Judy Kensley McKie wrestles with a drawing, a design, a piece of wood or furniture and emerges victorious with a creature whose spirit has been set free but whose body has been trapped in a chair or a table. A monkey chair, or a turtle table.
McKie makes furniture, and some would say art. But the whole question of which it is, is irrelevant. The work is obviously furniture, but if it isn't art of the most wonderful kind and highest order then the art world is a sadder place for the loss.
The furniture-maker/artist Judy McKie went to the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1960s to paint. With a strong design background, issues of form and taste were second nature to her. But because painting was not something she could sink her teeth into, she turned to furniture-making to satisfy her need to create.
It stuck. Now, after 30 years of hard work, long hours in her Boston woodworking shop, years of frustrating commissions, and relative obscurity in the shadow of her husband, the celebrated painter Todd McKie - Judy Kensley McKie has truly emerged victorious.
Her success in recent years has made her perhaps the most sought- after artist in her field.
So what has success meant to this essentially shy and industrious individual? The opportunity to do exactly what she wants, to make the things that please her.
This has not, however, changed her fundamental desire to please others. That, she says, is her nature. She wants people to just respond to the work ``from their gut.''
McKie starts out with an idea, a sketch, which she works and works until she brings the idea to life. This is a much longer process than anyone could guess. It is not so much a struggle to come up with a good design as a search to find something unlikely, unexpected. It's an almost exhausting search to find the shy creature not unlike herself deep in the woods and to invite it to step forward.
This search is especially difficult when it comes to finding the faces of her furniture. They have to be faces she has never seen before, except perhaps in a dream, with some kind of intangible depth of expression. This is important to her, just as it is important that her furniture be whole, complete creatures, all appendages intact, properly equipped for a rich life.
Not all McKie's works are animals, but they are what she is known and loved for. It is not that they are cute or pretty, either. They're not. They can be benign, yes, but they can also be mischievous, as monkeys are apt to be, or menacing, as a fox would naturally appear.
These are not Disney characters. The artist works hard to give them an edge, a kind of primitive truth more than a look - a sense of the real, not the realistic. And she succeeds and brings to them a startling presence and bestial intelligence that cannot be ignored.
McKie has two kinds of work, the one-of-a-kind and the multiples. The former are generally made of wood, the latter cast in bronze. The former take a long time to make and can be had by only one person. The bronzes might take longer, but an edition of 12 can be produced. To make a one-of-a-kind piece, she may enlist the services of a fellow woodworker to build the basic structure.
But every bit of the carving or decorative painting is done by her, no matter how tedious. If a thousand green dots of paint are needed to cover a cabinet, no one can know and understand those marks but her.
The bronzes, however, are different: A plaster original is made with McKie's personal touch but is then duplicated. She has made, for example, a bronze lion bench, a bronze snake table, and a bronze bird sconce.
The thing about bronze, so warm to the eye and cool to the touch, is its classical and imposing elegance. Even the funkiest design takes on weight and stature in this most venerable of mediums. Oddly enough, because the bronzes are so beautiful, they are as desirable as the one-of-a-kind pieces.
Walking through the door and into her current exhibition at Pritam & Eames in East Hampton, N.Y., (through Sept. 20) is like stumbling into a jungle clearing. All around the gallery - up from the floor, poised on pedestals, and hanging from the walls - these pieces of furniture seem to pause to see who has entered. The air is thick with their intensity. This is a moment of reckoning: Meet the friends of Judy Kensley McKie.