McKinnon & Harris

McKinnon Harris furniture, outdoor furniture, distinction magazine, distinctionhr, lawn furniture, Richmond VA, Richmond
McKinnon Harris furniture, outdoor furniture, distinction magazine, distinctionhr, lawn furniture, Richmond VA, Richmond

photography by ERIC LUSHER

RICHMOND – Hard up against the railroad tracks in this industrial section of this metal-working town, artisans at McKinnon and Harris cut and bend and weld and grind, turning NASA-grade aluminum into outdoor furniture so fine that a single bench costs $8,000. 

The pieces are slated for the master balcony, the side terrace, the tanning ledges of homes in Florida and Palm Beach and Aspen, or perhaps for the decks of yachts.

But they’re manufactured here, in the Scott’s Addition section of Richmond, home to cabinetmakers, taxidermists, brewers and building contractors. This is a place where people make things. Named after the land’s long-ago owner, Gen. Winfield Scott – called Old Fuss and Feathers because of his fondness for dress uniforms – the neighborhood has seen eras of bustling productivity when street-car-riding workers manufactured radiators, fire trucks and bread, and decades of decline, when factories gave way to gambling houses, brothels and vacant warehouses. Now those warehouses and factories are being converted into trendy loft apartments and their attendant restaurants, coffee shop and gym.

McKinnon and Harris owners Anne and Will Massie are rooted deep in Virginia soil, the sister and brother raised in Lynchburg amidst antiques and art, and grandmothers who gardened. Their parents dragged them to museums and art shows, and once on a beach trip stopped at an antique store and bought the breakfast table the family still eats at today, wedging it half into the back seat over the children’s heads.

“We have all of these memories, all of these attachments to furniture,” Will says. “Each piece when we were growing up had belonged to somebody and had a particular story that was connected to it.”

“And there was such a disposable mentality with furniture put outdoors,” Anne adds, “that we wanted to do something that had a real permanence to it, something that would be enduring.”

They do that by being, they say, control freaks, and having everything but the aluminum itself made within blocks of their business.

“We’re all about everything being local,” Will says, “so we really know and trust everyone we work with and they know our expectations.”

“Plus, there’s just extraordinary local talent,” Anne says, “a real reverence for fine craftsmanship.”

They speak gently, greet guests warmly and consider their employees and customers to be extended family. Every Christmas Will writes a handwritten note to each worker, each one so personal and heartfelt that the recipients save them, and some employees now have bundles of more than a dozen. People who work here stay here.

Anne, 52, has a master of fine arts degree and shows her abstract oil paintings at galleries throughout the state. Will, 51, was a banker but felt no passion for the job. The two have been in business together since childhood, when they sold home-grown produce at their own farm stand. In 1991 they were living one above the other in a duplex in the Fan district of Richmond when they came up with the idea of building landscape furniture. It would be crafted like the antiques they admired, with fine materials and elegant lines, and the engineering and sturdiness to last generations. And the company would be named after their grandmothers, to honor them for their gorgeous gardens.

They started with steel, working with a welder in a place so small that it had electricity but no plumbing. Their mother, a watercolor artist, painted the cover for their first stylebook, and she’s done every one since. Her children repaid the favor by giving their parents some of their earliest furniture, which they still use today. Steel rusts, though, so Anne and Will switched to aluminum and moved to a larger space, and then to a larger one still, expanding until they now have 35 people working on site, and more at their showrooms in New York and London and Los Angeles.

The aluminum arrives having been “extruded like pasta” elsewhere in the United States, a bead along one edge or flat on each, as shop foreman Matthew Browne says in his rolling Welsh accent, made to McKinnon and Harris’ precise specifications. Some components are sculpted or lasered or whittled at a machine shop down the block; there’s little reason to duplicate efforts in a city with such a long tradition of metalwork. Richmond is, after all, the home of Reynolds Metals Co., maker of everything from soda cans to buses, and once a submarine called the Aluminaut.

“This is a very industrial city,” Browne says. “If there’s something that needs to be crafted out of metal, there’s someone in Richmond who can do it.”

Will and Anne’s ideas are translated into plans using 3-D software, often by Jamie Taylor, 38, who works in research and development, although he’s done every other job in the 15 years he’s been with the company. From his plans come specifications for each piece, and from those specs comes the kit list, from which come legs and arms and braces for bottoms, cut by a saw handler and then bent with the primitive Hossfeld bender around half-moon dies custom-made to give each piece the curving elegance of the original vision.

Everything else is done in-house, in a shop that employees say is more like Santa’s Workshop than a factory, inhabited not by elves but by a hodgepodge of personalities. At the lunch table, the hunter who smokes meat for the Christmas party sits next to the tea-and-biscuits Welshman, and the Libertarian argues with the liberals, all of them artists and thus passionate people. The Massies encourage them in their art, and once turned a front portion of the shop into an art gallery and threw a party so that everyone could admire one another’s work.

The parts for an order of chairs are grouped together on a rolling cart – six seats, 12 straight back legs and 12 curved for the front, 24 L-shaped under-seat braces, plus splats and stiles and stretchers and rails, and always the tracking sheet so that each step can be checked off as it’s done.

The cart rolls next to the welders. Chris Caldwell, 54, himself here 16 years, mounts a seat onto a lazy susan-like turntable, and to it clamps gauges that will hold each leg at a precise pitch. Each item fits exactly where it belongs, “thanks to Matt and his guys,” he says. “They drill all these holes, cut all these angles and make every notch just right so that it fits together. If they don’t you get a puzzle that doesn’t go together.”

He sets more clamps, 20 in all, before he pulls on his welding mask. Aluminum morphs toward heat, so it takes practice and experience to weld it properly; you have to skip around, moving the flame. “If  you do it dot, dot, dot you’ll learn quickly that you have to do it another way,” Caldwell says, Instead he welds a little, then waits, taking notes so he’ll know the sequence the next time.

“Building this furniture is awesome,” he says. “I got up excited every single day when I first started working here. When I knew the next day they were going to let me build a table I’d never built before, I’d think about it all night long.”

Some pieces take hundreds of welds, each placed not just for the strength of the piece but with a mind for the next guy, the grinder who will make these welds disappear. “We try to pay it forward,” Caldwell says. It is the welder’s initials that will be stamped into the underside of the piece, but he is just one artist among many.

The piece next goes to the finishers, who work on height-adjustable hospital gurneys, grinding and sanding and smoothing, using hand tools and elbow grease to make the welds vanish. “These are the guys who do the magic,” says Browne. “When they’re done it looks like it was always just one piece.”

Finisher Rob Mir, 34, has a bachelor of fine arts degree from James Madison University. He came to the company six years ago, after answering an ad on Craigslist looking for a craftsperson.

“Usually when you’re applying for jobs, being an artist is a negative,” he says, sanding at a weld. The pieces here, though, are like sculptures, and the work takes an artist’s eye and attention to detail. The work is laborious and highly physical, and doing it well matters to Mir because it has an impact on the success of the company.

He wipes away some dust and returns to sanding. If he takes off too much the piece will be ruined; if he leaves a bump the next guy down the line will send it back. For hours he works, and only when he thinks it’s perfect will he send it to the blasting booth, where a worker in white coveralls, rubber boots and a respirator wields a fire hose that blasts out fine aluminum powder, stripping off any oxidation and leaving a toothy surface that will allow the final finish to cling. When it comes out, the piece goes to final detailing, where yet another worker sculpts aluminum into any minor imperfection, some no more significant than pinholes. Then it’s hung back on the overhead rack and sent through a washing station before it’s sprayed layer after layer with one of 21 custom colors developed by Will and Anne. The finish is the same as that used on luxury cars, says Marketing Director Ginny Hofheimer.

At least 10 people work on each piece, for a total of about 40 hours from beginning to end. Together they make about 2,000 pieces a year, which clients order through landscape architects or designers, and even then they have to wait at least 12 weeks for delivery.

“There are expenses to doing it here but rewards to getting it done right,” says Hofheimer. “Customers know the pieces are hand-made and that they have something that’s rare.”

The clatter and grinding in the main work area speak of industry, but enter the upholstery room and everything dampens, the sound sucked into the matriculated foam of cushions and bolts of fabric. Every detail is attended to, perhaps even obsessively. Blair Watson, 29, is in charge of packaging, and she measures each edge of each box, affixes the tape precisely perpendicular to the edge, and writes the labels in calligraphy – pergola, mistress’s balcony, cake room.

She places the labels just so, on the side of the box that aligns with the front of a couch or chair, so that movers know which side will be lightest.

“Some of the guys give me grief, saying I don’t have to be so particular,” she says, “but my philosophy is that the presentation matters.”

Watson has a fine arts degree and works in wood and metal. Glass gave her too little control of the outcome. When co-workers get up from coffee she pushes in each chair, evening them up with the edge of the table. She wears no jewelry at work, even though she makes her own, because it might scratch a finish. The boxes she packs will be shipped “white glove,” delivered and unpacked on site, or to intermediary addresses, where they’re unpacked and the contents wrapped in moving blankets and delivered, to become part of another family’s history.

“We look at this as an extension of our childhood,” says Anne, who lives and gardens with her husband and family in the historic home Locust Grove, in Lynchburg, with seating areas of her company’s furniture throughout the grounds. “What would we like to make next? It’s always something we would like to have ourselves.”

Will lives with his wife and daughter on Monument Avenue in Richmond, their garden formal and welcoming.

“One thing that is important to us,” says Will, “is that the furniture we’re making is going to be a treasured heirloom for someone else.”

Maple & Belmont

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Maple and Belmont, Hand Lettering, Typography, Maple & Belmont, Virginia, Norfolk, Ghent, Virginia Magazine, Distinction Magazine, Distinctionhr

photography by RICH-JOSEPH FACUN

It’s easy to see which side of Kimberly and Derek Munn’s studio is whose.

On the left, posters feature Zombie Jesus, a Jack Daniel’s label and Red Bird Apples. The motif is cult and Americana, all in red and black. Cans without labels hold fine-tipped pens, markers and mechanical pencils on a desk.

On the right, color pops everywhere. A garland of green, yellow, tan, pink and red puff balls is strung against the wall. Posters feature curlicued letters, and images of flowers and honey bees decorate the desk. A bright pillow rests on a chair.

Here, the Munns put aside stylistic differences to revel in their shared passion for lettering. Kimberly – whose crimson hair betrays her side of the room – always wanted to create with the man she loves. Derek – who is fond of wearing black, except for the colored buttons on his overcoat – thought they worked best together. And so, Maple & Belmont was born. The stationery company combines his structured design with her whimsy.

The Munns are part of a growing community of young Hampton Roads artisans who value the handcrafted, vintage and unique. For their work at Maple & Belmont, Derek and Kimberly spend hours sketching letters, practicing each swoop and curve repeatedly, sketching first a phrase, then trying a word over, then singling out a letter to try again. They carefully select colors and paper, and sometimes screen-print the images themselves. Cigar boxes, old-timey drawings and legendary posters serve as their guides.

It’s caught on, says Vicki Bahr, judging from how speedily customers at her Ghent shop, Kitsch, scoop up Maple & Belmont stationery – from
Halloween cards to ones addressed, “To The Manliest Man I Know.” She sees the popularity of work like the Munns’ as a reaction to the mass-produced and fast-paced consumerism that technology can bring.

“People appreciate the time it takes to craft these items,” she says. “It’s a return back to individuality.”

Kimberly and Derek are type nerds who’ve been known to make a purchase based on package lettering.

They truly real-ized this love in 2010 when the couple, who had met in high school in Newport News and married in 2007, made a move to New York City. After undergrad at Old Dominion University, Derek had decided to attend graduate school at the New York School of Design.

Kimberly worked as a designer at the boutique stationery design house Mr. Boddington’s Studio. She fell in love with its eccentric, colorful style and started developing her own. She and Derek were inspired by the city – from their home in Brooklyn and their subway rides, to the artisans they encountered at markets and the yearly National Stationery Show.

They returned to Hampton Roads two years later and Derek started teaching design at Old Dominion.

Kimberly had a plan – she and Derek would form a stationery business together. They named it after the streets they grew up on in Newport News. It was the symbolic intersection of their styles.

Both had different strengths as well. Kimberly is better with organic forms, while structured shapes are Derek’s thing. They knew working as a couple wouldn’t be easy, but they could complement each other, they thought.

The first job sealed it for Derek. They created a logo and business card design for Kimberly’s mom, an artist. Blue, yellow and bright pink letters sprang from a white background. In those colors, the logo resembled a 3-D painting. No matter how you turned the card, the logo stayed the same.

The Munns fought a little during the process. But the finished product was much better than if they’d worked alone.

“We knew we had something,” Derek says. He still keeps the business card in his portfolio.

The Munns’ latest business venture took them to Kitsch. The store, which features products from Virginia crafts-people, has a second room with a long table, perfect for crafting.

Or for a lettering class. A year ago, Kimberly and Derek held the first, helping 12 attendees hand-letter a favorite quote. The class was one of the most successful Kitsch had had, says Bahr, the owner. “They’re such good teachers. You don’t feel like it’s an art class where you’re being critiqued.” Last fall they held another, which featured lettering on individual chalkboards.

Since their first class that spring, Maple & Belmont has grown. The Munns’ stationery is sold at various retail stores in Norfolk. Sales through their website are booming and they’ve had to juggle, since both still have day jobs at a Virginia Beach design studio. They’ve also taken on custom lettering projects, whether it be calligraphy or with chalk.

The Munns have made connections, like Careyann Weinberg. She was working at Grow Interactive when Kimberly and Derek came to letter a chalk canvas at the technology and design company’s office, in downtown Norfolk. She enjoyed their work so much that when she became president of Alchemy NFK art studios, she included Maple & Belmont’s display at shows.

Weinberg appreciated how they made their work accessible and how they joked when they made mistakes.

“They want to teach everyone,” she says. “They have this attitude that they do something everyone can do.”

Maple and Belmont, Hand Lettering, Typography, Maple & Belmont, Virginia, Norfolk, Ghent, Virginia Magazine, Distinction Magazine, Distinctionhr

The Munns usually settle into their studio on weeknights around 7. One February night, icy rain hit the windows, but the pair stayed focused. The studio is a bedroom in their Ghent apartment. Their screen printer sits in the walk-in closet. Old crates stacked against the walls hold sketches and supplies. Soft music plays as Kimberly letters a quote – “Everything that drowns me makes me want to fly,” from the band One Direction – just for fun. Their pug, Petunia, is nestled in her lap.

Derek searches a book for inspiration. “Ah, here it is,” he exclaims. He’s sketching the phrase “Eat, Drink & Be Married,” which will later be made into a sign for a Norfolk business. As they work, the couple calls on each other for assistance. He uses her decorative eye to help him with an ampersand. A few minutes later, she queries him on the structure of her quote.

The two sketch a bit, overlapping each other. “If you curve this letter … and what if you put ‘drowns’ by itself?” Derek says.

It takes a bit, but finally their collaboration satisfies. “I like it,” he says.

“I like it, too,” she says. “I’ll play with it.”

The couple, now in their late 20s, know that their future will likely take them from this bedroom studio. They’d like Maple & Belmont to become their main creative output, though it’s “still figuring out what it wants to be,” as Kimberly says.

But they know one thing will remain constant – they’ll work together, as they do on this evening, finding common ground beneath his vintage posters and her vibrant garland of puff balls.

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Homeward Bound

Randy Webb, Virginia Beach, Distinction Magazine, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Virginia, Homecoming, native

photography by ROBERTO WESTBROOK

It’s true. There’s no place like home.

At 51, Randy Webb will be the first to say it. He spent years bathed in big-city lights. They never blinded him to the beacon of home.

Webb is one of the business world’s boomerangs: people who make successful careers elsewhere, but eventually swoop back to the nest. They’re drawn back by the past, the present and the future – roots, family, the desire to contribute to the place where they were forged.

Those are powerful pulls for a father, too. Webb sits in a white leather chair in a conference room high in the World Trade Center, the building that curves to fit the corner across from Norfolk’s Town Point Park.

The president and CEO of Signature, a company that helps wealthy folks manage their money, holds up this interview long enough to take a call from one of his three children. “She’s old enough to drive now,” Webb whispers aside, before getting the scoop on his daughter’s whereabouts, then hanging up with an “I love you, too.”

Family is front-burner to Webb, so much that he left his clan headquartered in Hampton Roads while he commuted for years – a big chunk of it to New York, where he worked for Bank of America. “This is a spectacular spot for kids,” he says. “My wife and I decided a long time ago that I’d commute so they could stay.”

The Tidewater is in his blood. “I’ve got an aunt who would say the Webbs have been here forever.”

Three generations back is enough for him to recite – a great-grandfather who worked at the Portsmouth shipyard, a grandfather who became the first president of Old Dominion University, a father who served as dean at Christopher Newport University.

“So for me, this place has gravity,” he says. “I grew up crossing the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. I’ll never forget staying at my grandfather’s house in Larchmont, listening to the horns of tugboats on the river as I went to sleep. I still love that sound.”

Sovran Bank gave him a foothold after college. From there, he climbed the ladder to positions in Richmond, Washington and eventually Manhattan.

Along the way, Sovran morphed into what’s now Bank of America, and Webb evolved into an investment banker. His niche was helping midsized companies raise capital. As a managing director, he helped build and oversee the bank’s East Coast team.

“I was so grateful to AirTran for that Monday morning flight they used to have out of Newport News,” he says. “I could catch it at 6:50, and be in my New York office by 8:30. It made for a long day, but it allowed me to be home on the weekends.”

Sacrifices were a given – including sleep. He coached a daughter’s soccer team long-distance. When school was out, his wife, Lelia Graham Webb, would bring the kids to his apartment in Manhattan. Phones were the family’s lifeline.

His wife wonders now how they ever managed. “During the week, I was pretty much a single mom,” she says. “Every six months, we’d re-evaluate the situation to make sure we were doing the right thing.”

Randy Webb, Portsmouth, Homecoming, Virginia, Virginian, Distinction Magazine

By 2005, Webb needed a “chance to breathe” – to unpack his bags at the family’s house in Olde Towne Portsmouth for more than just a weekend. He resigned from the bank, took some time off, then joined Signature.

Now, instead of corporate types, he works with families like his, but really rich ones. Signature, a 20-year-old firm with offices in Norfolk, Richmond, Charlottesville and Chicago, specializes in what most people would call “new money.”

“We don’t use that term,” Webb corrects. “They’re ‘first-generation wealth originators.’ ”

In other words: People who made their own fortunes instead of inheriting them.

The company’s website says its 150 client families have an average of $20 million-plus in investable assets. Discretion is expected – Webb won’t reveal a single client’s name, only that they come in all ages and from a wide variety of industries.

Most have ties to Virginia, and they’re looking for guidance to make the most of their money through smart investing and well-placed philanthropy. Webb says they have another common thread: “A lot of hard work. That’s what they represent. A spirit of energy.”

He prefers these work relationships to his banking ones, which tended to “end with a transaction. These are more personal. There’s a different depth, a longer duration.” It’s a change that dovetails nicely with coming home.

Webb tries to boil it down – why he loves Hampton Roads. He ticks off its attributes: a rich history, strong traditions, the bustle of port and military. But what really tips the scale is more intimate. The taste of a soft-shell crab. The smell of a salt marsh. The feeling that he’s not lost in a crowd. “This place is big enough to offer a lot, but small enough that your efforts aren’t diluted by 12 million other people. You can be somebody who makes a difference here, and that puts a lot of value in your life.”

Both husband and wife give time to an exhausting list of boards and foundations – the old Portsmouth General Hospital, the Elizabeth River Project, WHRO, the Chrysler Museum of Art.

The plan, Webb says, is “to work really hard to make this place attractive so our kids will want to come back here after they go off for a while, too.”

Decades of earning a living elsewhere help him keep the drawbacks of Hampton Roads in perspective. “Everybody complains about the traffic, but after New York and Northern Virginia, having to get through a tunnel or two seems like nothing.”

Faraway places still beckon: “Traveling, airports – it all has a rhythm that you just have to go with. You’ve got to get limber.” Signature supplies a more-manageable dose. Webb treks across country to see clients, or across the globe to check out investments: China, India, South America.

It’s nice to go. It’s great not to stay. Nothing beats the ability to have dinner with his wife and kids more often than not, instead of sending them a phone-photo of his plate at some restaurant.

“We used to get a lot of those pictures,” says Lelia Graham. “It’s nice to have the fellow home.”

The Fun Czar

Rita McClenny, Distinction Magazine, Skeet Shooting, Shotgun, Skeet, Clay Pigeons, Shotgun shells

photography by TODD WRIGHT

Years of building up Virginia’s economy creates volumes of pressure, even for high-energy Rita McClenny. When this tourism czar wants a break, she narrows it all down – to herself, her clays, her shotgun, and a single moment.

It’s a process, when she shoots.

Rita McClenny approaches the stand, her shotgun in the broken position. She slides a pair of cartridges into the empty barrels and takes her stance. Her breathing is measured and steady. The field is silent.

The shot master gives her a “look,” firing off one of the sporting clays so she can mark its trajectory before her turn. She notes the height and arc, and then briefly visualizes the coaster-sized projectile exploding into a thousand orange pieces.

“Ready,” she says. “Pull.”

In that moment, McClenny’s Richmond office disappears. The work piling up, the meetings, the deadlines, are gone. All that’s left are the farmer’s daughter and her target.

“Being in that moment where nothing else can enter into your mind is very calming,” she says. “You’ve reserved something that’s only for you.”

Skeet shooting. Trap shooting. Sporting clays. Call it what you want, but the stationary sport is not the activity most would associate with Virginia’s tourism czar, a tall, slender woman almost universally described as “high energy.”

But then, maybe it is. As Martha Williams says of her youngest sister, “Once she sets her sights on something, it’s done.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell tapped McClenny in November 2012 to lead the state’s tourism department, a job that is part politician, part cheerleader and part field general. She trained for the position as head of Virginia’s film office for some 20 years.

Under her leadership, the state started offering tax breaks and became a major player in the industry. Funny then to think that McClenny’s original target took her in a completely different direction.

McClenny was one of five children (three girls and two boys) raised by Theodore and Portia McClenny on a farm in Ivor, a small community about 45 miles northwest of Norfolk.

“It was full-service,” she says of the 100-acre spread. “We raised cattle, sheep, pigs, horses. Crops too. It was a lot of work. I fed the cats and dogs and horses. I also pulled weeds, which I hated.”

McClenny excelled in school. She was a cheerleader and played tennis and basketball. After graduation, she earned an economics degree at Fisk University in Nashville. After spending several years working in Atlanta with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics and Eastman Kodak, she returned to Virginia for a marketing job with the state’s office of economic development. She worked on a team that recruited Canadian companies.

“It was perfect for me,” she says. “I understood the concept of packaging the state and its workers. I knew what would appeal to businesses. And I loved what I was selling. It was my home.”

McClenny soon met and befriended Laura Oaksmith, the state’s film office director. Oaksmith, a recruiter in New York, often jokes that her first great steal was persuading McClenny to work for her. “It was clear to me from the beginning that Rita just had ‘It,’ ” she says. “She was politically savvy, intelligent and very passionate. She makes an impression on everyone.”

McClenny wanted to approach her new job the same way she did economic development. “I said, ‘Let’s go to L.A. and knock on doors. Let’s make it really aggressive. Come up with the sales list. Come up with the targets. Come up with the people who have a need for our product and get them to come here.”

When Oaksmith left the film office in 1991, McClenny was the obvious choice to replace her. She flourished in her new role, bringing a business mindset that helped her persuade state leaders to use financial incentives to lure film crews to Virginia.

And McClenny quickly developed a reputation for handling the prickly egos of Hollywood as well as she did those around the statehouse.

“They ask for the moon,” Oaksmith says of the film industry. “Rita was good at giving them what they wanted, but also holding them to their word.”

The Lifetime television network came to Virginia in 2009 to film Unanswered Prayers, a TV movie inspired by the lyrics of Garth Brooks’ popular country song. In return for the production’s receiving tax breaks, Brooks was supposed to attend a reception in his honor and film a tourism PSA with Gov. McDonnell. The country star backed out at the last minute.

“It got down to 1 or 2 in the morning on the day of the shoot and they were still saying Garth wasn’t coming,” McClenny says. “Finally, I said, ‘If he doesn’t come to Virginia, you guys are not getting the incentive.’ Sometimes you have to play hardball.”

Rita McClenny, Distinction Magazine, Skeet Shooting, Shotgun, Skeet, Clay Pigeons, Shotgun shells

She did so well in her job that when Alisa Bailey left the Virginia Tourism Corp., McDonnell asked McClenny to take over. It was a new and bigger job, but for McClenny it seemed a natural transition.

“I went two doors down the hall,” she says. “The goals are basically the same. This world of tourism is made up of people engaged in creating jobs and bringing economic prosperity to their communities.”

She is still trying to get people to come to Virginia, only now the goal is to attract families. Instead of flying to Los Angeles, she’s crisscrossing the state attending beer festivals and resort openings. And instead of catering to the needs of Spielberg and Reitman, she is courting the bigwigs at Condé Nast and Frommer’s.

It is a hectic schedule, so she likes activities that help her relax and refocus.

McClenny started skeet shooting in 2006. She was familiar with guns and thought it looked fun. Since then she has periodically gotten away to indulge in the sport.

“There is a ritual to it,” she says. “It’s ceremonial almost. Your stance. Your posture. Firing the shotgun. The flow of action. You can’t think about anything else. You have to concentrate on the target. It’s impossible to think of anything else in the moment you’re about to fire. And that’s what I love about it.”

Benevolent Design Co.

Patrick Ryan, Virginia Beach, Surfer, Carpenter, businessman, virginia, virginian, virginia magazine, distinction magazine, Distinction, Back Bay Brewing Co

photography by KEITH LANPHER

Weary of chasing profits, Patrick Ryan yearned to transform the neglected into the beautiful and useful. As he reclaimed old wood, he reclaimed his life.

For most of a decade, the road was his escape. By the time Patrick Ryan marked his 30th birthday, the former Virginia Beach surfer kid had become a burned-out businessman. His regional sales trips at least gave him a chance to get out of the office, away from the numbing glow of a computer screen and onto the open road.

Ryan would often veer off the highway and onto winding back roads through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia. For miles and miles, a blur of farm and forest flashed by his windshield.

Windows down. Music up. Time to think.

The scenic views soothed him. He’d forget about how unhappy he had become with his white-collar career and allow his mind to drift. He grew oddly obsessed with the numerous abandoned and neglected barns that stood along those rural roads. Some, he guessed, were approaching 100 years old.

Behind the wheel, he’d daydream about the treasures that might be stashed, forgotten, inside those old barns, or what he’d build if he could pull over, grab a pry bar and take down some of the boards. He had heard about people building furniture from reclaimed wood; he figured he could do that.

Ryan had always been good with his hands, the kind of guy who could do about anything after reading a how-to book or watching someone else do it. Unfortunately, his work didn’t leave much time for personal projects. But it did provide hours-long stretches in a car – and time to dream. He looked at those rundown barns, and he saw potential.

Soon, they would help him realize his own.

It’s unclear when the daydream became a plan, or when that plan came to involve Ryan’s quitting his secure and well-paying job to start his own handcrafted-furniture business. Never mind that he had never actually built a piece of furniture before. By August, he had handed in his notice, and there was no turning back.

The idea for Benevolent Design Co. was simple: Ryan, now 32, would take something old and neglected – like those barns – and he would transform it into something new and functioning. Like a table, or a desk. Then he would pray someone was willing to pay for the result.

He would be starting small. The 300-square-foot shed behind his house would be his primary workspace. His biggest and most important tool: a vintage wood planer he’d found cheap online. On the wall for entrepreneurial inspiration: a tattered American flag. Ryan was chasing the dream.

Gathering the building materials turned out to be easier than he’d imagined. “A lot of times, people just want those old barns off their property,” he says. “A few times, I’ve just walked up and knocked on a door and said, ‘Hey, I’ll tear down that barn if you let me keep the wood.’ That works sometimes. Also, people are constantly selling old wood on Craigslist or in the newspaper.”

Ryan felt as if he’d struck gold when he found an old man in Creeds who wanted to clear out a barn that had been used for a sawmill years ago. “He had all this wood just piled up. A lot of it wasn’t any good because he hadn’t preserved it properly. But with the solid hard oak, the rotten parts just fell apart around it, and the solid oak was sitting there perfect, like a present.”

The marketing side came more easily than expected, too, even for a guy with a business degree from James Madison University. Ryan restored some of the oak and used it to build a dining room table for the old man’s grandson. The photos he posted on Facebook led friends to ask for his services. Word spread, and soon he had orders coming in from people he had never met.

His timing couldn’t have been better. Demand for items built from reclaimed wood has surged over the past several years, driven by the same cultural movement that has people seeking out handmade clothes or eggs from the farmer up the street. Repurposed wood is both environmentally friendly and inherently local. Ryan charges anywhere from $50 for a nice picture frame up to $5,000 for a large dining room table.

“People want to feel a connection,” Ryan says, explaining why he includes with each piece of furniture a framed photo of the barn and a short story about its history.

During his years as a corporate sales rep for a national surfing apparel company, Ryan often felt as if he was hounding potential clients. He had to make a strong pitch, had to make promises he wasn’t always sure he could keep, had to follow up constantly. With handmade furniture, the sales came to him.

“It’s funny, man,” Ryan says, smiling. He smiles a lot now. “When things are happening the way they are supposed to, one thing after another just falls into place. Working for corporate America, it was about the dollar. But now I’m not trying to sell anything to anyone. I’m just creating stuff and being artistic, and people are coming to me asking for it.”

Even on his worst days, it seems like the universe has been smiling on him. Ryan got a shard of metal in his eye not long ago while welding a metal frame for a wood stool. The eye specialist he visited asked him about the accident. That got Ryan talking about his new business. Before he finished treating him, the doctor asked Ryan if he could custom-build an entertainment center for his home.

“Heck yeah, we can do that,” Ryan said.

The response was pretty much identical to his reaction last fall when an old friend asked Ryan if he wanted to build all the furniture for a new craft brewery he was opening at the Oceanfront.

Heck yeah.

The project soon became so much more than that.

It’s past 10 p.m., and Ryan has no plans of stopping. He needs to apply a coat of urethane and oil to the red cedar bar top and then get to work building the matching stools for the Back Bay Brewing Co. tasting room. Once again, he has lost track of time.

Back when he was a sales rep, he would sometimes work late to catch up on paperwork. He’d glance at the clock: 9 p.m. He’d work for a while, start to feel tired, then look again: 9:14 p.m.

“Time would drag on and on,” he says. “That’s what happens when you’re not doing what you love. Now when I’m working late, I’ll look at the clock. ‘Oh, it’s 9 o’clock.’ I’ll work for a while longer, then look again. ‘Oh, it’s 4 a.m.!’ ”

Ryan talks about his new life with the jubilation of someone only recently released from prison. “I’ve found freedom,” he says as he wipes an oil-soaked cloth across the bar top, which he built using wood from a tall cedar that fell down in someone’s yard during a recent storm. With each stroke, the dull wood – like the craftsman – comes more alive.

Ask him to talk about how his life has changed since he started his business. The words pour out of him.

“Sales wasn’t my calling. It was a job, and I was good at it. I don’t regret doing that for 10 years. But I love working with my hands. I love creating. I’ve always been a craftsman. I’ve always been good at that. I’m finally doing what I was made to do.”

Ryan spreads urethane across the bar top, following the grain of the wood with each stroke of the cloth. He pauses occasionally as he shares his story.

“When I was researching possible business names – literally I was coming up with five names every day for a month – somehow I came across the word benevolent. I thought, ‘I like the sound of that. What’s the definition?’ I found one source that basically said: ‘To do things not necessarily for profit but for the right reasons. To make things better. To leave a better mark.’ ”

He’s turned away from the bar now, cloth in hand, totally engrossed in conversation. Telling the story of how he found his passion is about the only thing that can distract him from working these days.

“I thought, ‘God, that’s what I want to do. Every person I come across, if it’s the person at the grocery store checkout or a stranger on the street, they might be having a bad day. I want to walk away with them having a smile on their face. I want to make things better.’ It’s the same principle with reclaiming discarded wood.”

It’s now approaching midnight; Ryan has no idea what time it is. He realizes he’s gone off on a tangent. “I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m pretty passionate about this stuff. But I’m not very good at talking and working at the same time.”

And now it’s time to work. There’s much to be done.

Patrick Ryan, Virginia Beach, Surfer, Carpenter, businessman, virginia, virginian, virginia magazine, distinction magazine, Distinction, Back Bay Brewing Co

The owners of Back Bay Brewing didn’t just hire Ryan to build some furniture for their Norfolk Avenue tasting room, they put him in charge of designing the place. After a short conversation, they granted him creative control.

“I have to give these guys credit,” Ryan says. “I didn’t even know how to weld six months ago. But they sensed my passion, and because they have a passion for local craftsmanship, they gave me a shot. So many good things are happening for me because they took that chance. This isn’t just a furniture business anymore.”

At Back Bay, Ryan used matching red cedar for all the furniture. He covered the walls with rustic-looking tin that he had found at the old sawmill in Creeds. He suspended filament light bulbs inside custom beer growlers for lighting along the bar. He installed hardwood flooring, painted walls, laid tile and built a vanity of reclaimed wood in the bathroom.

Other local business owners have seen his work and have made inquiries. He’s not just reclaiming wood anymore, he says, still smiling. “It’s like I’m helping reclaim Virginia Beach.”

“It’s taken a long time, but this city is getting back to its roots,” he says. “Virginia Beach has had this reputation of being all national chains, all strip plazas, no authenticity, but that’s all changing. I’m telling you, there is a movement of small business owners and local craftsmen who are opening up shop here – they’re not just in Norfolk – and they’re locating in old, historic buildings at the Beach. It’s happening all over the Oceanfront.”

Meanwhile, the waiting list of people who want Ryan to build handcrafted farm tables and rocking chairs and other furniture has grown into the dozens. Soon, he expects, he’ll need to hire some workers and move out of the little shed behind his house and into a workshop.

But he doesn’t want to grow too big. And definitely not too fast. All he really needs is a team with a pickup truck and some tools to help harvest wood from old barns. And maybe someone to help manage the business side.

“No matter where this goes or how big this gets,” Ryan says, “I plan to be working with my hands.”

Bill Frierson

WRV, Bill Frierson, Frierson Designs, Surfing Legend, Surfing, Surfer, Virginia Beach, OBX, Surf Board Shaper, Chairman Of The Board, Virginia, Virginia Magazine, Distinctionhr, Distinction Magazine

photography by TODD WRIGHT

Step inside the small surf shop and browse the racks while you wait for your appointment. The store is stocked with surfboards, surf trunks, surfboard wax, and not much else. No kitschy T-shirts or souvenir key chains here. This is a surfer’s surf shop, home to one of the sport’s few remaining master craftsmen. Bill Frierson emerges from the back, reaches to shake hands, and then starts almost immediately with the questions:

How tall are you? How much do you weigh? Where do you like to surf? How long have you been surfing? What kind of waves have you been catching? What do you wish you could do better?

Frierson nods with each response, brow furrowed, eyes squinted. He’s absorbing the answers, running the variables through his mind, picturing you gliding over a sweet swell on the ideal board. He already knows how to build it. After shaping at least 18,000 surfboards over the past 50 years, Frierson doesn’t need to crunch the numbers.

Surfboard shaping, he says, is part art, part science. “It’s the ability to create forms that are hydrodynamically sympathetic to ocean energy. When you’re surfing, there’s an awareness of the ocean around you, how it’s coming at you, where the energy is focusing as it rebounds and rolls in. I take the same awareness with me into the shaping room. I imagine and respond to that energy, keeping in mind all the variables as I run my tools over that block of foam.”

“I don’t need a computer,” he adds, pointing to his head. “This is the computer.”

If that last remark sounds defiant, it’s not intentional. Frierson says he’s not bitter that the industry he helped build seems to be passing him by. Business has fallen steadily in recent years. He knows the reasons, and he’s at peace with them. If young surfers would rather shop at big-box stores and buy machine-shaped surfboards imported from China, well hey, he figures, at least they’re still surfing.

“It’s been a hell of a run,” says Frierson, who got his start as a teen in the 1960s repairing boards in a garage on 23rd Street in Virginia Beach, and who later bought a fledgling Beach surf company and helped transform it into the biggest surfboard manufacturer on the East Coast, and who for the past 15 years has been shaping custom boards “for the love of it” in a little shop of his own off Birdneck Road. “It’s been fun, but you kind of get the sense that we’re coming up on the end of an era.”

It’s not so much a question of if at this point, but rather how soon Frierson will have to shut it down, he says. Will this be the year he walks away? Next year? Maybe it’s finally time for old Bill Frierson to disappear from the surfing scene, he says, only half joking.

He just hopes the art doesn’t disappear with him.

Frierson grew up riding waves in California and was 16 when he moved to Virginia Beach in 1965. Before his family had finished unpacking, he asked his old man for the keys and motored down to the old Steel Pier, where he found a group of teens hitting the water on surfboards. Some of them would become lifelong friends.

Surfing was still a counterculture novelty back then, and the East Coast was years from catching up with the West Coast shortboard revolution. Still, the sport was picking up momentum in Virginia Beach by the time Frierson showed up.

A local surfboard shaper, Bob White, hired him the following summer to do ding repairs at his shop. White noticed that Frierson was both smooth on a board and good with his hands – a natural for the shaping room. So when White became head shaper for a new company, U.S. Fiberglass, he asked Frierson to join him. The company would later become Wave Riding Vehicles.

It was 1967. Frierson had just graduated from high school, albeit a year late. “I just knew I wasn’t college material. And so I took the job and started chasing the dream.”

He found he loved shaping boards nearly as much as he loved riding them, and he became

obsessed with studying how small adjustments in the shaping room translated to big changes on the water. “To me, that’s the art of reading the kinesis, the movement of the ocean, as it comes across this form that you’ve created with your own hands. That’s a wild thing.”

By 1970, he had set up a small shop in Kitty Hawk, where he soon established his own custom label while continuing to shape boards for WRV. Four years later, he learned that the Virginia Beach corporation had been struggling and was for sale.He teamed with a friend in the industry, Les Shaw, and bought WRV. The business sputtered along for a few years, barely breaking even. But then something changed. As the East Coast surfing scene grew and established its own identity, local surfers started taking pride in the company that shaped boards up the street.

Loyalty. That changed everything.

“When we bought WRV, it was as if a wave had crashed, and we got on just as another, much bigger wave, was building,” Frierson says. “We were smart with money, always rolled it back into the business, and we steadily grew.”

And grew. And grew. Until WRV had become the biggest surfboard manufacturer on the East Coast – so big that Frierson and his shapers struggled to keep up with the swelling demand. In the early 1990s, WRV became the first major surfboard company to begin using a shaping machine. The new computer-guided technology helped free Frierson to focus more on his passion – personally shaping custom boards. But over time, the demands of running a major corporation wore on him.

By the time he sold his share of the company in 1997, WRV was grossing more than $7.5 million annually, Frierson says. He used part of the proceeds to build himself a little shop off Birdneck Road where he could get back to his roots; the rest he invested. He thought back to the risky decision to buy the  company almost 25 years earlier.

“Back then, everyone thought surfing was a fad,” he says. “They thought it was going away. I loved the sport too much to believe that. I loved shaping, I loved surfing. I wasn’t ready to let go of that.”

He’s still not ready.

Frierson steps into a blue room where Styrofoam dust covers the floors. Hand saws, draw-knives and planers hang in a corner. A section of wall is covered in chicken-scratch notes and design sketches. He sets a long piece of foam down in the center of the room and explains the technical process of transforming the white blank foam into a piece of functioning artwork.

Bill Frierson doesn’t offer live demonstrations. Not in here. There can be no distractions in the shaping room. This is holy ground. He grabs an
electric planer and pretends to work on the foam.

“I walk the hull as I shape it as though I am surfing the hull in the water,” he says. “It requires absolute concentration, because in the end, the board comes out as a representation of what I was thinking.”

There aren’t many shapers still doing it like this, certainly not on the East Coast. Even most custom surfboard makers rely on a computer. They punch in a series of variables and let a machine do the grunt work. Where’s the soul in that? Frierson wonders.

Every year, his little business makes less sense. Every winter, starting about three years ago, he thinks hard about calling it quits. Every spring, he finds reasons to keep going. He hopes to shape 60 boards this year, but there’s no telling if the orders will come in.

The deep and lingering recession didn’t help matters. Neither did the move by commercial airlines to begin charging hundreds of dollars to check surfboards. Frierson used to make good money custom shaping boards for customers traveling to Costa Rica and other surfing destinations.

Another key factor that the fit 66-year-old finds no pleasure discussing: His most loyal customers – the surfers who have been riding a Bill Frierson stick since the mid-1970s – are aging out of the sport. And their kids and grandkids don’t all surf.

“I’m screwed,” Frierson says and laughs. “It’s hard to see a way through to a place where this is going to rebound. People at this point aren’t ready to say, ‘Hey, this is the way to get a surfboard: To sit down with Bill.’ ” The thought is interrupted by the unmistakable ring of a rotary phone. He grabs the receiver. “Frierson.”

He keeps the 1980s relic around as a reminder of how much has changed over the years. Plus, he just likes it. With that phone, he doesn’t have to worry about a dead battery or a dropped signal.

It’s the same with automated shaping machines, he says. Sure, they are efficient. But they have limitations. They can’t feel the curve of the board, imagine it cutting through the water and make
adjustments on the fly. They can’t watch a young surfer catching waves and know, without question, how to make her the perfect board.

And now he remembers why he’s still plugging away every summer in this dust-filled shaping room: “For the love of it. And because I have a feeling – I have a hope – that there will be other youngsters who love it, too.”

They might not be able to make a living the way he has, but Frierson has met a handful of young surfers who have asked him to teach them how to shape their own board. He wonders if enough would be interested to start teaching classes.

“I just hope we’re passing it along to enough young people who love it for the same reasons I love it. Who love to see it come from a block of foam to a foil. Who love shaping a board, then getting out on the water and riding it, because it’s magic.

“I hope the art will survive,” Frierson says, then as if trying to convince himself, adds:

“I know it will. It has to.”

SIDEBAR – In the shaping room

The variables Bill Frierson considers while shaping a surfboard are too many to list and too complicated to explain in a few words. Like a veteran surfer riding a wave, he relies on experience and reflexes as he works to craft the perfect board. Below are a few of the thoughts that run through his mind as he shapes.

The surfer: “A surfer’s ability and physical proportion are probably the two most important factors in a custom order,” Frierson says. Every variable depends on the person who will be riding the board. A new surfer normally wants a surfboard shaped to maximize stability; an expert surfer typically wants a board that maximizes maneuverability. A heavier surfer requires a board that floats better, whereas a smaller surfer might struggle to maneuver a board that’s too large.

The length: Longer boards glide more easily, Frierson says, making them well-suited to less experienced surfers. A shorter board speeds everything up – a good quality if the surfer has the skills to keep up. Length should also be tailored to the types of waves. Long boards are better for smaller waves; a short board would perform poorly in calmer waters.
The fins: “Well-placed fins can make a bad board work, a mediocre board better, and a great board magic,” Frierson says. “Or fins can ruin everything.” The fins’ variables – how many, and where – determine a board’s drive and grip in the water. They must be carefully tuned to the rider, the hull and the surfing conditions. Frierson likes for new surfers to start off with a single fin, giving them a single point of control. Too many fins will disturb the flow of water under the board and could kill performance.
The thickness: A thicker board floats better and can provide additional stability in wider, longer boards. “But,” Frierson says, “if the thickness is distributed improperly or placed in the wrong spot of a hull, it can ruin performance.” Thickness at the center will help support a heavier surfer; at the rails, it can restrict a surfer’s ability to carve a wave.
The rocker: Rocker – the curve of a board from fore to aft, like a rocking chair – is a delicate matter. Some lines of the hull need to be straightened to enhance speed; others need curve to enhance maneuverability. “Too much rocker – or rocker in the wrong spot – can restrict the board’s ability to glide,” Frierson says. A board with too much rocker would cause the board to “push water.” A board that’s too straight would be faster but difficult to control.
The width:  “Width is a mysterious dimension, and its impact in the water can vary wildly depending on the wave,” Frierson says. “You can have shorter boards that are wide and longer boards that are narrow, and those variables work together in interesting ways.” Making a short board wider makes it plane more quickly, enhancing lift. Making a long board narrower makes it less stable from left to right while increasing maneuverability.


An Iron Will

Nol Putnam, National Cathedral, National Cathedral Gates, Blacksmith, Smithing, Anvil, Black Smith, Huntly VA, Virginia, Distinction Magazine, Magazine, Virginia Magazine

photography by ADAM EWING

HUNTLY, VIRGINIA – Nol Putnam forges wind from iron, his hammer metronomic at 2½ strikes a second, steel against iron against anvil. The angle of the peen and the force of his follow-through shape hot metal the way a rolling pin pushes pastry.

Putnam, 80, has been creating art from iron for more than 40 years. His hands are strong, his shoulders broad, his hearing damaged by the clang and the clatter. Flying sparks have burned constellations into his beret and shards of metal have scarred his skin, yet he awakens each day excited to return to his fire.

Hot like this, the crystalline molecules of the metal slide past one another and re-form under Putnam’s tools as delicate petals and leaves, or as soaring swoops and swirls that cantilever out over broad bases. In the sculpture garden outside his White Oak Forge in Huntly, Virginia, 90 minutes north of Charlottesville on rollercoaster roads, the 7-foot-tall West Three Wind circles back on itself three times before shooting back through all three layers and off toward the distant sky. It is part of his series Lines In Space, some of the sculptures man-sized and some small enough to sit on a table, and all inspired by the childhood books by Thornton Burgess, whose Old Mother West Wind is depicted as lines that eddy off toward the horizon.

“When you’re doing something like that you have to worry about not just the physical engineering of how it’s going to stand up and who’s going to come play on it,” Putnam says, “but then how is that negative space or the space you’ve defined going to look to the eye?”

The sculpture weighs about 400 pounds, yet Putnam made it alone, heating the metal in his 3,000-degree forge, drawing the curves in chalk on the primitive platen table and bending the metal to meet them, then pounding it with both a mechanical air hammer and his own strength and persistence. For weeks he shaped component parts, then lay each out on blocks on his smithy floor, sometimes using a crane to manipulate them into position, sometimes welding them to the bucket of his tractor in order to keep them in place.

Today he is working with pure iron imported from England – “like forging butter, relatively,” he says, using tongs to hold a finger-width rod into the fire. Pure iron has a fibrous grain like that of wood, which makes it easy to stretch and bend and shape. Add a little carbon into the latticework of the iron and you create steel, a material much stronger but also more rigid, and thus harder to transform into items of delicate beauty.

Putnam turns a rheostat that controls a fan that blows air through the hot coals, the bellows long gone. He pushes the green coal to the edges of the fire with a toothless rake and pulls more coke toward the center. The rake was the first tool he ever made, and he uses it every day, all day, its handle smooth in his calloused palm. On the side of the forge are a pair of tongs he made himself, and a pair given to him by his mentor. There’s a center punch, too, salvaged from the smithy of his best friend when he died half a decade back.

The iron glows red, itself nearing 2,200 degrees, and Putnam carries it to the anvil and begins his rhythmic pounding, each strike precise.

“People come in and say, ‘Oh, you’re such an artist,’ which is very flattering,” he says, “but what they don’t understand is that it’s about 90 percent practice and only 10 percent genius. In any profession you develop the skill by practice, and that’s what most people don’t do.”

Indeed, his former mentor would give beginners a two-by-four with an X drawn on one end, and only when they could hit the X each time with the center of their hammer were they allowed to work with iron.

Putnam strikes the end of the rod 43 times to bring it to a point, then returns it to the fire.

Both the building and the fire that is the heart of the building are called forges, although the building can also be called a smithy. This is Putnam’s seventh, the design winnowed by him from what worked in the ones that came before. There are skylights over the anvil for natural light, and broad windows that frame birds and trees and the pond that separates his workshop from his home. The chimney rises 22 feet – the higher the chimney, the better the draw; the better the draw, the hotter the fire. The Venturi effect pulls ash and smoke up the chimney and out of the shop. The floor is 4-inch-thick reinforced concrete; his pneumatic hammer sits on a massive block of wood that rests on its own 4-foot cube of concrete, set deeper than the building’s footers so that the vibration of the machine won’t set up a resonance that will crack the floors and 12-foot-tall walls.

The beam-mounted crane is 2 feet higher still, giving Putnam room to manipulate long lengths of iron without bashing lights or banging the ceiling. Hundreds of hammers hang next to the forge, the handles of his favorites smooth from use. Nearby are racks of U-shaped forms, some narrow, some wide, designed sometime along the 3,000-year history of man’s manipulation of metal. The bottom half of the form is designed to fit into a slot in the anvil; the upper form has a hole for a handle like a hammer’s. In a two-person shop the upper form is held by the blacksmith while an apprentice strikes it from above, squeezing and shaping the hot metal inch by inch. In Putnam’s shop the striking is done by his pneumatic hammer – his mechanical apprentice – a machine so brutish it can crush metal, yet with Putnam’s trained toes on the air pressure level is gentle enough to close a matchbox without crushing a corner.

Putnam pulls the red metal again from the fire and aligns it under the head of the massive air hammer. Pound after pound it flattens the metal into a lozenge, a flat lollipop on its way to becoming a leaf, its color fading from orange to gray.

“This is where it’s dangerous,” he says, holding the back of his hand over the piece to confirm. The color is gone but the temperature still hovers at about 1,000 degrees. He sticks the metal back into the fire.

Nol Putnam, National Cathedral, National Cathedral Gates, Blacksmith, Smithing, Anvil, Black Smith, Huntly VA, Virginia, Distinction Magazine, Magazine, Virginia Magazine

Nol Putnam grew up on a farm, working with his hands. He adored three-dimensional geometry, and lived a life rich with books and music. He became a teacher of history and the creator of cultural bridges between incoming Native American students and the faculty of a western Massachusetts boarding school. He was in his late 30s when he read a library book on blacksmithing and used it and his dad’s hammer – plus a lot of self-described stubbornness – to begin his new career. In his first decade he paid his dues making hooks and andirons and fireplace tools, then standing in heat and rain and cold at craft fairs, peddling his wares.

In the next decade he turned his tools to architectural and structural work – balconies and railings and ornate iron gates of steel and copper and brass. The ideas come to him in dreams, fully formed; his job then is to awaken and capture them onto bedside paper and then to translate those sketches into something clients can understand.

For the Rockefeller family he forged brass into a 16-foot-wide gate adorned with a delicate tree. For what he called his “Rousseau Gate” he created nine leaves, 3 and 5 and 8 feet tall. For each commission he visits the site, talks with the clients about their vision, then returns later with two sketches. He could make more, but the conversations would then be complicated.

“I encourage clients to mark up the drawings, to say yea and nay, to tell me what they like and don’t,” he says. “I don’t like commission work to simply be an exchange of money. I prefer for the clients to be part of the process, even to the point of coming down and taking a ceremonial whack just to see what it’s like. Then the whole piece becomes more meaningful for everybody.”

Now he pulls the flat leaf from the fire and draws a mental line down its center, then hammers on one side of it and then the other.

“See the line down the middle?” he says. “Now I’m going to put some veins it and then whiffle it so it look like it has some life.”

He returns it to the fire.

Putnam forged 250 petals and leaves of a much heavier iron for a pair of gates that hang in the National Cathedral in Washington. The ornate Folger Gate, installed in 1995, frames the entryway to the columbarium in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea. Nearby hangs Putnam’s Brown Gate, and behind that the ashes of ambassadors and bishops, architects and musicians, but also those of Helen Keller and her caregiver, Annie Sullivan.

“It’s a beautiful building, but it’s a little overwhelming to think about being there,” he says.

He got the job through word of mouth, and began work with nothing more than a handshake. For the next year and a half he worked – 1,200 hours of forming flowers and forging the frame. The pistil on each flower and the rivets that connect the crosspieces are all different; one depicts the face of Yoda from Star Wars.

The gates had to meet specifications for how they hung in the arched entryway, and they had to open and close, and latch smoothly. Beyond those parameters Putnam was free to design to his own vision.

“I was just really fortunate – that I was given the chance and that I could rise to the occasion,” he says. “Fortunately, I think it’s some of the best work I ever did.” The gates are considered to be part of the fabric of the building, the things that give life to the structure: the stone carvings, the windows, the tapestries, the ironwork – everything that gives it texture.

He was hired by Canon Richard T. Feller, the longtime and well-known Clerk of the Works – chief administrator in charge of all construction and artwork for the cathedral, the sixth-largest in the world.

“He was a serious man who took his work very seriously and demanded that everybody else do the same,” Putnam says. “It made him sometimes difficult to work with. I didn’t particularly have a problem with it, but he held your nose to the grindstone in order to get your best work, and it was a valuable lesson.”

In the midst of that work, another office of the cathedral called. Former President Gerald Ford was ill, and if he died he would come to the cathedral to lie in state, yet all the cathedral owned were four “tacky, wobbly wooden candlesticks,” Putnam says. “They called me up, desperate, and said, ‘Please please, we need this immediately!’ ”

There are few emergencies in artisanal blacksmithing, nor can things easily be rushed. Luckily, President Ford did not die at that time, but the candlesticks, tall and simple and reflective of some of the patterns in the stonework, still stand sentinel.

Putnam pulls the leaf from the fire and holds it on the forward-pointing cone of the anvil. He taps the metal with his hammer, twisting the leaf until it looks blown by the wind. Then he positions a chisel-like hardy upright in the tool slot of the anvil, lays the leaf’s stem across the hardy’s edge and takes four solid whacks, slicing nearly through the stem. It is poor form, he says, to cut all the way through and send the hot metal shooting across the shop. Years ago a piece broke loose and whacked him on the head and knocked him out cold.

He clamps the leaf to a workbench and uses a screaming electric grinder to blunt the sharp edge, then holds the leaf and a stamp of his initials under the head of a foot-powered hammer – a tool invented in Michelangelo’s day – and stomps, impressing his initials into the stem, then buffs the leaf with a spinning wheel of wire bristles. Last, he paints it with his homemade elixir of turpentine, linseed oil and beeswax, and buffs it dry.

“Now imagine doing all those steps to every component of the cathedral gate,” he says, as he holds up the completed leaf.

“Patience is a virtue,” he says, his voice as cadenced as his hammer, “seldom in a woman … never in a man … but always in a blacksmith.”

Finding His Voice

Justin Kauflin, Jazz Pianist Justin Kauflin, Distinction Magazine, Quincy Jones, Jae Sinnet, Governor's School for the Arts Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Jazz Recording Artist, Kauflin, Disitnction, Hampton roads, Tidewater

It’s a fall day, early afternoon, and Justin Kauflin is in the small music room of his family’s Virginia Beach home, sitting at the piano, searching for a sound.

His hands glide across the keys like water over stones, fast but not rushed. His face is in a grimace.

The music is beautiful. And unmistakably jazz. But it’s not perfect. As Kauflin finishes, he delivers an apology. “It’s just something I’m working on,” he says. “It’s not ready yet.”

Music has always spoken to Kauflin. As a small child, he reached up to the family piano and tapped along until familiar melodies emerged. Then came music lessons: first violin, then piano.  By the time he started at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, it was clear he had a gift.

Still, gifts require development, and he impressed parents and teachers alike with a work ethic rarely found in someone so young. But lately the 27-year-old has pushed himself harder than ever.

This fall he heads to Los Angeles to begin the months-long work of recording a CD with Quincy Jones, the legendary producer, conductor and arranger who has worked with some of the biggest names in music. And for the first time in his life, Kauflin is being asked not to interpret someone else’s music but to make a serious attempt at writing his own.

So here he is, sitting at the piano, searching for something original and special and entirely his own, searching for his voice.

Of course, in a way, Kauflin has been doing that for 16 years – ever since he lost his sight.

Kauflin was diagnosed young with familial exudative vitreoretinopathy, a hereditary disorder that can cause progressive vision loss. He was completely blind by the age of 11.

It’s easy to imagine that children in that circumstance might feel sorry for themselves and question an unfair world. But Phyllis Kauflin’s son was different. “The first thing he did was come to me and say, ‘I need to find something to do for a job,’ ” she says.

He was the middle of five children, all of whom were musical. And despite a lifetime of poor vision, he had already showed tremendous promise at the piano. He learned music quickly, by ear, and remembered anything he heard.

“His brain is like a computer,” his mother says. In fact, years later he would shock teachers by doing calculus and AP physics without a calculator.

Immediately after losing his sight, Kauflin dedicated himself to the piano. The decision was in some part pragmatic – unable to play sports and video games, he filled his time with practice. “Everybody was rollerblading and running around, so I naturally found myself at the piano, really for lack of anything better to do. In a weird way, losing my sight helped me realize how important music was for me.”

He auditioned for the governor’s school. The instructors thought he would be a good fit for jazz. Classical required too much sight reading; jazz was an oral tradition with a lot of skilled improvisation.

“This is something I can do,” he thought.

Justin Kauflin, Jazz Pianist Justin Kauflin, Distinction Magazine, Quincy Jones, Jae Sinnet, Governor's School for the Arts Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Jazz Recording Artist, Kauflin, Disitnction, Hampton roads, Tidewater

When Justin Kauflin lost his sight at 11, the decision to focus on piano was a natural;
he’d already shown he has a gift. Developing that gift has been arduous,
an exploration yielding jazz, studio time
with Quincy Jones – and a vital faith.

Jae Sinnett was teaching jazz at the governor’s magnet school when he first met Kauflin.

The experienced jazz drummer says the young man was mature beyond his years and hungry to learn. Kauflin would listen to Sinnett’s radio show – Sinnett in Session on WHRV – and try to learn the music on the spot.

“He would call me up and ask me to listen. Then he would play over the phone the song I just had on air. It was amazing.”

Kauflin did well in high school and continued his music education at The William Paterson University of New Jersey. There he met Clark Terry, a jazz trumpeter who played with Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Terry, now 93, is a legend for several reasons, not the least of which is his role as Quincy Jones’ first instructor.

Terry was a sort of adjunct professor at the university. Kauflin and his friends started going to Terry’s home to play music and learn about jazz from a master. “Those are the kinds of opportunities you just can’t pass up,” Kauflin says.

After school he moved to Brooklyn in hopes of making a living there as a musician. But he found life in the city tough and filled with anxiety. Something as simple and necessary as a subway ride could be frightening.

Making matters worse, getting gigs was tough. People assumed Kauflin’s blindness made it harder for him to learn their music. “I would tell them, ‘Just give me the chord changes. It will take me five
minutes.’ But it was a pretty constant issue,” he says.

After three years of watching his money dwindle, he returned home to his family in Virginia Beach and started performing in the area, sometimes with
Sinnett. He kept in touch with Terry, who had moved to Arkansas to be with family. Last August he flew down to visit his old friend and met Jones, who was also there visiting. Kauflin spent the day with the two legends.

A few months later Jones invited Kauflin and other young performers on tour. The jazz great was celebrating his 80th birthday and using the occasion to host a series of concerts in Switzerland, South Korea and Japan. Kauflin so impressed Jones that the producer invited him out to the West Coast to do some studio work on some of Kauflin’s originals.

It’s a big opportunity and an even bigger challenge for the young musician.

“That’s his next great step,” Sinnett says. “He is explosive as a player, but now he has to look deep inside himself and find another level. He has to find out what he wants to say with his music. And that is maybe the toughest thing to do for a musician, even a really good one like Justin.”

Which is why Kauflin has been working so hard lately. He knows what he wants to say; he’s just working out how to say it.

He says you have to live a full life to make music. And though young, Kauflin has faced his share of challenges. But when he thinks about his life, he sees the hand of God at work.

“Would I be a musician now if I had not lost my sight?” he says. “Probably not. And now I would not know what to do without it. Faith has been very important to me. A source of comfort and strength. I want my music to reflect that. I want it to be a prayer I can share with people.”


Justin Kauflin, Jazz Pianist Justin Kauflin, Distinction Magazine, Quincy Jones, Jae Sinnet, Governor's School for the Arts Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Jazz Recording Artist, Kauflin, Disitnction, Hampton roads, Tidewater

At 27, Justin Kauflin – here with Candy – knows two pieces of his puzzle:
jazz piano, and faith. He’s working on a third: how to express that faith.

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Click here for a full hour video from The Justin Kauflin Trio at The Kennedy Center:


Pioneer Of The Past

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

A passion for old things and old ways carried a young gunsmith to frontiers of craftsmanship – and the work of passing it on.

photography by ADAM EWING

It happens somewhere between the head, the heart and the hands. The magic that transforms a chunk of wood into an heirloom, a puddle of paint into a treasure, an ordinary man into a master.

Wallace Gusler – craftsman, artist, author, historian – has been percolating for 72 years. Known best as the maestro of the American long rifle, he spent decades as Colonial Williamsburg’s master gunsmith, becoming the first person in modern times to build one the old way – by hand, from stock to barrel.

A 1968 documentary, Gunsmith of Williamsburg, shows Gusler hard at work, a dark-haired young man in Colonial garb, forging, filing and chiseling.

The man who answers the door at his home today has a silver ponytail and sells his custom-made firearms for up to $50,000. But his interests and expertise have branched like a seasoned oak. A conversation with Gusler trots the globe and leaps through history – Early American furniture, stone-age tools, Colonial wallpaper, back-country dulcimers, British tea ware, Chinese burial artifacts, African masks, English gardens, Greek sculpture, classical paintings, pot-bellied stoves.

He’s quick to confess that he has no formal training in any of those areas. In fact, he was kicked out of high school for lack of attendance – the “boot diploma,” as he says, with a grin. Instead, Gusler is the embodiment of what can happen when a thirsty mind stays open for business.

The next time he stepped into a class, he was at the front of the room, lecturing at a university.

Wallace Gusler and the old ways are entwined, a relationship distilled in the hollows of Virginia’s Appalachians. He grew up in Roanoke County, in the shadow of Fort Lewis Mountain, roaming the ruins of its namesake fort, built during the French and Indian Wars. His pockets were filled with arrowheads, his imagination with the frontier.

His father was a timber man, and times were lean on the family’s small plot of land. “We were poor,” he says. “Everyone around us was. We plowed with a mule. Raised hogs. Grew our own vegetables. It was an 18th century way of life.”

It’s hard to say what changed Gusler’s course – tweaked his soul into something different from the more practical stock he hails from. Maybe it was the rheumatic fever. Around age 10, the illness confined him to bed or the porch for nearly a year, where he occupied his hands with model airplanes, his eyes with the flight of birds or the shapes of clouds.

He only knows that by the time he was well, he wasn’t the same kid. He took to running, long distances through the hills. And he noticed more – the small things – the smell of wood as it came off his father’s mill, the swirl of its grains, the hues of its fibers. “No one else at the saw mill gave a tinker’s dam,” he says, “but I was fascinated. ‘Why are some trees like this and others like that?’ I still love a good piece of wood.”

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

Gusler lays sterling wire into channels of a hand-carved
gunstock. He prefers wood cured at least 20 years;
it’s more stable.

He worked on his first gun around age 12 – an old .32-caliber squirrel rifle that belonged to his father and refused to fire. Two years later, he built his own, a flintlock pistol with a stock carved from cherry.

“I picked the brains of the old-timers,” he says, “the guys who had really shot. They were characters – old shopkeepers, and drunks who lived in chicken coops because their wives wouldn’t let them in the house. They were just more interesting than the teetotalers at the Baptist church. They had incredible recall. I learned about guns from them.”

The budding gunsmith converted a coop at home into his own humble workshop, and began building a reputation for himself. Firearms came in for repair and their owners lingered, swapping hunting tales into the night.

Gusler found himself drawn to the older guns, the long rifles of the pioneers. To him, they were stewards of a golden age – time capsules of endurance, courage, independence.

At 16, he killed his first buck with an 1830 model – sealing the deal on a lifelong love affair.

School suffered. “I missed 64 days in the 10th grade and they asked me to leave,” Gusler says. “It just wasn’t my thing. It seemed like they didn’t want you to think – really think – and besides, I was more interested in hunting and making rifles. That, and running. I never missed a track practice.”

By then, he’d burrowed through enough dusty barrels and backrooms to amass an inventory of antique gun parts and nurture his taste for all things old. Always short on cash, he remembers one of his first non-gun purchases – an Indian ax head he bought on layaway for $5.

“And I’ve been in debt ever since,” he sighs.

The best gunsmiths can work both wood and metal, and as Gusler’s skills developed, word of his craftsmanship spread – an ever-widening circle that landed him a job at Colonial Williamsburg as a 20-year-old in 1962.

“I started in the blacksmith shop,” he says. “They had no budget for a gunsmith back then. There I was, my first day in costume – just a shy mountain boy – and someone led me outside and pointed to a cauldron and asked if I knew what it was used for. And, of course, I knew, because where I came from, we were still using things like that for making apple butter. From that moment on, I was right at home.”

Working on the inlay. Gusler, thrown out of high school for poor
attendance, rapidly became a recognized expert in gunsmithing.
Colonial Williamsburg hired him at age 20.

At Colonial Williamsburg, the largest living-history museum in the United States, Gusler was able to immerse himself in the yesteryear.

He founded its gunsmith shop, researched the evolution of the Virginia long rifle and re-created the techniques of gunsmiths past.

He became an expert at conservation and restoration, and moved on to become a curator, expanding his wheelhouse to include not just firearms but furniture, clocks, musical instruments, paintings, textiles, and on and on.

When the real thing no longer existed, he helped the foundation get it right, crafting accurate reproductions for the Governor’s Palace, including two elaborate cast-iron stoves.

Along the way, this high-school dropout wrote catalogs, magazine articles and books, taught carving at the Smithsonian Institution and rifle making at Kentucky universities, and served as an adjunct lecturer at the College of William and Mary, a position he held for nearly 20 years.

“I’m not saying I’m on any of their posters or any-thing,” he jokes. “I’m not exactly an example of how they’d like you to get your education.”

In 2003, after 40 years of job titles, frequent flier miles, designing, exhibiting and labeling – lots and lots of labeling – Wallace Gusler retired. Now he runs his own consulting business, teaches when he feels like it, works when he feels like it, and putters around a lakeside house on the outskirts of Williamsburg where he lives with his wife. Liza, a history major Gusler met at Colonial Williamsburg, shares his passion for fine wood, antiques and art. Their home overflows with interesting objects from across the world. In typical family fashion, none of their four grown children is particularly partial to any of it. “You know how it is when you grow up around something,” Gusler says. “You want to be different. They’re sick of all this stuff.”

Gusler’s handiwork is everywhere, in the moldings, arches, staircase. Out back, he created an extravagant garden with an engineered stream and rock outcroppings reminiscent of his roots in the Shenandoah Valley. And then there are his sculptures – mostly nude female forms, a testament to his appreciation for beauty, plus a dose of ribald humor.  One is complete with pubic hair, wisps made of 14-karat gold.

Liza calls his man-cave, located on the second floor, the “voodoo room.” Leather chairs and a large TV – he’s into sports – compete for space with ancient throwing knives, warrior shields, stone artifacts, and reams of books and periodicals. His collections extend on up the next stairwell to his workshop, where one thing is noticeably absent.

“I’ve probably made 300 guns in my life,” he says, “but don’t have a one of them.”

A work-in-progress sits cradled in a wooden vise – a rifle stock made from curly ash, waiting for the mornings when his hands feel steady enough to finish its intricate scrollwork and engraving.

Restoration jobs take up the other hours. The desktop of a walnut secretary lies on a work bench, missing a chunk of wood where a hinge ripped out. Gusler dates the desk to around 1772, and he’s
repairing it with a piece of walnut he’s had on hand for nearly 50 years.

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

The tools on Gusler’s workbench are a mix of hand-made and modern-made.
The planes and mallet are from a dogwood that was dying in his yard;
he put corncob handles on other tools to remind
him of Appalachia, his home.

“Sometimes it pays to be a pack rat,” he says, showing how the slivers of age-darkened wood he’s cut and glued into the wound closely match the color of the original.

When he’s done, he’ll replace the hinge, using 18th century handmade screws he bought from an antique shop as a teenager. “They were going out of business and I bought every one they had,” he said. “I’ve been using them all my life.”

Next, he’ll remove the tiny dots of paint spattered on the desk at some point during its centuries of service. “Furniture has phases,” he says, “a time when it’s new and cared for, a middle age when it’s disrespected, and, if it survives, an old age when it’s treasured again. I only erase the signs of abuse, not of use. Those are beautiful. They’re character.”

On a nearby table, he’s “aging” a new hinge so it’ll blend in with the old ones on another piece of furniture. He dips it from a bowl containing a solution of black gunpowder and other ingredients. He shows how he’ll etch it with the date of his restoration, so no one will mistake it for an original.

“I hate fakes,” he says.

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

The most elaborate gun Wallace Gusler has crafted: an American long rifle
custom made for acouple in Staunton. Its value: more than $100,000.
He used a curly maple stock cut in the ’60s and detailed it
with 10,000 to 12,000 pieces of wire, set one by one.

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

Authenticity is important in Gusler’s universe. Old things “have something from the time and the maker in them,” he says, “and over the years, they acquire something from every handler. They have a patina – a feeling that’s almost spiritual.”

He’s not a fan of organized religion, and says he’s “not intelligent enough to understand God. But I do know that humans are the only creatures with an understanding of their own demise. The things we leave behind, it’s like they’ve passed through the barrier of death.”

He says he’s “soul-searched, asked myself why the old times have dictated so much of my life. It’s not like I think things were so great back then. Daily life is so much easier now.”

He wonders if it’s the where and when of his youth – Fort Lewis, and black-and-white TV, with heroes like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the frontier – any frontier. I would have gone to space if I could. I would have loved that. But since I couldn’t, I guess I decided to live as much as possible on the frontier of knowledge, to try to further the understanding of the obscure – the lost.”

Wallace Gusler, Kentucky Longrifle, Virginia, Williamsburg, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Flintlock Rile, Gunsmith, Loveva, Hampton Roads Gunsmith, Gunmaker, Engraver, Hand Made Virginia, Made IN Virginia

At work relief-carving a stock of curly maple. Upright before him:
African knives made of iron and wood in the late 19th century.
Old things, he says, “have something from the time and the maker in them, and …
acquire something from every handler.”

One of his favorite sayings: “There is no royal road to learning.” In other words: No substitute for sweat and enthusiasm.

“And when you’re learning things for yourself, it never ceases to knock you off your pedestal. What you think you know is often all wrong.”

Knowing our roots lends all kinds of perspective. Gusler remembers when his salt-of-the-earth parents came to visit their now-successful son in Williamsburg. He was showing them his fancy garden, thick with shapely shrubs and  exotic trees.

“My mom looked at me and said, ‘When are you going to plant something you can eat?’ ”

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Sam Abell

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

1975, Sylvania, Ohio: Thad and Sam Abell. Sam learned photography and composition from his dad; from mother Harriett, whose “taste, style and aspirations governed our household,” what to photograph.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

Having turned away from his quest at National Geographic
for an America of nostalgia, a renowned photographer
now seeks to see America as it really is.

photography by HYUNSOO LEO KIM
archive photographs courtesy of SAM ABELL

Before he became one of the most respected photographers of his generation, before the storied career at National Geographic, before the nationally touring art exhibits, before the lifetime achievement awards, Sam Abell was an antsy little boy staring at a needlepoint map of America.

That’s what obedient children did at the Abell household when adults stopped by for adult conversations – they sat quietly in the family room, daydreaming as they studied the cloth map that had been encased inside a glass coffee table, the map their mother had made in 1942 when she was pregnant with the first of her two boys.

Within the border of each state she had stitched a symbol of beauty, or history, or ingenuity – America as she imagined it. A prickly cactus in Arizona. Golden wheat stalks in Kansas. A cowboy riding a horse in Texas. Smoke rising from a thriving steel mill in the Abells’ home state, Ohio. George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

1959, Painesville, Ohio: Sam Abell’s groundbreaking photograph of his father.
“For the first time,” Abell says, “someone other than me
noticed a photograph I’d made and gave me a prize for it.”

For the better part of four decades, Sam Abell carried a camera across America in search of those idyllic images. He photographed ranchers roping steer in Montana, bison grazing through snow in North Dakota, a lone fisherman obscured by fog on the Mississippi River. The photos are iconic, expertly composed. They hang on walls in museums and fill the pages of books and magazines.

The images Abell spent decades chasing depict America as he dreamed it would be in all those hours gazing at his mother’s map. They are photographs of the wild and untouched New World.

And they are mostly superficial.

The realization hit Abell without warning a decade ago. He had been among the most celebrated documentary photographers of the late 20th century, yet he had spent most of his career making images that more closely resembled scenes from the 18th century.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

1976, Georgia: the Okefenokee Swamp. ABOVE, 1986, Montana: Compose and wait.

“I was treasure hunting,” Abell says of his work for National Geographic. “I was on the beach with a metal detector looking for a ring, the whole while disregarding the ocean and the sky and the sand. I went to great lengths to escape the authentic, modern world around me, searching instead for a hidden vestige of another era.”

Sam Abell had spent his career photographing America the way his mother imagined it.

Now he’s searching for the real story.

The views from Abell’s eighth-floor downtown Charlottesville studio perfectly symbolize his late artistic awakening. Out one window is the historic Court Square where Thomas Jefferson and James Madison once argued cases. Antique black lampposts stand along brick sidewalks and streets. A tree-covered mountain range is on the horizon.

Out another window, on the opposite side of the studio, is a municipal parking deck. Cars whip along an asphalt street painted with double yellow lines. A thicket of power lines obstructs the view of a narrow sidewalk where two restaurant workers are taking a smoke break.

 The first scene is what drew Abell, who will soon turn 69, to Virginia many years ago. He and his wife live in Crozet, on a plot of land near the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As he traveled the world searching for images of natural beauty, cultural meaning and historic significance, he chose to plant roots in a place that seemed to embody all of those things. He moved here when he started at National Geographic in the 1970s and never left.

“Virginia,” Abell says, “has a hold on people, including me, that comes from a gathering together of very important things: History, culture, geography, climate, landscape. Charlottesville is a coming together of the best of all those things.”

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

A man looks up, freshly chastised for riding a horse too hot in the cold.
The horse shivers, the dog hears.

It’s one of the places he remembers visiting with his family as a boy during one of their many road trips across America. He vividly recalls standing in the garden at Monticello with his older brother. They each held up a nickel in the direction of Jefferson’s grand estate and closed one eye, trying to see if the picture on the coin matched the building before them.

Abell family vacations were elaborate history lessons. The family of four studied the American landscape as it flashed by their car windows. They traveled scenic back roads and took rest breaks at Civil War battlefields. “My parents were both teachers, and so when we traveled, it was not about sunbathing and it was not about mountain climbing or fishing or rafting. It was about American history.”

Dad always carried a camera. The developed film reel would arrive in the mail about two weeks after they returned each summer. The slide shows documenting those trips were in Technicolor, and they featured a smiling family against the backdrop of America.

But with each passing year, it became more difficult to ignore the changing landscape.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

1983, Moscow: Pears ripening in a window overlooking Red Square; Abell waited for the curtain
to lift in the breeze. National Geographic named this image, for a piece on Tolstoy,
one of its 50 best images ever.

Abell was working on a project about Lewis and Clark when he heard the words that would reshape the way he sees the world.

It was 2001, and this was to be his final assignment for National Geographic. He met with the writer, historian Stephen Ambrose, in Helena, Montana, to discuss the project.

“Sam, I’ve got the easiest job to do on this project,” Ambrose said. “All I have to do is retell the story of the greatest fishing, camping, hunting and boating trip of all time. You, Sam, have the hardest job. You have to pretend that nothing’s changed in America for 200 years.”

That offhand comment was a resounding wakeup call. Abell realized, quite suddenly, that he had been fictionalizing America. He had spent years traveling through the modern world – in a car, or on foot, or in a boat – disregarding almost everything he saw “in search of fragments that were beholden of another time, another way of life.”

He thought of  a months-long assignment from years back for a travel story in the vast Australian wilderness. It was boring. He barely saw anything worth photographing. But he managed to capture a few breathtaking shots, and those are the images that ran in the magazine. He thought, “My God, people are going to come here and they’re going to say, ‘Where is it?!’ ” Had he been doing the same thing in America?

That conversation with Ambrose sparked an idea – one that Abell first had as a photography student at the University of Kentucky but that he had lost sight of, having landed at National
. It’s perhaps the most celebrated photographic magazine in the world, but its style skews toward beauty over realism. His dream job led him away from his roots.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

One of Sam Abell’s National Geographic covers.

He had grown to love his craft while studying the work of Walker Evans (American Photographs, 1938) and Robert Frank (The Americans, 1958), two photographers known for their blunt and honest portrayal of America and its people. As a student, he had dreamed of picking up where they left off.

Retirement offered a fresh shot. Abell wrapped up the Lewis and Clark assignment and immediately went to work on a new long-term project that would become his obsession – one that bears little resemblance to his celebrated portfolio.

“It’s a rebound project,” he says. “It’s also a reaction against romancing America. I don’t have regrets about that. I was capable of doing
that. I was good at doing that. I made the romance meaningful, not candy. My photographs always tried to have an intelligence about them and a soul that went beyond the
surface of the picture. But now I wanted to take up all those things
I had passed by while searching for the exception.”

Abell settled down in Virginia for its lush landscape and history. But lately it’s that parking deck he’s been looking at for inspiration.

The subjects of Abell’s photography have changed dramatically, but his approach is rooted in many of the same foundational techniques his father taught him as a boy in Sylvania, Ohio.

 Abell won an award in a national high school photography contest in 1960 for a black-and-white picture of his father standing at a train station. His old man had offered a few pointers – get a low angle, “look for strong diagonals,” and then wait for a train to move into the frame. Years later, someone paid $10,000 for a copy of the image that resulted from that impromptu lesson.

Abell is known for composing his images from the back to front, a painstaking and counterintuitive approach that requires as much patience as it does vision. First he searches for a dynamic background and attempts to build meaning into every layer. Once he has composed the image, he waits for the subject to move into the shot.

On assignment for National Geographic, that often meant several hours or even days camped out in the same spot, waiting for the right light to reflect off a river or for wildlife to move into his frame. Abell once spent a year and a half making an image of bison skulls on a prairie for a story on the life of Charles M. Russell, the cowboy artist of Montana. After he found a pile of discarded skulls, he made multiple trips to the scene, waiting for the right elements. Finally he captured a live bison passing through the background on a snowy day. The project was complete.

Compose … and wait.

Lately Abell has been employing that unconventional approach while photographing people at fast-food restaurants, smokers standing outside department stores and business people staring at cell phones while walking down busy sidewalks. He carries his camera always as he travels the country to lead photography workshops and lectures.

“I’m always on assignment,” he says while sipping a coffee outside a café in Charlottesville. “I’m on assignment right now.”

For now he’s calling the project “Modern American History,” drawing inspiration from a college professor who once told him that the main theme of American literature is to come to terms with what we – the arriving peoples – have done to the New World. “I wrote that down and I never forgot it.”

The working collection includes images of people riding trains through rolling countryside, but instead of looking out the window, they’re staring at screens in their hands. It includes shots from the Lewis and Clark Trail, but instead of framing out the power lines, highways and truck stops, those modern creations are the subject.

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2009, Seattle: Part of Abell’s new, and unpublished, work showing America as it is.
The young woman is waiting for the bus, texting.

Abell has become obsessed with photographing product distribution centers – “the most constructed building of the past 50 years,” he says – and self-storage facilities, where people indefinitely stash the stuff that won’t fit inside their homes.

The man who earned fame photographing real-life cowboys spent a recent trip to Dallas marveling at the massive Cowboys Stadium, a gargantuan building capable of hosting more than 100,000 spectators and home to the world’s largest high-definition screen. “This stadium is an architectural temple to football, surrounded by an ocean of automobiles,” he says. “This is modern America on steroids.”

Themes of Abell’s post-retirement project include: automobiles and how they have shaped the modern landscape, the mass consumption of processed food, the triumph of mass marketing in all aspects of life, the influence of consumer electronics on behavior, and industrial, commercialized patriotism.

 Abell, who plans to publish the project in 2015, says he’s trying his best to remain neutral.

“I think the thing that would doom this is if I were trying to make a statement, either condemning or celebrating modern American culture,” he says. “That’s not my goal. My hope is to present an authentic portrait of this country as it exists in our time, in an effort to continue the conversation that was started by Walker Evans and Robert Frank. My strongest statement, I think, is a question, not an answer. And that is: Was there another way?”

Press him hard enough, though – ask him to contrast his recent work with the images he chased during his storied career – and it’s obvious that Abell believes the answer to that question must be, “Yes.”

Abell isn’t jaded, he says. He’s simply documenting the world around him as it is, not searching for beauty in the margins but instead searching for meaning in the authentic world before him.

His mother’s old needlepoint map hangs in a frame in his Charlottesville studio, alongside cherished photographs from his many travels – all reminders of how far he’s come in pursuit of an interesting life. Once in a while he’ll pull the map off the wall, set it on the table and daydream about the images his mother stitched so many years ago.

He turns from the map and points to his computer screen; it’s open to the gallery of his latest work. The cursor hangs over a photo of a young couple at a beach in Florida. They’re tourists driving along a boardwalk in a convertible. They’re seeing the ocean for the first time, and they’re both seeing it – separately – through the screens of matching digital cameras.

Abell looks at the photo and thinks of his mother, who died in 1981, long before the rise of smartphones and social media and widespread instant gratification. She grew up in an era with fewer distractions and simpler dreams. Hers was for her boys to travel the country she loved – to visit every state on that map – and to see the images of Americana that colored her imagination.

Her younger son wonders what she would think of his most recent pursuits. “She wouldn’t recognize the America in these photos.”

2013, Charlottesville: Abell, in looking at this country as it is now, seeks to continue
the conversation begun by Walker Evans and Robert Frank: “Was there another way?”

Archival images copyright National Geographic and Sam Abell.

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