Chairmaker Greg Harkins of Vaughn, Mississippi builds rockers and straight chairs from local woods in a style he distilled from a long apprenticeship and association with the traditional furniture makers of the Thomastown area. Born in 1952, Harkins came to chairmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s just in time to learn from several old-time craftsmen, chief among them Tom Bell. Bell and the other master chairmakers of his generation were in their 80’s and 90’s when Harkins apprenticed with them, and they offered the young chairmaker a glimpse into a craft and a way of life more akin to the nineteenth century than the 1970s.
Harkins’ goal is to emulate the work ethic and self-reliance of his teachers and ancestors. He lives in the countryside near Vaughn, Mississippi, and owns his own tract of hardwood timber where he harvests most of the material for his furniture. To supplement his chairmaking work, he sells tamales at local events and guides hunting trips on his land.
Harkins also operates a seasonal restaurant in a church building he moved to his property. The church, St. Anne’s, had originally been located near Thomastown. Several generations of the Harkins’ family had worshipped there. For Harkins, the church represents the resilience of his ancestors. Rather than see it demolished, he invested a great deal of money and untold hours in moving the structure. Harkins admits that his devotion to history has been costly but is a necessary part of his life.
Harkins has enjoyed a hard-won success with his chairmaking. Every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter has received one of his chairs. Still, he endures constant strains in producing handcrafted work in a modern “Wal-Mart” world. He attributes the purchase of his tract of hardwoods as one reason he has been able to continue making chairs. Owning his own trees has proved a great savings and has allowed Harkins even more control over his work.
While the quality of trees has declined over the years, Harkins can still find what he needs. Harkins has also begun using Osage orange, also known as Bois-D’arc for his chairs. A beautiful golden yellow wood, it helps set his work apart, although it is a notoriously difficult material. He also uses hickory bark for the bottoms and backs of many of his chairs, another touch that makes his pieces different from those of other craftsmen. With his specialties and creative approach to making a living in the country, Harkins hopes to keep building the best chairs he can for many years to come.
More information available at: Greg Harkins’ website.