A Windfall In More Ways Than One

By Gwen Keane

“Two years ago this month, Hurricane Isabel roared across the Northern Neck, leaving a wake of battered homes and fallen trees. Matt Johnston, an artist who lives in Morattico, shares his story of how he has taken windfall from a disaster and created functional beauty.

“When I left my mother’s house the morning after the hurricane had passed through, I had to use a chain saw to cut up the trees that blocked the road,” Matt explained.

“Upon my return home, I found the water level had almost reached my workbench here in the garage, where my tools were stored. And all of the carpet had to be removed from inside the house. It was then I decided to replace my carpet with planked flooring that I would make from windfall.”

Matt says he doesn’t remember much about the next couple of weeks, as everyone around him was consumed with the task of helping one another pick up debris and repair damage.

“There was a lot of chainsaw action going on to remove fallen trees,” he recalls.

“That’s when I concluded that what the hurricane taketh away it should give back.”

Giving back is what Isabelle has done through the eyes of an artist who saw an opportunity to create art from fallen trees. And, that was the beginning of “Isabelle’s Perch,” the benches with the dual purpose of also being a table.

Shortly after the storm, Matt and a neighbor took an old 56’ Ford wrecker and a 66’ International dump truck to sites where trees had fallen. The wrecker enabled them to remove the pecan, cherry, oak and walnut logs. Using a portable band saw Matt then began milling wood. He uses all kinds of wood in the creation of benches. Some are designed using a combination of wood with metal decorative inserts on the top. Matt says “I like simple stuff. I’m a sculptor but not a cabinetmaker. I’m an artist and I like to experiment.”

Matt studied sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University. He also became knowledgeable at glassblowing and worked in the Glass Shop at VCU. Using his sculpture and glass talent he has created many pieces of glass artwork.

Matt also is a painter. But for the last two years his artistic talents have been devoted to wood creations. He claims the beautiful Ambrosia Maple bowls on display in his home signifies he is still “learning” and attributes his success to another artisan, Sidney Mace of Reedville.

In the early 1990’s Matt relocated from Richmond to Morattico, a place of familiarity. As a little boy, along with siblings and cousins, Matt spent his entire summers and weekends at his grandfather’s place, Bewdley Plantation located near Morattico. The summers were filled with fresh garden vegetables, soft crabs, fishing and swimming.

Several versions of “Isabelle’s Perch” are on display at the Rappahannock Art League in Kilmarnock. This artist is living one of life’s greatest lessons - “how to make lemonade when given a lemon.”