Part woodworker, part farmer, with a good dose of thinker, writer, beekeeper, and artist added in, Steve Whittlesey doesn’t fit any labels. He owns 1,200 blueberry bushes on his West Barnstable farm, which he opens every year for a pick-your-own operation. “It’s important to me to stay connected to the land,” he says. But for 40 years, his furniture and sculpture art have been constants. “I am a woodworker making sculptural furniture,” says Whittlesey.
Whittlesey has been creating with wood since the late 1960s. Trained as a painter, he fell into carpentry to make money for his young children. “It wasn’t a planned thing,” he says. “I made a stab at a living as a painter, but then we had kids and that wasn’t working. I started as a carpenter, restoring old houses. I’d take out old wood and just started making furniture.”
By the mid-1980s, he was exhibiting in New York, which led to national exposure, boosting his career as both an artist and furniture maker. Up until 2010, he ran the wood/furniture design program at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Of teaching, he says, “It was good for me to balance the solitary work of being a studio artist—which I needed. I like to do my work in peace, but then I like to hang out with friends.”
Whittlesey first came to Cape Cod when he was young and returned when he married and built a house in West Barnstable. “West Barnstable was the boondocks in the 1960s,” he says. “In 1971, Richard Kiusalas and I started West Barnstable Tables, which continues today.” Whittlesey bought two and a half acres of Barnstable Brick Company land, which he carved out for blueberries. He has kept bees ever since the beginning.
Painstakingly handmade and beautifully crafted, his furniture pieces are stunning attention grabbers. “I like something with personality,” says Whittlesey, “pieces that move a little bit when you touch them so they have a life of their own.” He is on a mission to create pieces that must be reckoned with—as he describes it, something that gives the user a little “bump,” a surprise. “I’m horrified that most furniture is generally disregarded unless it’s a museum piece or an antique,” he says. “People don’t really have rapport with their furniture.” He is satisfied that his pieces generally command the attention of a room and often become a centerpiece.
Play is a big word for Whittlesey. By pairing master craftsmanship with whimsy, he mixes up the language of woodworking. “I like to play with architectural forms and organic forms with a function of some kind, like a drawer or a secret place to put things, and have those functions be a surprise,” Whittlesey says.
Whittlesey uses any kind of material, from pieces of old boats and houses to driftwood. “The work takes advantage of the materials’ history and the marks of time, but I don’t use those things to be nostalgic. I use them to make the viewer speculate on my work,” he says. His penchant for the old is a testament to his upbringing as a New England farm boy. “It was ingrained in me—sort of make do with what you have. If you needed to fix something, you looked around for a piece of wood and fixed it.”