Here’s What Happens When You Fly Away

Mark Woodham is serious about mixing mediums. Behind him is his carving “Chief Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake),” 12 feet tall and 980 pounds, made of forged and welded steel with heat patina, 4.7 miles of stainless cable, and leather.
Photo by Colby Rabon

When he was only seven, Mark Woodham got a knife from his grandfather, along with some important advice. 

“‘Always carve away from yourself,’” Woodham remembers his grandfather prompting. Then, sitting in a garage 30 miles north of Cleveland, Ohio, the two whittled a seagull from an orange crate.

For the life of him, Woodham can’t remember where that bird ended up. Maybe, he muses, the gull came to life and soared into the unknown. “Maybe it’s happy now,” he says wistfully. 

Much like the seagull, Woodham has flown away from home. In early 2017, while navigating a divorce, he left behind the “miserable humidity” of his native South Carolina and headed for higher elevations to start over. He landed in Burnsville, a small town full of superlatives: It’s home to Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, and it’s the seat of Yancey County, which boasts one of America’s largest per-capita concentrations of working artists.

Centrifugal (steel, wood, and acrylic paint)

“There’s just something about this place,” Woodham says from a mint-green building off U.S. Highway 19 East, or what many locals simply refer to as “The Road.”

Here, in MW Studios, he crafts “functional sculptures” — spalted-maple dining tables, Mid Century Modern floor lamps, and even custom handrails — that marry the sharpness of steel with the warmth of cherry and ash. Every piece feels natural yet refined, kinetic yet stationary. There’s a sense that Woodham has been doing this for decades, a lifetime even. 

untitled (steel, wood, and acrylic paint)

But this particular art form — the union of metal and wood — is relatively new for Woodham. For much of his career, he was a glassblower. After graduating from the University of South Carolina, he welded his own glassblowing equipment and moved into a tin-shed “studio” on his uncle’s farm, named One Eared Cow Glass in honor of a hand-carved cow figurine found in the dilapidated structure. “It was missing an ear,” he explains. “And, as a joke, I nailed it to the shop’s front door.”

The name stuck even after Woodham and his business partner moved to a proper storefront. But as the gallery grew, Woodham began to feel restless. “After 28 years, blowing glass wasn’t satisfying me anymore,” the artist explains. 

Pipe Dreams (forged steel and walnut)

That’s when he packed his bags and drove north to Burnsville. After spending a few days in the town, he signed a lease for his current studio space, which previously housed a NAPA Auto Parts. It was all a little slapdash and hurried. “I moved up here not exactly knowing what I was going to create,” says Woodham. 

Thrive (forged steel and wood)

But as he sat in awe of the Black Mountain range, he got inspired and started making pieces with a “very natural feel.” He soon found that combining two mediums — wood and metal — offered “nearly limitless opportunities.” He could, for example, fashion live-edge coffee tables with steel legs that looked like creeping vines or the twisting roots of an oak tree. 

The result is almost mystical — a far cry from the prosaic wooden seagull. And yet Woodham still thinks about that bird.

untitled (steel, zebra wood, and maple)

“My grandfather teaching me to hold a knife was the spark that got me into the arts,” he says. “It also allowed me to branch out later in life — to try new things.” 

Mark Woodham, MW Studios, 319-W U.S. Highway 19 East Bypass, Burnsville, mwstudiosnc.com. Woodham is also represented by the Toe River Arts member gallery (269 Oak Ave., Spruce Pine) and will participate in the venue’s Toe River Arts Fall Studio Tour happening Friday, Nov. 11 through Sunday, Nov. 13 , toeriverarts.org.

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