heard that question more than once. “No, people ask me that, but …”

“You’re as busy as you want to be?” I asked. That’s pretty much it, he said. He’s a one-man show and clearly likes to take his time with each piece. He said he’d hired helpers in the past, but the younger ones just don’t want to work. (Kids these days!) He said he doesn’t sell a lot of pieces at the flea market but usually does well at a craft fair in the mountains of Western North Carolina and another one in Raleigh. I felt torn between wanting to volunteer as his PR agent — Why doesn’t everyone have one of his tables?! — and selfishly wanting to keep him a secret. But it’s hardly appropriate for me to stage an art intervention or intrude on his privacy. He’s just a guy, living in the countryside, making, I assume, as many beautiful tables as he wants to.

We talked measurements and types of wood. What I wanted for the body of our tables is ambrosia maple, with walnut trim. (A lovely name, ambrosia maple, although the striations are apparently caused by a beetle and a fungus.) I decided on three tables of the same style — two end tables for the living room, and a console for the spare room. Alan quoted me the total cost. I thought he’d left off a zero. Then he apologetically said he was backed up, so it would take about three weeks for him to make the tables. As soon as he said “three,” I expected the next word to be “months.” Considering how long it took to get our commercially ordered furniture, I was stunned.

Alan called right on schedule a few weeks later to tell me the tables were ready. I arranged a time to go pick them up. On that warm and sunny day, he was busy planting vegetables on his property. I met him after he’d set the corn and before he started on sugar snap peas. He led me to a side shed where the tables awaited. They took my breath away. They were even more gorgeous than I’d imagined, museum-quality pieces, in my opinion.

I thanked him and complimented him many times, but he is so unassuming and low-key that my gushing started to feel excessive. I’m sure he knows his work is good, even great, and it’s clear he’s proud of it without being boastful. I resisted the urge to suggest (plead) he promote himself more. That’s none of my business. We’re virtually strangers, after all, and I know nothing about him other than what he shared with me. His work speaks for itself. He’s as busy as he wants to be, but I’m so glad he wasn’t too busy for me.

Handmade crafts are special, especially those made from natural materials. No two are ever alike. And every time I look at one of Alan’s tables, I feel lucky to have them. I know wood isn’t alive once it becomes furniture, but Alan’s pieces are moving. They speak to me. They speak from his hands and heart, and that’s a beautiful thing.

By Alan Tingen




Fudge ripple pottery

My horoscope yesterday said: “You can’t take it with you. Nice things make you smile. Wait until you can afford the best brand or most desirable model.” I don’t generally put a lot of stock in horoscopes, unless of course they suit me. This one was a no-brainer, except perhaps “wait until you can afford.” Ahem.

I’d been planning for a few weeks to head west to Seagrove, N.C., billed as the largest community of working potters in the United States. The clay-rich area in central North Carolina, about an hour and half from where we live in Apex, is home to dozens of potters of all kinds, and many are second- or third-generation artists. Thanks to Facebook and the Interweb, I’d found one studio I’d wanted to visit in particular. Turns out that’s all I had time for, which was good for my wallet and harmony on the home front. (Thanks, honey!)

Now, I do not *need* any more pots. But can you really have too many beautiful things — material or not — that make you smile? I think not. Yes, there’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding. If there’s a 12-step program for buying pottery, I should probably be in it, but I’m not ready to admit I have a problem. And as someone who took a beginning pottery course 3 times (2 at Duke and 1 at N.C. State), I can attest to how difficult it is, how much time and patience it takes, and how sweet it can be to see the finished, often completely suprising results fresh out of the kiln.

This weekend (April 21-22) is the spring kiln opening celebration in Seagrove. There’s another one in the fall that I hope to attend when I have more time and, you know, maybe, money. But it’s fun just to look at the wares, to take in the artists’ craftsmanship and dedication, thinking maybe some of it will rub off in any area of life. Pottery has a rich historical tradition in North Carolina, and I am glad it is still very much alive. (Reason #1,001 why it’s good to be back in the Old North State.)

I had not been to Seagrove in more than 10 years, and I enjoyed the route that Shirley (affectionately and cursedly known as my GPS device) took me on. I wound up, down and around 2-lane ribbons of highway through rolling green hills, past cow pastures, dodging hard-core bicyclists, coiled-up black snakes that didn’t quite make it across the road and a gaggle of unidentified birds (I braked just in time).

Eck McCanless

I visited the studio of Eck McCanless, a second-generation potter. His agateware caught my eye in pictures on his Facebook page and Web site — I couldn’t recall ever seeing anything like it. Eck’s pots look like Breyer’s vanilla fudge twirl ice cream, and the pots are just as sweet. He also specializes in gorgeous crystalline ware, with glazes as sparklingly brilliant as the forms. Eck was at his wheel Saturday, demonstrating how he carves patterns in the thrown bowls, vases, cups and plates. The agateware, a style that apparently originated in England, is made from different kinds of clay wedged together for a marbled effect.

Carving demo

Using a variety of tools, Eck carves and whittles the outsides of the pots, creating swirls and striations. He does this when the pots are leather hard, after they’ve dried overnight. At Eck’s urging, another customer and I tried our hands at carving — not easy. She carved right through a pot, bless her heart, and I made tentative, uneven zigzags down the side of a cup. Like a lot of Seagrove potters, Eck has been doing it so long that he makes it look easy. He whittles the clay as if it’s wood. Pottery is quite a seductive art, and I don’t mean in a “Ghost” kind of way.

Bowl by Eck McCanless

After a torturous perusal of the shop, I picked out a bowl and a small vase. I like the bowl because you can really see the 3 kinds of clay on the inside. And the vase is a nice representation of the carving. Eck’s wife, Rhonda, who was pricing pots and running the till, asked me, “Are these gifts?” Uh, no. Unless it’s ok to say they’re a gift to their brethren scattered in our china hutch and beyond.

I didn’t make it to Jugtown, or Ben Owen’s studio, or Donna Craven’s. But I think I chose well in visiting Eck’s studio. A thing of beauty is truly a joy forever, and it’s a joy to watch dedicated craftsmen make their art and share it with the world.

Now where to put them?




The Most Beautiful Thing

On April 24, I’ll take part in the My Most Beautiful Thing Blogsplash to celebrate beautiful things, inspired by Fiona Robyn’s touching new novel, The Most Beautiful Thing. Bloggers from all over the world will write about or post pictures of their most beautiful things. Consider joining and find out more here, and, on Tuesday, look for everyone else’s blog posts here. Snippets of beautiful things will appear randomly until and perhaps beyond then.