SMITHS GROVE — When Mark Whitley was growing up in rural Barren County, his father's workshop was his playground.
"I would just come home from school and make something out of wood," he said. "I didn't feel like I was training for anything. It's just what I did."
It is still what he does. But now, Whitley, 36, is one of the region's up-and-coming furniture artists. His hand-crafted pieces are winning awards at exhibitions such as the American Craft Council's Atlanta Show and Kentucky Crafted: The Market.
He has been able to grow as an artist and earn a comfortable living for himself; his wife, Melissa, the director of a non-profit agency in nearby Bowling Green; and their 3-year-old son, Briar.
Kentucky has always had many fine artists and craftspeople. Whitley is part of a new generation that not only is pursuing artistic passion but learning how to turn it into a viable business.
Whitley credits much of his commercial success to the Kentucky Arts Council, a state agency that sponsors the annual Kentucky Crafted: The Market and many education and grant programs. He won a $7,500 Al Smith Fellowship and was a participant in the Platinum 10 program, which gives 10 Kentuckians a year of intense training in the business side of the arts.
"A few simple things I learned in that year really guided my business," he said. "And it gave me the confidence to make a real living at it."
The Kentucky Crafted program was created 30 years ago to help the state's artists and craftspeople sell pieces they produced. But Whitley is an example of a new group of artists who are developing markets for one-of-a-kind pieces.
"He really likes to connect with the people he works with," said Lori Meadows, executive director of the arts council. "It has been great to watch him get better and better and grow his business."
Whitley didn't set out to be a professional artist. After graduating from high school, his main goal was to get out of Kentucky.
Raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he received a scholarship to church-affiliated Chapman University in Orange, Calif., where he earned a degree in religious and peace studies. Whitley said he was accepted into seminary at Vanderbilt University, "but it just didn't feel right."
He studied in New Zealand, traveled the United States and worked briefly as a prototype builder for store fixture designer Corman & Associates in Lexington. Then he returned to Barren County.
"The best thing I did was move away for a few years," he said. "I went all over the country looking for someplace pretty to be and couldn't find any place better" than Kentucky.
Whitley bought nine acres near where he grew up and built an A-frame house with a big workshop in the basement. He started making and selling furniture, experimenting with designs and technique. But he didn't know much about the commercial niche of art furniture until he went to Kentucky Crafted: The Market for the first time in 2005. "I said, 'Wow, these people are just like me,'" he said.
Whitley guesses he has made about 125 pieces, 50 or 60 of them since he began focusing on art furniture. Many have ended up in Lexington homes, thanks to several years of exhibiting at the Woodland Art Fair.
Since he has become better known regionally and nationally, Whitley has been able to nearly double his prices. "Which means I'm actually just making a small profit," he said. "We live simply, so it's a pretty good living."
Whitley's furniture starts at about $1,800. His average piece sells for $3,000 to $5,000.
More than anything, Whitley said, higher prices allow him to work the way he wants to — slowly and carefully. "That's what it's all about: allowing yourself to take time to do excellent work," he said. "Now, if I create 10 pieces of furniture a year, I've been really busy."
Benches, tables and cabinets comprise much of Whitley's work. "Chairs are my arch nemesis," he said. "They're difficult to build, difficult to make comfortable. But I keep trying."
Whitley now goes to major shows looking more for commissions than sales of what he takes there. "I just need a few pieces to show my craftsmanship and aesthetic," he said.
Whitley sold a $10,000 table at Kentucky Crafted: The Market last month in Lexington and got three commissions. Despite the economy, he said, "The couples with ten grand to spend are still out there."
He also has pieces in corporate collections in Louisville, San Francisco and London, England; the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce headquarters in Frankfort and an art museum in Bowling Green.
When I visited his workshop recently, Whitley was working on his biggest commission yet — a walnut conference table for the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville. Made to seat 20 people, the table top is being built in quarters. Whitley had to go to Michigan to find enough walnut from a single tree so the grain and color would match.
When Whitley gets a commission, he talks with the client about what kind of piece he or she wants and how it will be used. He visits the room where it will be placed and observes other objects that will surround it.
"I see a piece of furniture in my head almost immediately when I talk to a client," he said. He makes sketches, then a formal proposal, which is almost always accepted unchanged.
Whitley doesn't work from detailed plans. "All of the details are worked out on the workbench," he said, which includes taking cues from the wood's grain, texture and moisture content. "I abide by the laws of the wood; all the things wood can do to make you look like a fool."
Whitley's favorite wood to work with is walnut, followed by cherry, ash and several varieties of maple. Hinges are the only hardware he buys; all knobs and pulls are custom-made for each piece.
He uses no commercial stains or paints, only age-old coloring techniques such as ebonizing. That process turns wood a permanent black through the use of iron, vinegar, tannic acid and other chemicals. Most pieces have oil-based finishes.
Whitley has had trouble finding good furniture lumber in Kentucky, so he buys much of his wood from boutique dealers in Pennsylvania. Planks are stacked against the walls of his workshop. "I'll get weird boards and hang on to them for years before I decide what to do with them," he said.
Whitley is constantly experimenting with ways to laminate, color and bend wood to achieve his artistic vision.
"I find myself identifying far more with sculptors these days than furniture makers," he said.