On the second floor of the old Film Row building at 215 W. 18th St., John Pryor is reimagining.
Out of downed trees gathered from around Kansas City, Pryor crafts coffee tables, side tables, cutting boards, coasters and even chopsticks.
“In the same way that the farm-to-table movement reintroduced people to the flavors of the land, I want to be able to reintroduce people to the natural beauty of our land,” says Pryor, 37, owner of Madison Flitch.
Pryor opened his workshop and gallery on May 5. Madison is a family name — his great-grandfather’s name and Pryor’s middle name — and flitch is the Old English word for a wood slab.
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Pryor manages a piece’s entire crafting process, from the milling and curing to design and production.
Currently, an $1,800 ambrosia box elder coffee table sits in the lobby. It was salvaged from ambrosia box elder and ash trees removed from suburban areas around Kansas City because of pests. But it is the pests that give the wood distinction.
The table’s otherwise blond wood has strawberry-colored striations running through it. Pryor explains the pigment comes from the invasion of a particular beetle that emits what becomes a natural red resin.
Similarly striking is an art deco table in the hall that leads to his gallery. It’s built from spalted maple. Spalting is a result of a tree being infected by a mushroom, a process that Pryor says can create blue, green and black lines.
In this case, the spalting manifests in lines outlining the woodgrain that look drawn with a black Sharpie.
“That’s the value I’m offering. The wood that I’m turning into these furniture collections is going to be very unusual and rare because I got the only tree in the Midwest that’s like this,” he says.
Until last summer, Pryor and his wife, Megan, lived in Boston. They met at K-State; he grew up in Kansas City. He earned two master’s degrees on the East Coast, one in history, one in theology — he’d imagined a life as an academic.
Once he realized the market for historians and theologians in Boston wasn’t real hot, he took a tech job in information systems.
“It was too ‘Game of Thrones,’ too stressful, and I burned out,” Pryor says of his six-year stint in the corporate world.
He took up woodworking to blow off steam and soon fell in love with the craft.
“The creative process is unbelievably soul-giving, as opposed to soul-destroying in the corporate world,” he says. “Being able to dream up something, create it, give a life to it — especially when you’re connecting it back to the land around you and giving something a second life — is just an incredible experience.”
On visits home, he saw the transformation in downtown Kansas City. He and his wife decided they wanted to be a part of it and moved to the Crossroads Arts District.
They also knew they wanted to start a business.
“What we really wanted was something that connected us to Kansas City and celebrated it,” he says.
What Pryor created is a perfect fit for the Crossroads community, says Jeff Owens, president of the Crossroads Community Association.
“That’s what’s stimulating all this new energy down in the Crossroads is the artist/craftsman kind of person,” says Owens, who has been involved with the neighborhood since 1979.
Owens estimates that 450 artists contribute to the Crossroads, either by participating in activities at one of the studios or actually living there.
Though Pryor hesitates to identify himself as an artist, he was drawn by the creative energy of the Crossroads.
Pryor also continued his woodworking education in the area. An online search of area furniture artists led him to Kelly Parker of Woodsong Studio in Parkville. She also works with reclaimed wood.
He immediately signed up for a master woodworking course at Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Ind., where Parker had refined her craft.
“She was my inspiration for going to the school and following this path in woodworking and furniture,” Pryor says.
Coincidentally, when Pryor arrived at class, Parker was the assistant teacher. The two have met a few times in Indiana, but never in Kansas City.
Marc Adams School has attracted woodworkers from around the world for 24 years.
The school attracts craftspeople, most of whom are in their 40s and older — Adams jokes that Pryor is “still in diapers.”
“John can come here and spend time with people whose work is in collections at places like the Smithsonian and the Louvre and the Museum of Civilization,” Adams says by phone.
According to the master craftsman, the tree-to-table idea certainly isn’t new, but it is time-consuming, so not a lot of people work that way. He cites Pryor’s dedication as the quality that will make him stand out.
Ultimately, Parker and Adams agree with Pryor that one of the most compelling components of his pieces is the stories behind them.
“Because Kansas City is undergoing so much redevelopment, they’re going to be taking down a lot of trees,” Pryor explains. As he gives these trees a second life, he’d also like to invite Kansas Citians to participate in that rebirth.
Anyone can contact him to donate a tree and he’ll pick it up. He also offers a discount to the donor on any resultant pieces.
“It’s something I feel I can be much more proud of than my time managing or even being in the academic world, studying lofty ideas. The ideas exist in the realm of an ivory tower, a bubble — I wasn’t able to get down to real.
“This is the realest thing, the most authentic thing I’ve ever done. I’m very excited by that.”
The studio is at 215 W. 18th St., Suite 275. Hours are noon-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and anytime by appointment. firstname.lastname@example.org. 816-701-9564.