The Bowls That Bind Us

In Retreat, September 2017, Stuff by Jane PorterLeave a Comment

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Stuart Kent’s handmade oakwood bowls have transcended political differences—mostly.

The flash of lightning that struck an old water oak on the grounds of the Capitol building two summers ago gave North Carolina’s former commerce secretary a flash of inspiration.

John Skvarla called his boss, Gov. Pat McCrory, to ask him not to let two diseased, rotting oak trees on the lawns of Raleigh’s State Capitol go to waste. McCrory was quickly persuaded.

“Those trees gave shade to our Capitol grounds and represented our history,” the erstwhile governor said in a phone interview in early August. “Instead of making them into firewood, why not turn them into something else?”

The something else that he envisaged became the beautiful, oak-scented bowls that he would go on to present to visiting dignitaries and corporate executives opening new facilities in the state— and bringing jobs to North Carolina workers. The ceremonial bowls would be a token of the state’s heritage and natural beauty, coupled with the ingenuity and talent of its people.

“A big issue for many of these companies was finding skilled workers locally, so it made for a good introductory speech,” McCrory says. Besides, he wasn’t satisfied with the china plates the state’s governors had been gifting visitors with for years. “The bowls show the craftsmanship of the workers we have in North Carolina. They capture both our history and our skilled labor force.”

Enter Stuart Kent, a woodworker from eastern North Carolina and a U.S. Fulbright scholar who now runs the North Carolina Furniture School in Ayden, near Greenville.

Kent, who went to work for a furniture maker as a teenager and holds a master’s degree in furniture design, brought some samples of his work to Raleigh. He joined Skvarla and others on a tour of the Capitol grounds and the officials asked him how many wooden bowls he thought he’d be able to craft from the two oak trees slated to be chopped down.

“I guessed around five hundred, and the final number was 440, so I was pretty close,” Kent says. He finished his final bowl in June, marking the completion of a project that spanned more than two years and two very different executive administrations. “It turned out to be a nonpartisan thing, which was a big deal to me. I was hoping not to be dragged into the politics and was pleased when Gov. Cooper’s office called and said they wanted to honor the contract.”

For months, Kent says, his full-time job was crafting the wooden bowls in his workshop.

A crew cut the trees into logs and, after treating the rotting wood, Kent cut the logs into billets, or blank wooden squares close to each bowl’s final dimensions. He’d make each billet round with a bandsaw and then mount the rounded wood on a wood-carving lathe. He’d spend hours handcrafting each bowl, chiseling away as the wood lathe turned, meticulously carving and smoothing out each shape. Finally, Kent would brand each finished bowl with the state’s emerging “Nothing Compares” logo, which depicts the state tree.

“I was able to get from billets to finished bowls at a rate of about thirty a week,” Kent says. “It was all I was doing, for a time. I produced a lot of bowls.”

And the governors gifted dozens of them: CEOs from CSX to Charter, Relias Learning to GF Linamar, not to mention ambassadors from China, Japan, Israel, and Mexico, all received ceremonial wooden bowls.

But even these unique, uncontroversial gifts weren’t immune to the partisan politics that perpetually swirl around the operations of North Carolina state government.

When PayPal pulled out of its deal to expand in Charlotte over HB2, state officials demanded the company return the bowl it had been given. It did. And, since the transition of power, bowls that Kent made under Roy Cooper’s administration have not been branded with the “N.C. Nothing Compares” logo. Though the logo was roundly derided in the press after its unveiling, McCrory called the move “sad.”

“We had university students from across the state present options for logos in a competition, and that logo was chosen,” McCrory says. “It made every state department consistent in terms of matching branding. We were getting good feedback on the logo, and I hope it wasn’t discontinued because it was my previous administration that had come up with it.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Commerce said the department asked Kent that the bowls be delivered without a specific logo, “to provide maximum flexibility during a time of transition.”

Still, Kent finished the bowls per the terms of the contract and remained above the political fray. Now, he’s focused on teaching his students at the North Carolina Furniture School, which offers private lessons to anyone who wants to learn furniture making or woodworking. He’s proud to have participated in a project that shows the state in its best light.

“Those trees gave shade to our Capitol grounds and represented our history. Instead of making them into firewood, why not turn them into something else?” — Former Gov. Pat McCrory

“It’s neat that these bowls, from two great big oak trees in Raleigh, are now in ambassadors’ offices in countries all over the world,” Kent says. “It’s been a really neat project. It’s been very humbling.”

The North Carolina Furniture School is located at 503 Second Street, Ayden, N.C., 28513.

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