When Daniel Kelly moved to New Orleans in 2009 as artist-in-residence at the St. Roch Community Church, it was his painting career that earned him the opportunity.
But after completing the residency at the church and his master of fine arts degree at the University of New Orleans, Kelly’s creativity has been flowing in a new direction altogether: furniture making.
“In some ways, the inspiration for the furniture isn’t all that different from my paintings,” Kelly said. “I tend to paint urban scenes in which things are coming apart as they age. The wood I work with in furniture making is similar.”
Kelly was drawn into the handmade furniture business by Donald Charlet, a longtime friend of Kelly’s wife, Susan Woodard Kelly.
“Don wears many hats. He’s a custom home builder and a furniture maker in Jackson (Louisiana),” Kelly said. “Susan and I were still living in New Orleans when he asked me if I’d be interested in some kind of creative partnership with him, but it would mean moving. It was a tough decision because the St. Roch community had become such an important part of our lives.”
But the opportunity was too good to pass up. The Kellys and daughter Mary Martha (21 months) settled near Jackson in St. Francisville, where neighbors have welcomed them with open arms. Another benefit of working with Charlet, Kelly explained, is the builder’s access to salvaged lumber from old homes and barns, even from old industrial sites.
“I got really interested in the wood and started playing around with it to see where I could take it,” Kelly said. “The antique heart pine is a beautiful material, but what I’ve become totally enamored with is the pecky cypress.”
The term “pecky” refers to wood that has been attacked by a fungus that eats away strips of the grain, leaving cavities. In cypress, the fungus generally invades the tree at its base and rises toward the canopy. Long ago, “pecky” wood was discarded.
“It was seen as trash and ground up in pellets or shredded for mulch, although sometimes it was used as paneling in a fishing camp or place like that for its rustic look,” Kelly said.
The appetite of designers for pecky cypress has grown in recent years, however, and Kelly wants the furniture he is making to whet it even more.
“I came up with a process of infusing the cavities in the cypress with a polyester resin that has a light gray color to it,” he said. “By filling the holes, I’m taking something that used to be seen as a flaw in the wood and making it pop.”
Kelly’s offerings of pecky cypress pieces range from tables to cabinets to stools.
“I kept the lines clean and designs simple because I don’t want the design of the piece to compete with the material,” he said.
In a few days, Kelly and Charlet will be heading to North Carolina for the High Point Market, exhibiting as “Sugarbone Goods” at the International Home Furnishing Center.
“My second child is due on Thursday and I’ll be leaving for the Market 5 days later,” Kelly said. “It’s a busy time.”
Currently, Sugarbone furniture is available in New Orleans at Modern Market on Magazine Street and in Baton Rouge at Monochrome and Dixon Smith Interiors.
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Contact her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @rstephaniebruno