Furniture Makers Gather in New Orleans
Furniture Makers Gather in New Orleans
“We are more than who we are as economic beings,” said renowned New York–based furniture maker Michael Puryear, keynote speaker and Award of Distinction honoree at this year’s conference of the Furniture Society in New Orleans. “That belief has been a driving force in my life.”
The conference, which took place June 8–10, was built around the theme Making Spaces: How Place Shapes Production, Living, and Community.
In a wide-ranging conversation with another giant in the field, Rosanne Somerson, president emerita of Rhode Island School of Design, Puryear struck a philosophical tone. He discussed the importance of moving past social constraints and experiencing the world openly. “Curiosity is an important part of that,” he said, “being curious about the world and bringing that into your practice. I think just looking is important and not being judgmental about everything you see. It’s the Western way to judge everything. I like to relaxedly look at the world.”
“Judgment goes away and you can be part of a bigger world,” Puryear said. “When I travel, I want to be away from people who are part of the culture. You can get outside of your own culture, outside of what you think defines you. It’s a very creative process.”
Puryear and Somerson also touched on such practical matters as working with clients as designers and builders. Collect a design fee up front, recommended Puryear, so “your client knows that you are in a professional relationship.” Somerson added, “If you present a client three ideas, make sure you want to make any of the three.” That insight drew knowing chuckles from conference attendees, who were gathered on the Loyola University New Orleans campus for the Saturday morning presentation.
A young woman in the audience asked how, as a person of color, one gets people in the craft world to take one seriously. Puryear, who grew up in Washington, DC, had this to say about racism: “I realized it’s not my problem. It’s the world’s problem. You will have negative experiences and you don’t have to respond. Sometimes the most powerful response is not to respond.”
Other events on Friday and Saturday included an entertaining and informative presentation on “Furnishing New Orleans: Creole Craftsmanship and Trade, 1718–1865” by Lydia Blackmore of the Historic New Orleans Collection; a demonstration by North Carolina–based artist and furniture maker Aspen Golann called “Laser Show: Demystifying Compound Angle Drilling”; and a two-part workshop during which conference goers made “storytelling chairs” with local teens and sculptor Rontherin Ratliff at YAYA Arts Center—the latest partner in the Furniture Society’s Craft for a Greater Good initiative. Attendees also enjoyed a demonstration by New Orleans–based woodworker and veneer artist Chelsea Van Voorhis called “Veneer Fleur De Lis in 60 Minutes!”
The conference featured several local luminaries, such as Big Chief Howard Miller and Queen Elenora “Rukiya” Brown, both of whom spoke on Friday morning during a keynote discussion called “The Art and Culture of the Black Indians of New Orleans.” Miller and Brown create intricate, elaborate ceremonial suits of feathers and beaded images and wear them during the city’s annual Mardi Gras festivities. Each suit is unique and packed with meaning.
Miller explained that traditions around Black Indians date back hundreds of years, beginning when escaped slaves found safe haven with local Native people. During early New Orleans carnival or Mardi Gras celebrations, “We couldn’t express Black culture,” Miller said. “We couldn’t go. So we made our own expression as Mardi Gras Indians. It’s a transformation. It’s a spiritual expression and a creative expression.”
Local photographer extraordinaire La’Shance Perry was on hand to take photos of the Furniture Society presentations and sessions for American Craft. You can see what took place through her lens below!
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