Judy Kensley McKie

Fabulous Bestiary

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, December 1995)

For Judy Kensley McKie, making furniture has always been a way of staying connected to the flow of life.  Her first furniture was very plain —  hand made tables to fill a bare apartment when she and her husband, Todd were both students at Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-sixties.  Then one day she impulsively carved a pair of elegant animals into the armrests of a butcherblock couch.

Since then, she has been inspired to carve leopards, lizards, turtles, panthers, horses, and snakes into tables, couches, chests, and chairs.  Her pieces are useful and functional objects as well as graceful vehicles of beauty and meaning.

“The animals have always helped to animate the work and make it come alive,”

she tells me when I visit her in her studio in the Powderhouse Woodworkers building, in Medford.

McKie’s animals are mythical creatures- dream images crystallized into animal forms. They are not like any actual living creatures, but they have seriousness and silence- the mystery- of real animals.

“I believe in Judy McKie.  She’s one of the greats in the new American furniture,”

says Jonathan L. Fairbanks, curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, who wrote the catalog essay for McKie’s show at Gallery Naga, on Newbury Street.  He compares McKie’s furniture to William Blake’s poem “The Tiger”:

Tyger!  Tyger! Burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

“Blake was a romantic mystic poet but he kept to essential truths like Judy does,” says Fairbanks.  “You can stand and admire and gasp and wonder, but there isn’t an explanation.”

McKie’s career as a furniture maker coincided with a movement of artists who felt disillusioned with abstraction, conceptualism, and cynicism of the contemporary art world, and began a revival of traditional crafts as a way to make art with a sense of connection to real people’s real lives.

In 1979, Fairbanks purchased a mahogany-and-leather bench that McKie had decorated with carved horses’ heads for the Museum of Fine Arts, through a program called “Please Be Seated.”  That same year, her work was exhibited in the American Craft Museum, now the Museum of Arts and Design, in New York City.  She went on to win an NEA Craftsman Fellowship and quickly became a major player in the artists’ furniture movement.  In 1989, she was chosen to show her work in the Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition “New American Furniture: The Second Generation of Studio Furnituremakers,” which traveled to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

That show was curated by Ned Cooke, now associate professor of American Decorative Art at Yale.  He defined the first generation of studio furnituremakers as woodworkers like the legendary George Nakashima, who celebrated the “woodiness of the wood.”

The second generation, like McKie, are art-school trained- many of them at RISD or Boston University’s Program in Artisanry- and more interested in mixing media and exploring new techniques and color.

“Judy’s furniture is joyful, in a strong and positive sense,” says Cooke.   “She has a clarity of vision that makes it work.”

The show at Gallery NAGA, reveals a deepening of that vision.  Table with Pattern is a large walnut table whose surface is completely covered with tiny cuts and dapples carved in the grain wood.  It has ceremonial quality, like a magical shield modeled on a turtle’s shell.  The carvings have all been rubbed with pigment in dark earth colors, or night colors, that seem to flow out of the darkness of the wood. She tells me,

“I don’t like bright, shiny things. I like to make things look as if they’ve existed for hundreds of years- like they’ve been underground or underwater and just got discovered.”

After more then 20 years of working in wood, McKie began casting in bronze eight years ago when an artist friend working with a foundry in Berkeley, California, suggested bronze as a new medium for her imagery. She says,

“I can do things in metal I couldn’t do in wood. Metal gives a sense of permanence and age.”

In Snake Shelves, the continuous curve of a snake’s body- bronze with a patina of pale, luminous turquoise- supports a transparent green glass shelf; it has an eerie, lyrical, underwater feeling.

In Monkey Settee, a pair of sphinxlike monkeys serve as armrests for a walnut bench:. Their tails curl up to form the bench’s back.

In Swan Sconce, the swans hold the lightbulbs in their mouths, so that the light emerging from the lamps becomes the voice or the breath or the spirit of the birds.

Bird Fountain is a bronze fountain in the shape of an ascending bird with a heart-shaped body and wide, outstretched wings; a stream of water pours out of its mouth into a pool filled with rocks and shells.  McKie envisions the fountain as furniture for a garden, surrounded by flowers and trees.

“The water makes you feel calm and peaceful,” she says.  “It’s nourishing.  A life force.”

Part bird, part angel, Bird Fountain has a dark green verdigris, like the bronze of a Chinese burial vessel, and the silent, soaring presence of great mourning monuments like Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s bronze sculpture of woman bent over in grief.  McKie created Bird Fountain as a memorial to her son Jesse, a beautiful and promising young man who died in Cambridge six years ago.

Standing with McKie in her studio, listening to the soft, soothing sound of the fountain, I remembered the song “Many Rivers to Cross,” which was played at the memorial service for Jesse at the Friends Meeting House in Longfellow Park.

As an artist, working in bronze — that most ancient and enduring of materials — Judy McKie has crossed many rivers. She is a true artist, whose work reveals the power of art to console and heal. And the words of the song, and the sound of the water, and the bronze bird’s bright wings, transform sorrow into a fountain of life.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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