Feb25

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Let me tell you about the new cool. It’s not happening in a cubicle, it doesn’t involve knowledge of the latest social networking trend, and it certainly does not call for a fresh supply of hand sanitizer. While the last couple of generations have been training a virtual workforce, the real rebels of America are learning creative skills.

Let me introduce you to Joseph & Katie Thompson of Joseph Thompson Woodworks:

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About twenty minutes off the interstate right smack in the middle of South Carolina, Joseph & Katie are busy working in their workshop making custom furniture out of socially responsible materials, repairing antiques, and building a family business.

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When you step inside one of the rooms of their shop, the first thing you notice as a soft-fingered white collar guy like me is the amazing aroma of split wood. Then there’s the dust. Wood dust isn’t like machine shop dust though, it doesn’t feel “dirty”. The floors are covered in wood shavings, which reminded me of the butcher shop around the corner from my childhood home. The orange glow makes everything feel cozy and warm (not to mention it was 80˚ in the middle of February, so that helps). I guess what I’m trying to say is that the place just feels right.

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Joseph Thompson grew up in Orangeburg, SC and while attending Clemson University he decided that it’s not his place in the 9-5 world, so he transferred to the Silva Bay Shipyard School on Gabriola Island in British Columbia. There he learned the basics of woodworking, ship building, and furniture making. He got motivated to pursue furniture making and furthered his training at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine.

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Katie Thompson is a College of Charleston alumnus who specialized in non-profit arts before she picked up the table saw. I met her a few years ago while she was writing for TheDigitel and she’s been involved in the Charleston art scene for quite some time. She’s one of the people to follow on Twitter if you want to know what’s going on here.

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In a world of high speed cell phone data, 9 month cycles of technology standards, and buzzword wikis, it has become rare to meet people with a desire to create something with their hands. There’s something in a man’s DNA that makes us want to build stuff (maybe it’s there in women too, but I don’t want to speak for them ;)) The idea that skilled labor in this country is dwindling is a scary one. When you see the quality that people like Joseph and Katie are putting into their work, it makes you sad that we’re settling for disposable press-board garbage from Ikea and passing it off as furniture. It also makes it quite lucrative for today’s skilled craftsmen since they seem to have very little competition in the quality department. I truly believe that the most important things you can bestow on your children to compete in tomorrows world are creativity and the passion to do things ethically.

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As a side observation, I think that most people would love to have their dogs with them while they work. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about the south that differs from the north – a lot more people do bring their dogs to work here. A working dog is a happy dog, and a dog with you at work makes for a happy human.

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We talked for a while about creativity and craft, and love and marriage. Katie and Joseph knew right away that they were meant for each other. They didn’t wait to see if things work out, they just knew and jumped right into it. It’s the kind of passion that artists deal in – acting from the heart and trusting your instincts. It also takes a lot of patience to live and work with your spouse, the kind of patience that someone who builds from scratch has to master. Watching them work together is a pleasure, as they seem to flow like water through the tight spaces in their shop and compliment each other’s strengths.

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Shooting creative people is my muse. I look for the similarities, I look for the contrasts, and I look for the life of it. Finding the threads that hold us together as a race and exposing the beauty in it, both figuratively and literally, is what drives me in photography. I discovered a while back that it’s people in photographs that excite me, and when they are being real and frozen forever in that moment of life, they obtain a bit of romantic immortality. The Thompsons and I talked about that during my visit. Katie had asked me if I was shooting video yet, and I explained how I currently don’t get as excited for video as I do for still photography. I explained that it’s kind of like the difference between reading a book and watching a movie. The still is open to interpretation. You are free to look at an image and remember the scene the way you felt it, or if you are looking at someone else’s work you can imagine the story behind it and connect it back to yourself. A movie is 100% of what the filmmaker is trying to show you. Visually, sonically, and emotionally. There’s a lot less room for interpretation – you are being handed exactly what they want you to see in the order and pace they want you exposed to it. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for interpretation in movies and it’s not that I don’t love film, I do. It’s just that right now in my life I’m really digging the world of still photography as my creative outlet because of the romance of it.

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I also challenged myself not to talk about the technical stuff of this shoot in this post because it seems to be a crutch I like to lean on when writing about my photography. I’m trying to focus on talking about the cerebral part of the craft since the technical stuff isn’t all that important to most people (and it changes all the time anyway). I may do a separate behind the scenes post for some of these shots to talk about the strobe outside of the window with the tri-grip diffuser covering the glass or the gelled speedlights in the back corners… Dammit, here I go talking tech!

Make sure to like their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, and look at their gallery of work online.

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5 Comments

  • Comment by KJ — February 27, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    NICE! I met them at a BBQ last Summer at Burger Babies! haha Small world indeed.

  • Comment by Katie — February 27, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    Hey KJ!

    Joseph, we cannot thank you enough for this opportunity. You are welcome in the shop anytime!

  • Comment by Brian Crawford — February 27, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    Great photo journal. I agree – what Joseph and Katie are doing is very special. In a world full of mass-produced merchandise with no true character, hand-crafted wooden furniture is something to be treasured. Very nice photos of the shop, and of the two craftspeople. The shop looks like a very warm and dynamic place.

  • Comment by Tamara Vukusic — March 7, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    Thumbs up from a family in Kamloops, BC… beautiful work with brilliant values guiding the art.
    P.S. We haven’t seen it yet, but we hear you made a beautiful table for my sister (Tracy Mac). They are super proud of it (and you).
    The Vukusic Family….

  • Pingback by Joseph Thompson Woodworks Handcrafted Furniture — September 16, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

    […] FEATURED PHOTO ABOVE TAKEN BY JOSEPH W. NIENSTEDT […]

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