A set of chairs currently on display at The Kentucky Museum on WKU’s campus offers a glimpse at some of the finest pieces of Appalachian art ever created.
The exhibit, “Chester Cornett: Beyond the Narrow Sky” features over 20 chairs made by Cornett, a simple and quiet man from the Appalachian region of Kentucky who possessed an amazing talent. Cornett was born in 1913 in Letcher County, and learned chair-making from his grandfather and uncle. He served in WWII, and then returned to his mountain home in 1945.
Brent Bjorkman, director of the Kentucky Folklife Program at WKU, says Cornett seemed to be at peace when he was creating chairs—a peace that alluded him in other aspects of his life.
“He grew up as a loner,” Bjorkman told WKU Public Radio. “Chester was a mountain kid who had difficulty fitting in with the community. He was also married a couple of times, and I think dealing with people was pretty hard for him. So I think he back again and again to expressing himself through this creative form that he felt was something familiar to him.”
Cornett created hundreds of chairs during his lifetime, but only a few are currently known to exist. Organized by the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University, the Chester Cornett exhibit on display at WKU features many of the artist’s greatest works.
Chair Intended for J.F.K.
One of the chairs that catches the eye looks like the rocking chair version of a king’s throne.
“This particular chair was created in 1962,” Bjorkman said. “It was first entitled ‘The Presidential Rocker’, and it was intended to be a gift for John F. Kennedy, but he was assassinated before it could be delivered.”
“It’s now called ‘The Mayor’s Chair’, and it’s an example of a double-rocker.”
On the bottom of the chair is an octagon, and a leg appears at each point where the pieces of the octagon seat come together. The eight legs mean there are four rockers that go across the bottom of the chair.
Then there are the armrests.
“The armrests have these deep lidded hampers that are woven with hickory,” Bjorkman said. “It’s pretty unbelievable.”
The chair also has a footstool that pops out. It’s a chair fit for a president, which is exactly was it was intended to be.
Chester at the White House
Another chair with presidential aspirations is a part of the WKU exhibit, one that was made as a gift for Richard Nixon.
“It was actually delivered by Chester Cornett and a Cincinnati Congressman, in 1973. So there’s a wonderful picture of them in the oval office with Chester in his overalls, and his big, flowing beard, with Richard Nixon.”
Cornett carved a message along the rungs running across the back of the chair that reads: “Hand Carved buy Chester Cornett for the President of the United States of America Richard Nixon famley.”
Bjorkman says it’s not known if Cornett deliberately misspelled words in the carving, or if it was an honest mistake.
Living Hand to Mouth
Despite being lauded by a sitting President, Bjorkman says Cornett struggled throughout his life to make ends meet.
He did, however, begin to gain some recognition following a series of newspaper and magazine articles about his work that appeared in the mid-1960s. Kentucky author Wendell Berry said Cornett was the inspiration for an essay he wrote for The Nation called “The Tyranny of Charity”.
After those articles and others appeared, Cornett attracted a small clientele who sought out the Letcher County native and commissioned works. Bjorkman points out that the handwritten sales ledgers Cornett kept show that most of the chairs the artist sold in the mid-60s were to out-of-state clients.
“The word got out that this craftsman who was doing it in the old ways was out there,” Bjorkman says, noting that some Americans may have been reacting against a wave of popularity for mass-produced, store-bought items that engulfed the nation following WWII.
Still, “for a chair-maker who was turning them out one-at-a-time, it was very hard for him,” said Bjorkman. “He was living hand to mouth. He didn’t have the wherewithal to be the businessman he probably wanted to be.”
Cornett moved to Cincinnati in 1970, where he was able to attract a wider audience. It was much easier to find the artists and see his work in an urban setting, as opposed to a remote mountain home in far eastern Kentucky.
“Folks who ordered a chair might go to his workspace and see how their chair was coming along. That was another creative spark that I think probably pushed him along,” Bjorkman said.
Bjorkman notes Cornett experimented with different chair designs throughout his career, something that eventually gained him the reputation as being one of the finest Kentucky craftsmen of all time.
Cornett’s chairs are not only beautiful to look out, but also appear to symbolize an idea that has gained a tremendous amount of currency in recent years—that something created on a small scale and that’s connected to the local area is something to be admired and sought after.
The exhibit “Chester Cornett: Beyond the Narrow Sky” has its opening reception at the Kentucky Museum on WKU’s campus Friday, Sept. 12, from 5:00-8:00 pm. The exhibit runs through Nov. 9.