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James “Justin” Roberts is a willow walker. At any given point you can find him along the banks of a shallow pond, or deep in the woodlands of Kentucky. Machete in hand, he makes each cut with precision and takes home the bounty.

As a young man Justin enjoyed the art of food. Cooking at several local restaurants brought him great pride for many years, but he yearned for a more permanent medium. Then it happened- at 30 years old he tired of the drama of the service industry he turned inward to discover his true calling- sustainable living, art and family.

Through the years, he had heard of a willow man, by the name of George Beard. Known throughout America as the finest willow craftsman; meeting George became Justin’s main priority. Luckily George had a home right outside of Justin’s home town, Murray Kentucky.

Justin called upon the Murray Art Guild to help him meet George. They were happy to share information as Willow work is a dying art form.

After many months of attempting to reach George, a break came in the spring of 2012. At 85 years old, George was ready to teach Justin the way of the willow. After the first chair was complete George knew that Justin was a natural. Six months later Justin and his small family were living in the Beard home. Day in and day out Justin and George search the land for willow and spend their nights working side by side in George’s woodshop. Like two peas in a pod, the age differences disappear; and stories from an era past, along with a beautiful and lost folk art are passed down from one generation to the next.

Written by: Shannon Roberts
Twig and bentwood furniture has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years. Since the Iron Age people of many cultures used simple tools to create functional furniture to fit their needs from the materials available.

It was in the aristocratic environment of England during the 1800’s that gave this functional craft its first introduction to the art world. During that time, imports from China were all the rage. During this great shift of a more accessible world imports the rustic furniture took Europe by storm. The craze spread to the America’s and craftsmen here started duplicating the style.

Gypsies disserve a lot of credit for distributing this fine work across the country during the Great Depression. They would camp wherever they could find good will and a water source.
Willow grows well by the water, and they realized they could harvest this wood and with minimal tools they could create stunning pieces that would catch the eye of well to do towns people. This trade served as a source of income and resources for the wandering gypsies.

As in all art, the design and materials were altered to fit the function and style of the particular person crafting the piece. Willow wood has long been used to create such work. With hundreds of varieties world wide and a reputation for being renewable the future of the craft looks bright.

Written by: Shannon Roberts
KET Kentucky Life, video excerpt  of
Justin Roberts - Walk the Willow
Kentucky Farm Bureau's Bluegrass & Backroads: Walk the Willow
Listen to WKMS interview here.
The Making of A Master: George Beard and Justin Roberts

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Child's Playhouse
Child's Playhouse, detail
Hillyard Organics Cabin
Hillyard Organics Cabin, detail
Booth set up for outdoor festivals
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