Artist Profile: Going with the Grain
Bill Long sculpts salvaged Lowcountry wood into organic modern furnishings
You can just see the love in Bill Long’s one-of-a-kind furniture pieces—love of the wood, that defining grain, and the pure form. It’s a passion that Long has nurtured for almost 30 years as a restorer of fine period furnishings for Golden Associates Antiques, though it wasn’t until the recession hit that he began focusing on building his own designs.
“I love what I do and consider myself blessed,” says Long, in the shop of his Hollywood farmhouse, surrounded by chests and tables in varying stages of disrepair, slabs of raw wood, and original works waiting to be finished. Next to a chest of drawers dating to the early 1700s (which will sell for around $14,000 after restoration) sits one of Long’s modern creations, a one-armed rocker that seems to emerge organically from the gnarled wood. The artist only uses wood felled from area plantations or recovered from the murky depths of the Edisto and Santee rivers. As a native Charlestonian and College of Charleston graduate, he continues the city’s long tradition of furniture makers, and his reverence for that heritage extends down to the source of the wood itself. “That’s just part of being Southern,” he says.
Several years ago, Long had just set to work carving an impressive piece of mahogany he’d been saving for about 10 years when friend and neighbor Helen Bradham walked into his shop and ordered him to stop. “I told him that he was going to make it into a table for me,” recalls Bradham, adding that today no visitor to her home can resist running a hand over that silky smooth tabletop. Long built a pedestal and polished the wood in its original shape, the underside still carrying his initial carving marks. “It’s so rare to find someone so full of magic and talent, with such individual, unique ideas. When you walk away from his shop, you know you were in the presence of a true master,” says Bradham.
Inspired, Long began to build benches and more tables as the raw wood serendipitously fell in his way. In direct opposition to the confines of his period restoration work, he followed the shape of the wood, letting its inherent qualities dictate the flow of each piece. As a respectful nod to furniture maker George Nakashima—one of the fathers of the 20th-century American craft movement—Long incorporated butterfly joinery into a tabletop, but at irregular, off-centered intervals. With his Old-World building and finishing techniques applied to a modern design aesthetic, Long’s own style emerged. Fifteen pieces in and with growing outside interest, he looked to Rebekah Jacob Gallery to help with the business of his new life as an artist.
“Art is so subjective,” says the craftsman. “But I know if I please myself, I’ll please others—and that’s what’s happening.” A pair of benches adorns the downtown law office of Young Clement Rivers, and a chair is in the works for a New York couple. A massive chunk of sunken cypress still bearing the marks of the axe that felled it hundreds of years ago also waits, destined to become a dining table.
“Once I have a vision, the execution is nothing,” says Long with a grin. “I’m just letting the wood be what it is.”
View Long’s work at Rebekah Jacob Gallery, 502 King St., or at rebekahjacobgallery.com.