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Putting a twist on woodworking

Mark Whitley of Smith Grove, Kentucky, bends wood into beautiful tables

Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel

“My mission in life is to put beautiful things out in the world,” says Mark Whitley of Smiths Grove. 

Whitley is a woodworker, but that doesn’t begin to describe what he does. Artist is also an apt description but, again, inadequate. Furniture maker is also correct in as far as it goes. Whitley simply calls his business Mark Whitley Studios. 

Each piece the 46-year-old creates requires him to bend small pieces of wood to make the graceful curves adorning a table that is at once functional and beautiful. In the past, he made other items, but his twist tables have been in such demand nationwide that they are now mostly what he builds, one at a time, each different from the last, each with its own place to reside, since they are all done on commission.

Whitley builds each table upside down on his workbench and never sees it upright until it is virtually finished. Each piece of wood he bends must fit exactly with others and be glued together to make the elegant curves for which he is renowned. 

“I make the first twist, which is random,” he says. “I clamp it with springy clamps. I might try it 20 ways. Building these tables is like composing songs; (which Whitley also does) it starts with a spark and develops.”

It is precise work. The intelligence and accuracy it takes to create those curves is hidden in the wood, but even upside down, the coming beauty is visible. 

Whitley, a consumer-member of Farmers RECC, has worked with wood in one form or another since he received a small hammer for Christmas when he was 6. He was exposed to pieces of wood and how to cut a board at his father’s cabinet shop.

When Mark was 13, his father started teaching him to use power tools. By 14, he was earning money by refinishing items and making small, decorative boxes.

At 18, it was off to college. Whitley received a bachelor’s degree in peace studies at Chapman University, a small liberal arts college in California, but he never took an art or woodworking course in high school or college. Today, he counts that as a regret.

“After college I tried to work in the church and was headed to seminary,” he recalls. 

After another job in his field didn’t work out, Whitley decided that was not what he was meant to do with his life.

“At 25 years old, someone asked me to do a little woodworking project,” he says. “I took some of dad’s old tools and made wooden football lockers for a high school. 

“I built some church furniture for the First Christian Church in Bowling Green. I also did some work for St. Joseph’s in Bowling Green. It had to match furniture built in 1880. I had to learn to gild wood with gold. That was a real challenge.” 

Along the way, Whitley ordered a book, The Impractical Cabinetmaker by James Krenov. It changed his life.

“He was a wood monk,” Whitley says. “I was trying to do what he was doing, but I hadn’t put it in words. What I learned from that book was not how to do woodworking, but why to do it.”

He got into prestigious juried shows such as The Kentucky Crafted Market, The American Craft Council and The Smithsonian Craft Show, but it was not the “good life” he sought.

The good life does not mean bigger or more to the soft-spoken Whitley, who has a small peace sign tattooed on one hand. The good life, he says, is the freedom to create, to take on new challenges with each job, to play his guitar with musician friends when he wants to, and to be there for his wife and son.

Whitley’s mother, Neva Whitley, worked for Warren RECC for 38 years and retired in 2008. He credits her with buying him a guitar. “I used to have a band,” he says “I could be a good musician, but I can be a great furniture maker.”

The greatest turn in his life toward that greatness came when Eric Gorges asked Whitley to appear on the PBS television show he hosts called A Craftsman’s Legacy. Whitley was featured in season four’s The Table Maker. The national exposure put Whitley on the map and his tables in homes across the nation.

Another gift that changed his life was winning an annual competition from the Al Smith Foundation through the Kentucky Arts Council. He used the money to purchase a saw that stops automatically if it senses something other than wood and does not kick back wood. Whitley’s old saw had kicked wood into his stomach so many times he was beginning to fear it.

“Winning that competition was such a validation. In the grand scheme of things, it was a really big deal to a young furniture maker,” he says.

“Some artists don’t want people to tell them what to do,” he says. “I need the client to ask me to do something I haven’t done before. Even twist tables are all different shapes and sizes. I want them to tell me why they want this table. I try to take what’s in my head and marry it with the vision the client has.

“I always make it as perfect as I can, but there is no plan. Every piece has to be made right there, right then. What really motivates me is a challenge. My portfolio is not a catalog. I am always wondering what I am going to do next.

“I love to be able to manipulate raw material. The material I know best is wood. When I’m not building, I’m doing the same thing with wrenches and chisels for relaxation.”

Whitley pauses and smiles, completely comfortable with success, failure, himself and life in general. 

“I think the world can be made of things of beauty to give people joy. It all works together.” 

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