09 Jul Artist Spotlight: Ron Shanor
When Ron Shanor creates his Western-style furniture, which has won admiration for three decades, he welcomes an assist from an unexpected collaborator: Mother Nature. The gracefully curved feet of his armchair legs benefit from trees that have grown on slopes or were bent naturally by snow accumulation. “If a tree was on a hillside, it’ll come out of the ground curved and then go straight up,” he says. “I don’t bend any wood myself. It’s all natural.”
Likewise, his coffee tables and chests often stand on burls — the rounded, knotty, intricately patterned growths that occur when tree trunks or branches are injured in some way — and he also uses them to fashion handles and even decorative medallions. “I probably build more burled work than most Western makers,” he says by way of distinguishing himself from fellow artisans who, as he does, respectfully acknowledge the inspiration of Thomas Molesworth, the great American designer who set the standards for Western-style furniture in the 1930s.
Born in 1959, Shanor spent most of his childhood in Powell, Wyoming, about 23 miles northeast of Cody, where the great Molesworth himself and his wife, LaVerne, established and ran the Shoshone Furniture Company from 1931 to 1951. Though Shanor took woodshop from seventh through 12th grades, he’d always dreamed of becoming a mechanical engineer, his job during four years in the U.S. Army after high school. Leaving the service, he put his skills to work fixing pumping equipment and deepening wells during northern Wyoming’s and southern Montana’s oil boom. After the oil fields died out around 1986, he studied engineering at Powell Northwest College. Then, married and with two young sons, in 1991, he and his wife, Jean, changed gears and launched Wildewood Furniture in Cody.
“My early pieces,” Shanor notes, “were quite similar to those I make now, but more rustic and less refined.” The biggest hurdle, he admits with a laugh, was “learning how to make a square cut out of a crooked piece of wood. A lot of practice helps, and once you know what you’re doing, you can create jigs,” he says, referring to the sturdy templates for uniform cutting.
Uniformity is certainly one desirable goal in an endeavor that demands both sturdiness and stability in multiple matching pieces, for example, in a set of dining chairs. Style, however, evolves from other less tangible qualities like experience, inspiration, imagination, and talent, all of which Shanor brings to bear in his furniture. One of his proudest achievements came in 2006, when he submitted a loveseat and ottoman — made from snow-bent pine with fir legs and including a herringbone pattern in pine — to the Western Design Conference in Cody, Wyoming. The great furniture maker Sam Maloof, one of the judges, “was impressed enough to say it was a totally unique style,” Shanor says, who won the Design Excellence Award for Best of Show.
Now, following surgery on both shoulders to repair damage caused by an old ski accident and “44 years of hard manual labor,” Shanor is itching to return to the work he loves. “I’m getting started small, but I’ll be back in action soon,” he says.
Find Shanor’s Wildewood Furniture at By Western Hands in Cody during Rendezvous Royale, September 13 to 18.
Based in Los Angeles, Norman Kolpas is the author of more than 40 books and hundreds of articles. He also teaches nonfiction writing in The Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.