By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – When Susie Weil, longtime Smithy Pioneer Gallery trustee, saw Michael Whaling’s first chair, she urged him to take an example to her girlhood friend, Aurelia “Thistle” Brown, at the Windspread Gallery in Northeast, Maine.
“Go see her,” she urged; the two had been girlhood volunteers together at the American Natural History Museum on Central Park West. “I will call ahead and let her know you’re coming.”
In the woods, Whaling, the stone mason and woodworker, had happened on a branch in the form of a 90-degree loop. “I thought: That’s half a chair,” he said the other day during an interview in the renovated horse-barn where he lives in Sharon Springs.
Collecting other pieces of wood that intrigued him, he attached them with stainless steel screws, wove a seat from dogwood branches, and some 30-years later was still sitting on the sturdy result across his living room from the Jotul wood stove he’d picked up for $2 after that 1992 fire damaged the Doubleday Café’s building.
His furniture, eight pieces in all, some built on contract, “reflect the randomness you see in the woods Michael calls the result “one-of-a-kind Adirondack-style furniture.”
Whaling had gotten interested in furniture on seeing a rustic piece while working on a redo of Lou Hager Sr.’s former Woodlands Museum building. “I really admired it and thought I’d take a crack at it,” he said.
The museum closed in 1975, and in the ’80s Lou Hager Jr. had contracted with architect Phil Frisbee to convert the building into a Woodlands Lodge, for parties and lodging visitors.
The redo included banisters and second-floor railings by Whaling, and were included in a write-up that appeared in the July 1995 issue of Architectural Digest.
It was about that time Whaling did that first piece of furniture. He still has a second chair, built on a wildly ragged piece of Applewood he picked up by the side of a road during a local flood.
At the time he was also living in Blue Hill, Maine, and, picking up on Susie Weil’s suggestion, he crafted another chair, also from Applewood, which he had found in the woods there.
He put it in the back of his truck, drove up to Northeast and introduced himself to Thistle Brown.
Her reaction to Whaling’s chair was immediate. “Please bring that in,” she said. “I want to put that in my gallery right now.”
Whaling’s horse barn in Sharon Springs, with a handsome stone front and wrought-iron entry way, was renovated by his father, a plumber.
Michael, born in Cobleskill, was raised in the house – “my aunt was my sixth grade-teacher; that didn’t work out too well,” he recalled – and, except for boyhood winters in Florida and a Navy stint, has lived in that village most of his life.
Returning from the Navy in 1968 – with top-secret clearance, he was assigned to the Middle East and Black Sea – he became a stone mason, and examples can be seen around Otsego Lake.
For a period in the 19790s, he drove for UPS and enjoyed it. But he was promoted to manager and didn’t enjoy it, so returned to his trade.
Among his notable works is the stone fence at the Beekman Mansion, renovated a decade ago by “The Fabulous Beekman Boys,” Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge, four miles south of the traffic light at Sharon Springs.
Whaling collaborated with the Roseboom photographer, Leila Durkin, on a “The Garden Wall at Beekman Farm,” a photo book issued in a limited edition, now sold out.
Working with the stones at hand, he used an obelisk-like natural pillar as the centerpiece of a gathering spot for the Beekman Boys’ goats – and, sure enough, they are still drawn to gather there today.
The woodwork at the Woodlands Lodge also opened opportunities for him, and one notable project was the porch at the Blue Mingo Restaurant on Otsego Lake, across from Kingfisher Tower.
Whaling also become identified with local environmental movements, in particular the campaign in the early 2000s that resulted in a statewide ban on burn barrels. He was a founding member of Sustainable Otsego, and has received the Brookwood Award and other environmental recognitions.
A week after Michael dropped off the chair at the Windspread Gallery, the phone rang. Is was Thistle Brown: “There’s a man very interested in purchasing your piece, and he wants to meet you.”
Whaling got into his truck and drove down the coast to Northeast. It was Arthur Martinez, then chairman/CEO of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. of Chicago. “Thistle said you are with Sears,” said Michael. “I guess you really ARE with Sears.”
“Would you help me take it around the corner to my cottage?” asked Martinez. And some cottage it was, a large, elegant Queen Anne with turrets and a slate roof.
How did you come to build furniture? the captain of industry asked the craftman.
“I decided I’d rather work with my hands,” Michael Whaling reports replying. Martinez, he recalled, “had a funny look on his face.”