This Gilmer County woodworker and celebrated Tamarack artisan learns to pursue his dream after a brush with death.
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Wind chimes and stillness punctuated by peals of laughter—this is the background music to Matt Thomas’ new life. Most mornings he gets up at 5 a.m., walks to work, and spends a few hours adjusting the jigs he needs to build an accent table or fits thin pieces of walnut inlay into unfinished cutting boards. By 7:30 a.m., the sound of little feet scurrying down the hall next door signals break time. He doesn’t need to get up so early—his trip to work consists of a 10-foot walk from his front door to the door of his woodworking studio, which overlooks a quiet little valley in Gilmer County dotted with farms—but he likes to be there when his wife Terri and their four children wake up.
Matt Thomas owns Thomas|work, a small studio on a 13-acre plot in the Mountain Lakes region, where he designs and builds custom furniture and sought-after retail pieces. His signatures are the graceful swoop of inlaid wood and the organic curve of iron. In his most daring pieces, the natural softness of wood and strength of metal seem to shift roles—hard wooden edges brush up against slithering iron vines in a wonderful interplay of form and function. “The process is what’s interesting,” he says. “To take the very rigid wood and wrap the ironwork around it—I just try to find different ways, from a design standpoint, to combine these two very different substances.” His furniture often has angular, Shaker-style bodies.
Quickly becoming one of Tamarack’s most celebrated artisans, Matt is still a little taken aback at the idea of being called an artist. Although he considers himself semi-retired, he often works 50-hour weeks, puts out hundreds of products at a time, and was featured as an emerging artist by NICHE magazine. He insists his passion is not for the art but for the lifestyle itself—a lifestyle that allows him to see his children grow and change every day. “Honestly, I’m a businessman, a craftsman, not really an artist. I worked for about 10 years in construction, putting in 14-hour days. I know how physically intense it is, and I know the wage I can get out of it. This is a lot less physically demanding. I’m not as drained at the end of the day, and my kids are right here playing. But even if this paid minimum wage, I would still choose it. This is the best job I’ve ever had. It’s a little stressful when the phone isn’t ringing and there aren’t orders to fill, but it’s worth it because I get to be right here. It’s a no-brainer.”
Turning from an everyday career in construction to life as an artisan wasn’t an easy transition. For Matt, it took a brush with death. Although he’d always nursed a love of the craft—his work was in a jury session at Tamarack when he was just 16 and he apprenticed under internationally recognized blacksmith Jeff Fetty for nearly four years—his work had always lived on the periphery. “I just never thought I could take the plunge,” he says. Then one rainy afternoon in July 2011, Matt was finishing up a metal roofing installation when he took a wrong step and fell 16 feet to the ground. It wasn’t until he found himself lying immobile in a hospital bed that he realized his whole world was about to change. Matt had fractured a vertebra in his lower back, and there was a very real chance that he would never be able to return to his job as general contractor. “Immediately, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t build. I couldn’t do anything. And I had a wife and three kids to support, which made it that much more traumatic.”