My thin line between Sam Maloof and Mary Shirley

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One of my favorite humans of all time is Sam Maloof, the Lebanese American woodworker.

I
personally would favor calling Sam an artist, but he hated that word. Even when
he received the MacArthur Fellowship award, he said

“I guess if you can’t sit on a chair or can’t eat off of a table or can’t
use a set of drawers, it’s art. Today I have a lot of friends who hand you a
card and it’s artist in wood or everything but being a woodworker, and I don’t
consider myself an artist. I never have. I’m a furniture maker, I’m a
woodworker, and I think woodworker’s a very good word, and I like the word,
it’s an honest word, and that is what I am, a woodworker.”

I met Sam back in the early 90s. I was in California
for a break from the constant Pacific Northwest
rain and called him to see if I could stop by his studio. Back then I was a
manager for the Northwest Woodworking Gallery and curating a chair show for the
Kirkland store.
I had gotten, on loan from a local college, several well known chairs and my
evil boss told me I would not be able to get a Maloof chair. So being young and
stupid, I went to the library, got the Maloof phone number from the directory and called
him to make an appointment to see him while I was on vacation.

He said yes, gave
me a personal tour of his studio and
home, showing me handmade doorknobs, carved spiral staircases, and secret reading rooms full of books.  I later found out that his house was on the
National Registry and was slated to be moved piece by piece to a new location due to a highway expansion project.  He was worried that his orchard in his back
yard would not survive the move.  

I even
met Alfreda Maloof, who showed me her Native American pottery collection in
their bedroom and made us salads which we ate in their warm kitchen with its
funny loose brick floor.  For you
young’uns out there, I need to stop here and remind you that back then we
didn’t have Wikipedia at our fingertips. I had no idea his rocking chair was in the
White House. No clue that a piece of his is registered with the Library of
Congress.  How I wish someone had told me
that he’d dined with presidents and ambassadors across the world.  He welcomed me to his home like I was
a queen and talked about our Arab heritage and how proud we should be of
who we are because of our parents and God.

Sam did give me a rocking chair for the chair show at the gallery, and he
threw in a chair and ottoman that I was allowed to sell. I made my evil boss pay
for the shipping.

I sold the chair and ottoman to Mary and Jon Shirley after the show. Mary
passed away this weekend and my brain has traced the lines back to re-live other fond memories
of Sam (a chance meeting and heartfelt hug at his Renwick Gallery Smithsonian show in Washington, DC
and his support behind my Arab Artists Resource & Training nonprofit organization).  This week is also my one year anniversary of
my own baba’s death, Allah’yarhamho. So for all the families out there
experiencing a loss, my prayers are out to you.

As for Mary’s family, please share my condolences and prayers to Jon. I want
to thank him for opening up his home to the Seattle Art Museum’s
Docents a few years ago. I weep with joy in the garden when I realized how
lucky you were to be surrounded by breathtaking art.  Mary is now in a better place full of even more art.

I leave you all with this quote from Sam in an interview.

Interviewer – Can you share a “secret of the trade” with
us–something nobody else knows or that you found out only after years of
experience? Put another way–what do you wish somebody had told you when you
were just starting out that might have saved you hours of wasted effort?

Sam Maloof – There are no secrets. That it was going to be difficult.