This curly walnut side table appeared early on in our tour of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Curly walnut is not especially uncommon at Winterthur, but often these scintillating figured woods are applied, sparingly, as veneer because of their rarity and expense. Curly walnut forms the entire structure of this table! In Tennessee, where it was made, the species grew profusely in unspoiled Appalachian forests.



For such a simple design, its presence is commanding. I delighted in seeing its figure, free of the two dimensional constraints of veneer, round corners and cut through tapered legs. Be advised: if you follow Greg Landrey’s advice and look at this wood in motion, prepare to get dizzy.

For me, this object demonstrates how deeply regional conditions can shape material culture.



Jug, Attributed to Cain Family of Potters of Sullivan County, TN Lead-Glazed Earthenware, 1826-60; MESDA Purchase Fund Acc. 546


Adding to the presentation of this curly walnut surface is a red earthenware jug by Sullivan County, TN, potters in the Cain Family. The striated and shifting glaze decoration on the red-brown clay picks up these qualities in the curly walnut. Although we can’t know that the Cain pottery sought to imitate figured woods, I appreciated the curators’ suggestion that these objects represent a common aesthetic in the decorative arts of antebellum Tennessee.


We are so grateful to the generous staff at MESDA for the afternoon we spent touring their collections (and an evening practicum on barbecue sauces). Among those who shared their time with us were Sally Gant, Daniel K. Ackermann, Gary Albert, Jenny Garwood, Johanna Brown, and Brenda Hornsby-Heindl.


By Amy Griffin, WPAMC class of 2016



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