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Art: Animal Attraction

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

When Judy Kensley Mckie sees a duck on a pond, she does not think, “Oh, how cute,” or “Look at it swim,” or even “That would taste delicious in an orange sauce.” Instead, the Cambridge, Mass., artist wonders whether it could support a glass tabletop. “Birds are good because they have a lot of parts. I used birds a lot in my earlier pieces,” she says, explaining that wings, beaks, and feathered tails adapt well to her furniture designs.

McKie, 63, has made a bronze chair in the shape of a seagull, placing the seat on the gull’s back between its upturned wings. She also has created a table with a glass top that rests on the beaks and tails of four ducks carved from walnut wood. McKie’s other designs include a bronze bench in the shape of a grinning grizzly bear, a glass table supported by the back of a steel spider, and a walnut chair that is flanked by a pair of bronze monkeys. The primates’ crouching forms serve as armrests, and their curling tails provide the chair’s back.

A love for animals does not influence McKie’s designs. “People always assume that [my style] came out of being a pet person, but it didn’t. It came from an urge to bring the furniture to life,” she says. “I think if I were more of an animal lover, I’d make [the furniture] realistic, and that’s what I try to stay away from.”

McKie considers her furniture’s materials—bronze, steel, walnut—in a similarly utilitarian context: She chooses whatever best suits her designs, working with stonecutters and foundries to create the pieces. McKie rendered part of her monkey chair in bronze, because, she says, “to do those tails in wood wouldn’t work.”

McKie’s most recent show, held late last fall at Gallery NAGA in Boston, included works made from limewood, mahogany, limestone, cast epoxy resin, and black marble. She worked primarily with wood for the first 12 years of her career, until 20 years ago, when a fellow furniture artist, Garry Knox Bennett from San Francisco, suggested that she cast one of her tables in bronze. Bennett offered to underwrite the cost of the mold if she would allow the foundry to make three copies of the table: one for him, one for her, and one for the foundry owner. McKie felt the wooden table, which depicted dogs chasing their tails, was “too cute” for bronze. But she accepted Bennett’s offer, created a similar design, titled it Chase Table, and produced eight examples in bronze, including one for Bennett and one for the foundry owner.

McKie works alone in her studio in Medford, Mass., near Tufts University, fashioning four to six new designs a year. She sometimes renders them in multiple versions and materials; the carved mahogany Wagging Dog Chair pictured here has a bronze cousin, Dog and Cat Chair, in which she replaces the dog’s wagging tail with a long-limbed feline. (McKie produced two of the former and 12 of the latter. Both of the mahogany chairs have been sold, but several bronze chairs are available for $22,000 each through Gallery NAGA.) “The challenge is to dream up ways to make an animal a piece of furniture,” she says. “It’s fun for me. I like to figure it out.”

Gallery NAGA, 617.267.9060, www.gallerynaga.com

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