Sittin’ In High Cotton

I love porches. Porches are about ease and conversation. The hurry, hurry world evaporates on front porches. I sat down with Kevin Walker on his front porch and we talked and talked. He’s a great storyteller. It’s more than his easy molasses thick drawl and warm manner, it’s that he has something to say and savors the joy found in engaging conversation. He’s also a voracious reader although he says he read very little in his youth.

His family goes back generations in Tennessee. He was born in Delaware, where his father, a high school teacher and a minister, had taken a high paying job thinking money was the answer. It wasn’t, and soon family roots and a simple life prevailed over the dollar. They moved back home to Nashville, Tennessee. There is a fierce sense of pride and heritage in southerners that is admirable.

From a very early age Kevin was drawn to architecture, the structure and design of old buildings, the darkness of Victorian homes, heavy rugs and draperies and itchy camel back sofas. He would occasionally accompany his father in paying respects at wakes and funerals. Kevin recalls standing, knee high next to his father, before a coffin in a parlor. Not being tall enough to see over the top, he fixed his gaze on the casket’s French Polished mahogany wood. The high gloss finish and deep wood grain captivated him.

At 13, he bought a heavily varnished Chiffarobe from a neighbor for $8. He put it in his bedroom and using a butter knife began scraping off the old varnish. It took him all winter to reveal the magical beauty of quarter sawn oak.

Experimenting with refinishing wood and furniture, Kevin learned he liked “dealing with things that take a specific kind of work.” Ironically it was New York City classical furniture made between 1790 and 1840 with stenciling or gold leaf that attracted him most.

The stenciling, as he does it today, was originally done not by painting over the stencil but by applying powder to it, blowing away the access then hand painting the design. With gold leaf, once applied, he uses a pen and ink and shades in the detail to emulate bronze. “I’m not really an artist,” Kevin insists, but he is modest. The work is exquisite; he is one of only two or three people in the country who do this kind of work.

In college the Dean called him to his office. The Dean pointed to a dilapidated secretary in the corner of his office, “I have a feeling you can repair that for me.” Kevin did, and realized his inherent passion for restoration. “Part of the Tennessee spirit is in fixin’ things,” he tells me.

Soon after, the Dean, who Kevin refers to as ‘Doc’, invited him to his house for dinner. The house was filled with beautiful old furniture. “I was sittin’ in high cotton,” Kevin grins, knowing one day he wanted a home filled with this sort of furniture.

Doc, who remains a mentor in Kevin’s life, told him he had a barn full of furniture, “You take it and pay me when you have the money.” Kevin restored and eventually sold it. “I knew I had the bug,” he says.

“What’s the importance of a mentor?” I ask.

“Everything! They encouraged me to do 10% more than I thought I was capable of. When you have only 60 or 70 years, you need help.” He believes young people need mentors, not only to give them a sense of how to accomplish a task, but to guide them away from bad habits. “Good mentorship is someone wise enough to give direction without you ever knowing it, one who guides you along without you knowing ya have a rope on ya.”

Kevin worked 2 years restoring the furniture in the Tennessee State Capitol, designed by William Strickland, then turned solely to buying and selling antiques. He ran an antique shop in Nashville for 17 years, but wasn’t happy. “I made a lot of money selling antiques, but discovered that money brought too many headaches. All I really wanted to do was restore furniture.” It was at that precise moment his wife Gail came into his life, “through her I discovered the importance of real things in life, of simplicity.” They moved out of Nashville to a small town, Pulaski, Tennessee. “I was lookin’ for Mayberry, I guess,” he jokes.

Five years ago Kevin and Gail packed up and moved to Hudson, “the area reminded us of middle Tennessee, we fell in love with the architecture.” They live a happy, simple life here. Kevin restores furniture from the period that inspires him, “do what you love and the money will follow.”

“What is your dream?”

“Life, relationships with good people, simple food with friends and continuing to learn. If one day I could say I was a mentor that would be nice. There is a lot of satisfaction in giving to others.”

As I step off the porch he says, “If ya truly want to be Tennessee ya gotta sauner.”
“Sauner? Yeah, fits better without the T.”

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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