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STREETSEEN  |  Robert Johnson

Photo by Steve Roberts

Robert Johnson: Honing His Natural Talent

Story by Emily Adams Keplinger

Robert Johnson is a woodworker of national renown, yet if you asked most people in Memphis, they are not likely to recognize his name. However, his work speaks for itself. With a list of private clients that reads like a Who’s Who of titans of industry, Robert stays busy without having to advertise his trade. In addition to designing and building custom furniture, Robert does a good deal of furniture conservation work for private individuals with collections. Walnut, cherry, Honduran mahogany and quarter-sawn white oak are often the mediums for his craft. Intricate work such as carvings on furniture legs and architectural pieces like mantels and moldings show off his skill.

Born in Memphis, Robert attended Christian Brothers High School then went off to college at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

“Both of my parents were outdoor enthusiasts and I loved to fish, so I settled on Marine Biology as a major,” recalled Robert. “After graduating from college, I worked as a marine biologist in Alaska for two years.”

However, Robert moved back to Memphis in 1981, and fell back on what he knew and loved—a natural talent for designing and building furniture.

“Both of my grandfathers made a living as wood workers, one in Southeast Missouri and the other in Yazoo City, Mississippi,” said Robert. “Additionally, my father enjoyed it as a hobby. And I’ve been building objects out of wood as long as I remember.”

Robert first set up shop in the small town of Williston and worked at a furniture shop in Collierville. In 1985 he relocated his business to Diana Street, near Overton Square. He found a permanent location in 1989 when he purchased a circa 1905 building on South Main.

"My shop is set up in the building that formerly housed Memphis Lumber Company,” explained Robert. “South Main was still waiting for its growth when we opened here. I’ve seen a lot of positive changes over the years. It’s interesting that more than 100 years later this building is being used for wood again.”

For all intents and purposes, the old plaster-over-brick building is perfect for Robert’s business, Robert Johnson Furniture. With 13-foot ceilings and walls of windows, there’s ample ventilation and light. And the two-story building offers 14,000 square feet—plenty of room for housing copious quantities of templates and wood, as well as working on large projects.

“The biggest piece we’ve done was actually a room,” said Robert. “We built the hand-carved reconciliation room (confessional) for St. Peter Catholic Church on Adams Avenue.”

Wondering how Robert honed his mastery of such Old World craftsmen skills and techniques?

“I spent a short time studying at Sotheby’s in New York City as a restoration craftsman,” recalled Robert. “I saw what they were doing and realized that I was doing the same thing in Memphis. I moved back to Midtown and began doing some conservation work for the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. I hired a series of European craftsmen who were trained the old school way—the guild system of apprentice, journey man, then master. Currently Mirek Sniezek, a craftsman from Poland, is working with me.”

Word of mouth brought people to Robert’s door.

“What we do is strictly custom work,“ explained Robert. “Prototypes are first worked out as plywood templates to allow us to get the dimensions correct before we start on the actual piece. We often work with architects and interior designers. Custom doors are my items of largest volume. Extra touches, like using lovely restoration glass, make each door truly one-of-a-kind.”

Along with extensive experience, Robert has an impressive library of furniture books that he uses to study the details of various styles.

“That’s kind of the fun of it,” said Robert. “Often a client does not know exactly what they want and we are able to design and build a piece of furniture that meets their individual needs. For instance, we can make furniture with an 18th century look using very traditional joinery. We have experience in a variety of styles ranging from Federal to Arts and Crafts to Art Deco to contemporary designs.”

“I take pride in my creations and each needs to be correct in terms of shape, colors, form—the whole thing,” continued Robert. “There is a little bit of myself in every piece and I sign everything I build. My furniture is for the enjoyment of people now and will be here long after I’m gone, a little physical evidence that I was here on Earth.”

For more information, visit Robert’s website www.robertjohnsonfurniture.com


STREETSEEN  |  Mia Gianotti Henley

Photo by Steve Roberts

Mia Gianotti Henley: Enriching the Lives of Older Adults Through Music and the Arts

Story by Emily Adams Keplinger

Mia Gianotti Henley says she has always had a love of history. Living in historic Central Gardens, she has been surrounded by homes built at the turn of the twentieth century that helped cultivate her appreciation for the kind of charm that often comes with age. That appreciation rings true for people as well as things.

“My grandparents were a big part of my childhood,” recalled Mia. “So, I have always felt at ease—a definite connection—with older people.”    After attending Immaculate Conception School, Mia headed to the West Coast to attend the University of Oregon in Eugene. She returned to Tennessee to attend law school at the University of Tennessee - Knoxville.

“Sometimes it takes leaving to appreciate the sense of community that a place holds,” explained Mia. “After being away from Memphis for nine years, I was ready to come home and begin putting down some roots.”

When it came time to launch her full-time career, Mia said that Memphis was the only place she considered. Initially she worked for Judge Frank Crawford of the Tennessee Court of Appeals, then she accepted a position with Burch, Porter & Johnson law firm, where she was named a partner. After she and her husband, Paul, started their family, Mia decided to leave the workforce to stay home with their children (who are now 17, 15, and 12). When she returned to her practice of law, she spent a couple of years with Bass, Berry & Sims. Wanting to pursue her interest in nonprofits, Mia ultimately left the practice of law and became a Senior Consultant with Consilience Group, LLC, a boutique consulting firm focused on the non-profit sector.

“I worked with a Justice Department effort related to youth violence prevention and through that endeavor began a six-year relationship with Traci Sampson, who is the principal partner of Consilience Group,” recalled Mia. “Most of my work pertained to strategic planning projects for nonprofit organizations, like Church Health, The Salvation Army, Friends for Life, and others.”

“I served as a volunteer and board member for a variety of nonprofits, but I really came to know and understand nonprofit work in a unique way through the insider’s view of my consulting work,” continued Mia. “Honest and unfiltered, that type of vantage point allows you to understand the complexities of the world in which nonprofits navigate.”

Last March, Mia solidified her place in the nonprofit sector when she accepted the position of Executive Director for Creative Aging Memphis.

“The mission of Creative Aging is to enrich the lives of older adults by bringing music and the arts to places older adults live and gather,” explained Mia. “Through our programming, we offer musical performances and hands-on workshops that include drawing, ceramics, mosaics, glass blowing, and other arts. Additionally, our Senior Arts Series brings music and theatre to over 1,000 older adults by offering four events per year at Theatre Memphis.”

The organization operates as a virtual office. In addition to Mia, there are two staff members, Assistant Director Terrie Kirksey and Program Coordinator Teresa Schuman. Mia is utilizing her experience with strategic planning. She is exploring opportunities to realign marketing and communication, and outreach efforts, as she works to increase the number of adults that Creative Aging serves.

“I’d love to see us increase the frequency of our events, reaching more older adults who are aging in place (remaining in their homes),” said Mia. “That’s an important programming stream that we hope to further develop.”

With over 650 performances each year in Memphis area senior communities, like assisted, independent and nursing communities, as well as senior citizen centers, Creative Aging is going where older adults live and gather.

“Even though we touched over 26,000 individuals in more than 50 participating communities in 2016, we’ve only scratched the surface,” said Mia. “There are 115,000 people over 65 in Shelby County, of that number about 30% live alone.”

Mia continued, “Creative Aging wants to help build connections to the community for older adults. We believe that when you enhance seniors’ social and community engagement you are actually improving their quality of life. Participation in and enjoyment of music and the arts has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety. And creating new neural pathways through novel experiences has a positive effect on older adults’ mental agility.”

So as more people want to age in place, Creative Aging has its mission firmly in place to bring seniors out and keep them active in the community.

“Everyone has some sort of creative talent,” concluded Mia. “Through the programs offered by Creative Aging, we’re trying to leverage those qualities.”

Creative Aging Memphis’ Senior Arts Series will host performances at Theatre Memphis at 1 p.m. on June 21, August 23, and October 18. Tickets are available at the door for a $5 donation.  For more information about program offerings, visit www.creativeagingmidsouth.org or call (901) 272-3434.