It is autumn . . .
The Southern Highland Craft Guild – a guild in the traditional medieval sense of masters
and apprentices - is holding its twice annual Craft Fair in Asheville, North Carolina. Over
200 guild members are exhibiting. Each booth is marked by a placard which simply
states the name of the artisan, the medium, their hometown and “member since 19…”.
That is their tradition.
As is my habit, I enter the Civic Center, procure a layout of the booths and decide on a
meandering route that will take me to every booth.
I’m working my way along the aisles and see about thirty feet ahead of me the booth of
“Small World”, home of Jim McPhail, one of the most honored of the Guild members in
the craft of fine wood craft. Jim’s bowls are in museums across the country. His are not
massive in size but are known for their fine detail, the layering of multiple exotic woods
laminated in amazing combinations and then turned to paper thin creations that nest
gently and perfectly in your hand. He also does signed originals that are no more than
¾” in diameter yet finished to perfection. Even some of these are combinations of four
or five woods of intense color and grain that somehow speak to you, not in volumes but
rather as exquisitely crafted haikus, minimal yet massive in their impression on the eyes
As I approach his booth, I see the scene set before me. Jim is on the far side of the
10’x10’ booth. Like a Normal Rockwell painting, he is bent over his lathe, eyeglasses
perched on his nose allowing him to focus on the wood being turned and yet free to
look up to meet an onlooker eye to eye. The lighting is perfect: a simple small metal
lampshade directing light onto the lathe. Light reflects up on Jim’s face. A small block of
wood is impaled on the points of the lathe and is undergoing a transformation under his
skilled eyes and with the gentle yet insistent touch of his cutting tools.
I position myself next to Jim’s wife, Pat at the opposite corner of the booth. We
exchange niceties but are both focused on the silent “dialogue” unfolding before us.
Jim is patiently working on another of his miniature creations. Lathe turning, blade
working its way into the wood to reveal a yet to be determined shape and grain. The
motor creates a “white noise” into which Jim and an onlooker can become immersed.
And then he arrives. A new apprentice? Possibly. But that is in the future, something
none of us can predict. In THIS moment, in this unfolding, Pat and I see a young boy,
no more than four feet tall, approach Jim. He has a head of curly hair and expansive
eyes. This young boy who has been mesmerized by the woodturning stands there in
untypical silence, his hands just barely touching the edge of Jim’s worktable. The
connection is made. The three of them: master craftsman, wood on a lathe and a young
boy - this completes the Rockwell-esque scene. The boy is fixated on what is unfolding
in front of him at eye level. Jim, his light, his lathe and his wood rise above this boy in a
way that is at once inviting and distancing. “Look but don’t touch” is the unspoken
The two of them are lost not so much in each other but in the work at hand. The boy has
his hands tentatively resting on the table edge, careful not to get too close but
determined to be part of this creation, whatever it might be. Jim continues his gentle
“conversation” with the wood which is what it always is: Jim seeing something in a block
of wood and then working with it, dancing with it, caressing it in order to bring out a final
work of art hidden in the grain and mass of the raw wood.
They are in their own world. Pat and I are mere observers. She tells me: “Frank, if the
boy is patient enough to stay til the end, I promise that you’ll see Jim give him that
bowl.” “Really?” I reply. “Yes, you just watch. Jim LOVES this kind of thing!” And so we
watch – wife and admirer – the hypnotic world of a master craftsman plying his trade,
creating a work of art, and a young boy, his mind captivated and totally focused on
what is happening 12 inches from his nose. The rest of the hall and all of its exhibitors
and craftsmen cease to exist. Just Jim, the wood turning on the lathe and the young
curly haired wide-eyed boy, held together by the quiet drone of the turning lathe.
The boy hangs in there to the end. Not that he would have left this for a silver dollar
dropping out of the sky. Jim has finished the bowl. A work of art. An original. No more
than an inch and a half in diameter but a McPhail original nonetheless. Like a midwife
cutting an umbilical cord, Jim deftly moves a razor sharp knife to release the new bowl
from its wood block base. One quick cut and what once was a block of wood is now
freed to become a work of crafted woodturning at the hands of Jim McPhail.
Jim looks up from his lathe. The boy is still transfixed on the lathe. It has stopped but his
eyes are still focused on the small object that it has yielded. Jim smiles, puts the
miniature bowl in the palm of his hand and gives it a quick final sanding. In a matter of
fact manner, he turns it over, picks up a pen and signs it. Now it’s official. Another Jim
McPhail original. The boy’s silence is louder than any “WOW” that he could speak. And
then, just as Pat had predicted, Jim reaches over to the boy, his large hand containing
a treasure. The kid opens his hand and their hands meet, transferring the treasure from
the Guild Master to a boy, a boy who just might become the youngest apprentice.
The boy’s parents beckon to him and he leaves. As he moves into the crowd, he looks
over his shoulder at Jim one last time. Then disappearing in the crowd, the only thing
visible is that head of curly sun bleached hair. Then nothing. I think of the treasure held
tightly in the boy’s hand. I look at Jim sitting quietly next to his lathe which has also now
gone silent. He turns his head slightly, also seeing the boy, then the mop of curly hair
disappear. He has a smile that defies going away because this was no “Hi there. How’re
you doing today?” smile. Both this smile and the miniature bowl took time and
gentleness to emerge. It bespeaks the combination of numerous elements: Jim, the boy,
the wood, the gentle drone of the lathe and a poignant silence between them during the
“creation” that was almost audible. Jim is radiant. Not from the reflection of the work
light but from an afterglow of one of those encounters that stoke the fires of his
Pat looks at me smiling. “Told you so.”
I bid her goodbye, knowing that I’ll see her and Jim at the next Guild gathering. I walk
away, this image still fixed in my mind and I muse about what just happened.
Two scenarios play out in my mind.
First, the curly haired boy. He will probably put the tiny turned bowl in his “treasure box”
where special and magical possessions are kept safe. Years from now, when he
reopens that box, as he will do from time to time, he will hold it in his hand, a hand now
much larger and stronger, and think of that summer day in Asheville, North Carolina
when he met a man, watched him do magic at a lathe with a block of wood, stayed there
until the work was done and then was given a gift as if to reward his patience and
respectfulness. That moment might make him take up woodturning. He might become a
collector of fine craftsmanship. Or not. In any event, that moment would last a lifetime
not only for him but also for the Master artisan as well.
The other, regarding Jim, is more probable and yes, predictable. In my mind, I see Pat
crossing over to Jim as things become quiet once more. I see her putting her arm on
his shoulder and exchanging a knowing smile with him. He has had yet another amazing
moment suspended in time wherein he and a young boy were in a world of their own.
Something was created. Something was given. Respect, patience and silent awe were
So this, my friends, is one way – a beautiful almost rite of passage way – that the
“guild” sustains itself and guarantees its continuity.
My last thought is about Jim and Pat. Although special, this encounter is not new to
either of them. Take one and teach one – the motto of any master teacher or master
I can almost hear Jim McPhail say to his wife of so many years what she knew he
would say: “Best sale of the day.”
The Youngest Guild Apprentice
A short story by Franklin Courson
Dedicated to Jim and Pat McPhail
guild n. (gild) An association or corporation of persons of the same trade, or
interests formed for their mutual aid and protection, the maintenance of
standards, or the furtherance of some purpose; especially, in medieval times,
a society of merchants craftsmen or artisans.
Franklin L. Courson, Asheville, NC
Jim McPhail © 2015