Tom Eblen: Winchester lawyer turns beautiful wood into art

Herald-Leader columnistDecember 17, 2013 

WINCHESTER — When John Keeton was a boy in Floyd County, he learned how to make wood useful. He has spent the five decades since then learning how to make it beautiful.

I first saw Keeton's work this fall, when I won the media award in the Governor's Awards in the Arts. The winners' trophies were identical turned-wood sculptures the artist made from curly maple and holly.

Red stain and lacquer accentuates the grain of the maple vessel, which is balanced on a delicate spire and topped by an even-more delicate finial, both made of black-lacquered holly.

The 11-inch-tall sculpture is a graceful combination of strength and fragility, and every time I look at it I wonder, How did he do that! Last week, I went to the workshop on Keeton's 68-acre farm to find out.

"I've always liked pretty woods, figured woods," said Keeton, 65. "I've been playing with wood all my life."

Well, most of his life. Keeton was squirrel hunting when he was 13 and fell off a rock ledge, breaking the forearm stock of the family's shotgun. He whittled a replacement from a piece of cedar he got off a lightning-struck tree.

After graduating from Pikeville College and the University of Kentucky law school, Keeton began a 40-year career as a lawyer and Clark County prosecutor. He and his wife, Eileen, have five children, 14 grandchildren and a great-grandchild between them.

Keeton's hobbies have always been hunting and woodworking. He was fascinated with antique Kentucky long rifles, and he made stocks for reproduction flintlocks. He began repairing antique furniture, then making furniture.

One project was a walnut plantation desk, which he made to fit some turned and faceted legs he salvaged from an antique table he bought at an auction. When he decided in 2009 to make a table to match the desk, and he bought his first lathe to copy the antique legs.

"I absolutely fell in love with wood-turning," Keeton said. "I finished that table and that's the last piece of furniture I made. I've been turning ever since."

He began with some turned-wood Christmas tree ornaments, then made a shallow dish from a cherry board. That led him into bowls, vessels, urns and sculpture. Keeton has made about 175 pieces in the past four years, building on four decades of woodworking skill and expertise.

Keeton is a juried and exhibiting artist in the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen and the Kentucky Crafted program. He displays and sells work at the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea, the Appalachian Artisan Center in Hindman, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville, three Kentucky galleries and one in Scottsdale, Ariz.

He will be teaching wood-turning classes next year at two prestigious craft schools: the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C., and the Arkansas Craft School in Mountain View. For more information, see Johnkeeton.com.

Keeton said his work has sold well, but that isn't why he spends four or five hours a day in his shop making it.

"I turn for artistic expression," he said. "I've always had a need to create. That's really where it started."

Most of Keeton's designs come from classic, mathematical patterns that have been used in art and architecture for thousands of years — parabolas, fibonacci spirals and all kinds of curves.

Keeton sketches designs, often while watching television in the evening, then carefully chooses wood from a growing collection of blocks he has collected in a storage room beside his shop and a converted tobacco barn.

He especially likes to work with burls, the bulbous growths on trees that are caused by various kinds of stress. They have unique figured patterns of grain that when polished yield unique designs.

Many of Keeton's pieces are embellished with copper handles or finials, or with gold or copper leaf. Some others display accents that look rich and metallic but are created with little more than glue, cheese cloth and tissue paper.

"I just do what's pleasing to me," Keeton said. "If it sells, that's great. But that's not why I do it. Selling is simply the icing on the cake."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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