Beauty in the Beasts

July 13, 2009

Text by Robert Kiener    Photography by Webb Chappell

Furniture maker Judy Kensley McKie has been called a national treasure and an American master. The Furniture Society of America recently gave her its lifetime achievement award. The Boston Globe has dubbed her work “sophisticated, smart and soulful.” Her witty, whimsical furniture sells out as fast as it becomes available, and she has pieces in more than twenty museums around the world, including the Smithsonian, Yale University Art Gallery and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

She enjoys the recognition, but what really makes her smile is when the UPS delivery man comes into her studio and chuckles over one of her latest works in progress. “I love it if people laugh when they see my work,” says McKie as she takes a break from working in her spacious Medford, Massachusetts, workshop. “I want my furniture to give people pleasure. I like it to be fun as well as challenging.”

“Fun and challenging” runs throughout the varied, stylized, magical menagerie of McKie’s work. Her latest show, held at Boston’s Gallery NAGA, included furniture pieces called Dog and Cat Chair, Bird Settee, Spider Table, Hippo Bench and Dancing Wolves Cabinet. Each featured an engaging animal motif. “Judy has an uncanny ability to invest her work with spirit and lightness,” says Gallery NAGA director Arthur Dion. “Her animals never fail to delight.”

No wonder the late Jim Henson was a McKie fan, as is Robin Williams today.

McKie’s furniture incorporates what she calls the essence of an animal rather than a strict representation. As she explains about her black marble Hippo Bench, “No hippo has legs like that. I am always trying to strip away everything and get to the bare essentials of the hippo, call it the ‘essence of hippo.’ ”

Dion recently told McKie that a biologist had seen her steel-and-glass Spider Table and told him, “It’s obvious that this artist has no idea what a spider looks like. She’s got the antennas wrong and the body isn’t segmented.”

McKie was delighted. “Let me give you a rule of thumb. If you can definitely identify the animal, I didn’t make the piece.”

The shy, sixty-three-year-old artist points to primitive African, Inuit and pre-Colombian art as major influences. “I am drawn to things that are reduced to their simplest forms,” she explains. “I try to remove everything that is unnecessary in my own work.”

Trained as a painter at the Rhode Island School of Design, as was her husband, artist Todd McKie, she turned to making furniture in the late 1960s. “I was never a particularly good painter,” she confesses. “I was more drawn to three dimensions. I also wanted to create something more functional than a painting on a wall.”

With virtually no woodworking training, she began making furniture for her apartment. Her earliest efforts were inspired by Danish modern furniture but she found that unsatisfying. “I was so bored with that look,” she remembers.

One day, as she sat staring at her sofa, she began to conjure up animal forms within it. “It was like seeing images in the clouds,” she says. She imagined a four-legged animal, a dog or a lion, standing on the edge of the couch, then supporting it with its body or legs. She began sketching these visions and soon incorporated them into her work. Danish modern suddenly gave way to animal abstract and Judy Kensley McKie had found a way to, as she says, “breathe life into my work.” She was on her way.

After a selection of her new pieces was included in an American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts and Design) exhibit traveling show, demand for her work grew quickly. She received so many requests for an early dog table that she agreed to make a limited edition of six. “I worried that I’d be stuck making the same thing my entire life so I only made one edition,” she says.

Today her pieces are highly prized by collectors and sell for up to $60,000. A selection of carved wooden trays recently sold for $4,000 apiece, a bargain for a McKie.

Her furniture has an uncanny ability to blend with virtually any decor. “Judy’s work has an elegance and timelessness that complements any design scheme,” says Constance Kantar, director of Kantar Fine Arts in Newton  and owner of five McKie pieces. “It works with everything from antique to traditional to modern. It is that rare combination of furniture and art.”

Unsurprisingly, given her international reputation, McKie is a perfectionist. Her recent show included a chair called Wagging Dog that was cast in bronze from a model. When the chair arrived at her studio she noted that the foundry had varied the angle of the back to the seat by a degree or two. She sent it back to be recast rather than display it in the show. Says Arthur Dion, “Judy is scrupulous and her craftsmanship is impeccable.”

It’s a fitting testament to a national treasure.

EDITOR’S NOTE To see more of Judy Kensley McKie’s work, go to www.gallerynaga.com.