For those in the south, especially the rural south, the term “Jersey Shore” brings to mind the MTV series set along the coast of New Jersey. It conjures an image of young profane characters whose accents are distinctive and attitudes are legendary. For Chris Durgin, the image of “Jersey Shore” is one of his childhood home in a town surprisingly similar to Sparta. While the hometown of his youth was quite small, New York City and all of its glitz and glamour was only 55 miles away.
In 1980, Chris began working at the Metropolitan Opera. By day he built and installed the scenes for some of the world’s most famous operas, and at night he worked on lighting during the performances. “The Met” hosted six concurrent shows. There were six nighttime shows each week, and Wednesday and Saturday matinees. It was a grueling 32 week season of extremely long hours with only Sundays off.
The artistry of the opera extended beyond the music and acting. The intricacies of sets and scenes helped the patrons feel a part of the bohemian lifestyle of the Latin Quarter of Paris in the mid-1800s (La Boheme – a personal favorite of Chris’) or allowed them to be swept away as mythological Valkyrie fly across the battlefield choosing which Norsemen will live or die in battle (The Flight of the Valkyrie). Working on these sets, Chris developed technical and artistic talents that enhanced his sense of style and attention to detail.
Chris left the Met and its relentless grind in 1990. He went back to New Jersey. There he began building custom exhibits and displays for trade shows. When the company sold out to Nomadic Display, the new owners asked Chris to move to their new site in northern Virginia. Chris worked with them until 1995 when the urge to move on took him to Key West.
Settling down in Big Pine Key, Chris went to work in a cabinet shop. His innovative designs soon caught the eyes of those who were willing to pay for quality work. He worked on one home renovation for two years, work that was later showcased in Florida Design Magazine. Then around 2000, Chris joined an exodus out of Florida. He returned to his native New Jersey and opened a studio building furniture.
But some of his south Florida friends settled in Alleghany County. Chris visited them a couple of Thanksgivings and others times throughout the year. Back in New Jersey, he was building furniture for people from Maine to Florida. After staying in Sparta multiple times as a layover when making deliveries, Chris realized that Sparta’s central location would be a great place for his studio.
In Sparta, he continued to build furniture. Chris’ work caught the eye of Phil Hanes. Hanes was well known across the country as a champion for the arts and had served on the National Council on the Arts under President Lyndon Johnson. Hanes commissioned Chris to build pieces of furniture for the Hanes home in Winston Salem.
Chris also has a love of music. He began hanging out with local musicians at the Alleghany County Fiddlers Convention in Sparta. He met Tim Lewis who suggested that Chris try his hand at building a guitar.
Building something beautiful is second nature to Chris. He steers clear of the ornamentation often found on some instruments. The sleek, clean lines of his guitars allows the character of the wood to be the focal point. Each is a true work of art.
But, Chris wants to do more than build a pretty guitar. His desire is to build instruments that look and sound beautiful. He knew he had gotten it right when Wayne Henderson of nearby Grayson County played one of Chris’ guitars and declared it “a good one.”
This artistic bent has landed Chris’ shop as a favorite stop on the Alleghany County Studio Tour each June and October. He also displayed his instruments (he also build banjos and dobros) last year at the International Bluegrass Music Association and will be there again this fall. And he does all this incredible work in the small studio in his home a block off Main Street in Sparta.
A conversation with Chris reveals a man widely traveled with a long list of well-known friends across the country. The obvious question is, “Why Sparta?” Chris has fielded that question many times. He can describe how he enjoys the people here and how they have accepted him in the community. He jokingly says, “Sparta is like a good Italian neighborhood except there isn’t an Italian restaurant.” But in a more serious tone, he admits that he didn’t really find Sparta. He says, “Sparta found me.”
For more on Chris Durgin, read this 2015 post from the late TJ Worthington’s blog, Waterfall Road.
Chris can be contacted at 336-372-4776.