Kyle Kinser is an artist, a craftsman and a woodworker, but that doesn’t really come close to describing what he does. Kinser makes one-of-a-kind, high-end, hand-made furniture that is so unique and beautiful it will take your breath away. And, it’s made so well that each one is an heirloom piece, something you would be proud to pass down to the next generation.
He uses wood from the forest around his home in Makanda, sometimes keeping an eye on a tree for years until it falls and then dragging it back to his studio to slice and stack until the pieces dry and age naturally for years before pulling one out and letting it speak to him.
“I prefer to have a piece of wood tell me what to do rather than a client,” he said. “I like to build something and then find a good home for it.”
The imperfections in the wood he collects and uses -- the cracks and knots, or a winding tunnel made by a beetle chewing its way through the tree -- are what attract Kinser.
“One-hundred years from now, people will love all of those imperfections,” he said.
Kinser’s workshop looks like an old shack from the outside. But, inside, it’s filled with the machines he uses to slice the wood he finds, and the hand tools he uses to shape the wood into art.
“Every machine in this shop has a story,” he said. “But the real work begins when the machines are turned off.”
Kinser loves the experience of cutting a piece of wood with a sharp tool, celebrates the smooth surfaces that his hand plane leaves behind and finds real joy in the spiritual quality of a well-made object, one of the “real things in life.”
Along one side of Kinser’s shop are large windows, the better to drink in the inspiration of the surroundings, and in almost every corner are stacks of wood waiting for their turn under the master’s hand. He built the shop himself and has been working there -- and living at the other end of his property -- for more than two decades.
“I’m absorbed with the spiritual aspect of my life and work,” he said. “I’m a recovering Catholic, but very spiritual. I find my religion in art and in nature.”
Kinser’s journey as an artist is as interesting and as imperfect as his pieces. When he started working with wood, he had no formal training. He learned what he could from the local library, old high school shop manuals and “a lot of trial and error,” he said.
He really wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, so there were a few years at a seminary, a few years studying French and English in college and taking on menial jobs such as picking apples. Then, after his soul-searching, fate stepped in and introduced Kinser to his mentor, James Krenov.
“I was on a hitchhiking trip in the mid-’70s from Makanda to British Columbia when I stopped at a friend’s house. My friend made guitars, and in one of his magazines there was a little photo of Jim’s book, ‘The Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,’ with an even tinier photo of one of Jim’s dovetail joints. As soon as I got home, I ordered that book.
“I had been groping for direction, looking for a cottage industry, some way of making my living. But, after I got that book, I was a full-time woodworker.”
In the meantime, Krenov had moved from Stockholm to the West Coast and started a fine woodworking program called the College of the Redwoods. In ’82 or ’83, Kinser and his wife, Jeri, loaded everything they had in an old, oil-burning Volvo and headed west.
Kinser enrolled in the second year of the program in a class of 22 students.
“That was my first and only structured training,” he said. “It was non-stop stimulation, an incredible learning experience. It really reshuffled my deck and showed me what high standards of design and construction were all about. Jim influenced a whole generation of craftsmen woodworkers. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t reminisce about my experience there.
“Jim was my mentor, my biggest, most pivotal influence. So, my compass was set at this early stage by my experience with this wonderful teacher. I came back here and set up shop and concentrated completely on my work.”
Kinser’s work, his incredibly elegant and unique, but functional, pieces, elevated his status from simple woodworker to artist. His work is now sought after, celebrated by the Illinois State Museum, sold in several galleries in Chicago and set to be displayed in a retrospective show next fall at SIU’s University Museum in Carbondale.
Kinser is busy preparing for that show, working with University Museum Director Donna Bachman, collecting pieces that span 40 years of his work and some of his most recent pieces.
“I’m really excited about my new Painted Tabernacle Series,” he said, which includes at least four cabinets augmented by panels painted by local visual artists Fran Jaffe, Michael Onken, Eieleen Doman and Michael Gould.
“I’m really enjoying the collaboration with other artists,” Kinser said. “I’m talking with several other artists, too. Their enthusiasm is contagious. I love the partnership involved in these collaborations. My art is a very solitary craft, and collaborations get me outside of my little cloister.”
Kinser is also collaborating with metal sculptor Alden Addington on a series of tables, using his own wood pieces as the top and what he describes as “Alden’s amazing work” as the base.
“They’re some very exciting pieces,” he said.
Another artist Kinser is even more excited about developing a working relationship with is his granddaughter, Audrey Rose. She’s in third grade now and, according to Kinser, showing a lot of artistic talent.
“I’m trying to persuade her to do a painted cabinet with me that I hope will be in my upcoming SIU show,” he said. “I’m sure it will be my favorite piece.”