Judy Kensley McKie: studio furniture crafted out of necessity

A trio of snakes forms the legs of Judy Kensley McKie’s 1997 Serpent side table. All three snakes are engraved ‘JKM 97.’ It is numbered 15 of 16. It sold for $26,000 + the buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Judy Kensley McKie didn’t aim to become a leading American studio furniture artist. Every step she took on her journey was guided by practicality and logic, not romance or fancy. She earned her Rhode Island School of Design degree in painting in 1966, and never entered a woodshop during college. McKie turned to furniture-making a few years later to solve a problem: She and her husband were too poor to buy it.

“I think I made all our furniture. We didn’t have any,” she said in a 2004 interview taken for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.

McKie’s comfort with saws and planes came from childhood lessons from her father, who taught her whatever she wanted to learn at his setup in the garage of the family’s Lexington, Mass., home. This knowledge equipped the young art-school graduate with what she needed to make her house a home. She fashioned a round-top table out of pine, and then a couch. Visiting friends saw McKie’s furniture and asked her, “Could you make one for me?”

Just like that, she was busy full-time, but she had yet to evolve into a studio furniture artist. During the 1970s, McKie improved her skills in cooperative workshop settings in and around Boston, where everyone taught everyone else how to use the equipment. “I never took a class,” she said in 2004. “I probably should have.”

She taught herself to carve and included decorative elements in her furnishings for no extra charge. Eventually, McKie began basing her furniture designs on animal forms.

Rago Arts and Auction Center sold this Judy Kensley McKie patinated bronze Jaguar bench in 2010 for $60,000 + the buyer’s premium. Made in 1992, it measures 26½ inches high by 57 inches long by 17 inches deep. Image courtesy of Rago and LiveAuctioneers

“I had been doing this cold, impersonal stuff for so long, I just wanted to make things that had some life to them,” she said in the interview for the Smithsonian.

She might have labored in obscurity for longer had she not picked up a copy of American Craft Magazine in the late 1970s and seen an ad for a show of “new handmade furniture” to take place at the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts and Design) in New York. The show’s director took all three display pieces McKie had on hand, exhibiting them alongside furnishings by Wendell Castle and Garry Knox Bennett.

Bennett gave McKie an idea that elevated her studio furniture to the next level. Looking at a dog-form table she had painted black to imitate the look of iron, he suggested she take a more direct approach to achieve the metallic effect she wanted by casting it in bronze. He introduced her to a foundry owner he knew in the San Francisco Bay area. McKie produced her first bronze piece in the late 1980s. Since then, she has created several limited editions of eight to 12, plus a few artist’s proofs, in the medium.

It took 60 bids to win this patinated bronze Cat bench that sold for $60,000 + the buyer’s premium in February 2016. It is incised ‘JKM 02’ with a copyright symbol and numbered 5/10. The big cat measures 59 inches long. Image courtesy of Rago and LiveAuctioneers

Over the last two decades, Meg White, director of the NAGA Gallery in Boston, has seen collectors shift toward McKie’s furniture in bronze. “There used to be a strong market for her woodwork, which is unique,” she says. “The interest in her bronze work has overtaken her woodwork. The patina she’s able to get is just beautiful, and there’s a different luster and quality to them.” Now in her late 70s, McKie’s furniture production continues at a slower pace, taking four years to generate enough pieces for a new show rather than two.

McKie’s reliance on animal forms has helped protect her furniture designs from falling out of fashion. “She creates luxury objects, but imbues her furniture forms with life,” says Richard Wright, founder and CEO of the eponymous Chicago auction house that merged with Rago in 2019. “Her best pieces are alive and jump out at you. They’re wonderful.”

The Judy Kensley McKie furniture that holds the record for the artist sold in 2019 at Christie’s. The pair of patinated bronze jaguar benches, numbered one and two from the 1992 edition of 12 plus four artist’s proofs, commanded $375,000 against an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000.

Christie’s sold this pair of Jaguar benches by Judy Kensley McKie for a record price of $375,000 in December 2019. Image courtesy of Christie’s

Rago sold an individual jaguar bench, number 11 from the 1992 edition, in 2010 for $60,000 against an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. “It’s a really sophisticated execution. I think the fluidity of the form is what creates the magic,” Wright says, citing how the jaguar’s head and curling tail neatly counterbalance each other.

While McKie’s furniture radiates charm, her beasts, birds and reptiles are more than mere eye candy.

“I love the idea that you can make a useful object beautiful,” she said in 2004. “For me, that’s the ultimate challenge. That’s why I prefer making furniture to making sculpture.” That fundamental sense of purpose – choosing a cat shape because it stretches easily into a proper bench, or standing a trio of green-patinated snakes on their tails so they can grip a clear tabletop in their mouths—has propelled McKie to the heights of the American studio furniture movement.

“Her work bridges art and design,” Wright says. “You want to have a place for it in your home, and it can add something interesting to your home. It’s really easy to place.”