CWB August 2004

 

Imagination Extraordinaire>

A Virginia actor becomes custom furnituremaker and brings distinctive pieces 'to life.'>

By Lisa Whitcomb

 

Believe it or not, master craftsman Jacob (Jake) Cress of Fincastle, VA, says he failed high school wood shop. But, he adds, he never forgot the principles and techniques that were taught.

He began working professionally with wood in 1974. "I was between shows when I began carving and making furniture," the actor-turned-woodworker recalls.

At the time, Cress was making tables as a wedding present for his brother. "He suggested that we open a cabinet shop together, and it seemed like a good idea at the time," Cress says.

 

Master craftsman Jake Cress stands beside his "Hickory Dickory Clock." This animated piece has fun with the classic nursery rhyme. "Two mice ran up the clock. The clock struck one, and the other got away!" Cress says. The clock's face is hand-painted and features a moon with a face, fairies, an enchanted forest, a castle and more. The bent, twisted clock's body is artistic and not outfitted with a working timepiece. >

After working together for several years, Cress decided that he did not want to compete in the kitchen cabinet industry anymore and branched out on his own. His brother stayed in the cabinetmaking business, and Cress began focusing his efforts on 18th-century furniture restorations and traditional-style pieces. In time, though, this became mundane and Cress moved into new territory, carving out challenging half-scale miniatures and animated or what he calls "funny" pieces of furniture.

Whimsy in Wood
Today, Cress still acts occasionally in stage dramas, tragedies and comedies. Occasionally he does radio skits and has even played a small part in the movie Sommersby. But it is his whimsical furniture that makes him famous.

His workshop resides in a well-over-a-century-old former mill situated behind his home that also serves as a bed and breakfast inn. Here, furniture is given character and brought to life. All pieces are hand-carved from either mahogany, maple or cherry woods. "I'm a traditionalist and use 17th and 18th century forms," says Cress about his work.

The transformation of wood into funny furniture "beings" takes place using an assortment of custom-made carving knives and some hand-held power tools. Cress notes that he also incorporates dovetail joinery in his pieces.

He says he never draws out his furniture designs and inspiration doesn't come easy. For animated pieces, Cress looks to the world around him for enchantment. He also looks to sources like caricaturist and American icon Al Hirschfeld's work for inspiration. For example, Cress' "Self Portrait" chair, a chair carving itself, was an idea formed out of Al Hirschfeld's drawing of himself, titled: "Self Portrait, Inkwell." (See www.alhirschfeld.com for more information.)

 

This life-like chair (shown left) seems to be carving itself with a hammer and chisel. It is appropriately titled "Self Portrait.">

For miniatures, he visits antique stores, museums and junk shops, studies pieces and reads books on furniture style. "I've learned a lot about building a good piece of furniture from restoring antiques," he adds. Cress takes the features he likes from 18th-century pieces and makes new "antiques" in half scale.

"I have to work at my inspiration. It takes a lot of time and patience. When I see something that interests me, I have to work at it to develop the idea fully. Very rarely does an idea just come to me," he says.

Furniture can take from a couple of days to construct to a couple of months. Finishing takes longer. Each piece is finished with hand-rubbed linseed oil and a shellac topcoat. Cress says he never uses any stains, but he lets the beauty of the woods' tones speak for themselves. However, creatures like mice or chair "eye balls" will be painted.

A Funny Family of Furniture
In the Cresses' home and B&B, every room, nook and cranny houses a piece of furniture that Cress built. For instance, on the second level he has an assortment of half-size miniature highboys, chests, grandfather clocks and desks. In the first floor parlor, he has several animated chairs with different faces and in different poses alongside the "Self Portrait." Scattered throughout the home are five functional grandfather clocks and an assortment of solid wooden boxes of different sizes with varied carvings.

 

Shown is Cress' "Crippled" table. Its fourth leg has been replaced by a crutch. The playful piece is one of several Cress created that were purchased by orthopedic surgeons. >

In addition, he has a table with a wooden book featuring the piece's name, "How to Build Furniture," under one short leg. Another table called "Alladin's Mouse" highlights a gray mouse peeking out of an oil lamp. The "Rat Leg Table" plays with the idea of a sword plunging through the tabletop and pinning a rat scurrying up the leg.

A "Peel Here" table teases people with a scroll of carved wood pulling away from one corner, revealing a checkerboard top beneath. The fanciful "Hickory Dickory Clock" has one mouse getting away and the other being smashed by the pendulum. The clock's contorted body adds to its charm and its custom-designed, hand-painted acrylic clock face features fairies, a castle and a mystical forest in its design.

Another interesting piece is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. "Oops" #9, a donated chair, is a mahogany, Chippendale-style claw-and-ball animated chair that has lost its ball just out of reach. The chair bends and extends its claw, reaching in vain for the ball. There are other versions of "Oops" that have been sold to private collectors, with the most expensive being $25,000. (For more information about visiting the gallery, visit www.americanart.si.edu/index2.cfm.)

Conversation pieces to be sure, Cress says that most of his animated and miniature furniture pieces are affordable. "I charge a reasonable price," he says, with most under $2,000. He adds that he makes funny furniture because, "I like to make people laugh."

For more information about Jake Cress and his furniture pieces, visit www.jakecress.com.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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