Powder-Milk Biscuits

Building furniture, despite its obvious attractions, is not the most social of livelihoods. I work alone, and often feel like a pea in a coffee can rattling around by myself in my shop. I like it that way–don’t get me wrong– but too much of it can make you a hermit, and it’s addictive. It becomes hard to keep a perspective on what you offer the world, and the validity of what you do.

I was feeling particularly lackluster just before last Christmas as I delivered a couple of small butternut book cases ordered by my friend Kitty in Hartland. She asked me why the glum face, so I laid out a rather pathetic and self pitying portrait of my current mood and business condition, and commented that with times being what they were, I didn’t see much prospect of improvement.

Unlike me, she’s a woman of action, and would hear none of it. “What you need is a retrospective show of your work, and I’m going to host it, right here in my living room,” Kitty said as she gestured to her ample space, an elegant sun-filled room of 24’ x 36’ with commanding views of Mt. Ascutney. “But we’d have to do it right, really fill up the space with lots of pieces and photographs, and invite everyone we can think of that could possibly afford an order. I’ll take care of the party, and you take care of what you put in it.” I had to admit that one could hardly ask for a better showplace, and I told her I’d think about it.

On the drive home I went through all the reasons I could think of for why it was not worth doing: I couldn’t spare the time, I didn’t have any pieces to show, it would cost too much for invitations and photographs, I wouldn’t make any money while I was working on it, etc. etc. There were a million excuses I could think of to wave her off, but the real reason for my reluctance was that I was a chicken; I preferred to fester in my shop feeling pathetic rather than put myself out in the public eye where I could be judged. That cinched it for me– if I’d gotten to be that much of a hermit, then I just had to throw my hat over the wall to where I’d have to follow it. I got home, discussed it briefly with my wife Jane, and called Kitty back to say I’d do it. We agreed on February 28.

For a month or so I pretended to myself I hadn’t accepted. There was too much to do in my shop, and anyway how could I fill up such a space? The end of January arrived, and I’d done nothing except toy with an invitation layout. I alternated between thoughts of fleeing to Mexico and visions of years of orders stacking up. But there was no way around it– I had to get moving. My daughter and I whipped up an invitation in Photoshop and took it to a printer. Jane addressed 150+ invitations. I borrowed furniture from almost every person within 30 miles that had a piece I’d made that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show. I bought a big format (13”x 19”) printer from Amazon so I could print photographs of things that had headed off to parts south.

I endured a lot of restless nights, but eventually it all pulled together. After countless trips I had collected a shop full of furniture to polish up. My office was littered with empty ink cartridges and discarded photos, but there were enough good ones to fill the walls (I hoped). We mounted them all on black foam-core, and made labels for everything. One by one the collected furniture was waxed and polished, and finally 3 days before the show we were ready to deliver.

Out went all of Kitty’s furniture and paintings to her barn, up went the rugs, and in came the accumulated effort of 35 years of my life, over 40 different pieces large and small. Over the next two days we arranged the whole thing. On Kitty’s suggestion, we put a big mahogany dining table I’d just finished in the very center of the room, where it gave a feeling of real substance. The smaller pieces radiated out around it, and we put smaller incidental bits like trays and boxes on those surfaces to give a feeling of lightness and domesticity. On the walls we used adhesive foam to stick the photographs in arrangements that told a story, and then we tagged the whole lot with our labels. The room felt balanced and complete, but not crowded.

Handcrafted Furniture by Josh Metcalf, Pomfret VT

Handcrafted Furniture by Josh Metcalf, Pomfret VT

Studio Work Inspired by Chinese Design

The day of the opening came, sunny and spring-like, and we arrived just before the first guests. Kitty had put out a big spread, with many bottles of champagne and lots to eat, and flowers all round. Now all we needed were people to come! And come they did, probably about 60-70. The transformation was complete; I’d gone from Cinderella in rags, to a princess in a fancy ball gown. For me the effect was magical and quite overwhelming. I felt like a mid-wife seeing all her unnamed deliveries gathered together as adults for the first time in one place. For a while I could hardly put two words together, but my relief at the evident success of it all eventually broke through, and I was floating on air. People right and left said the kindest things, and I suddenly felt for the first time in ages that I was doing what I was meant to do.

Gathering in Support of Craft and Tradition

I can’t say that I now have years of orders stacked up, and the whole project did take an inordinate amount of time–probably a good month– but it was so worth it. As furniture makers we spend so much time alone wondering if what we do matters in the greater scheme of things. But by putting myself out in public view I’d partaken of Garrison Keillor’s metaphorical powder-milk biscuits and done what needed to be done, and for at least a while I can answer that question for myself in the affirmative. I’d chased my hat over the wall, and found a much more beguiling climate on the other side.

Shared by Josh Metcalf, Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers


3 thoughts on “Powder-Milk Biscuits

  1. Charles Shackleton

    That was really good Josh and great photos.Its obvious that the boost going forward is also one of the great benefits. Im looking forward to the catalog of the exhibition.That could be even more exciting……and congratulations Kitty!.That was such a generous gift.

  2. Al


    A wonderful outcome to a slow start; but a truly terrific effort on your part. Kudos to you, your daughter, and to Kitty, for being so supportive.

    Al Navas
    Sandal Woods – Fine Woodworking


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