The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Appalachia. In a time when daily reports of job loss and industry leaving the region are the norm, many individuals are making their own way. Some whose jobs have left them, and others who have left their jobs, are opening their own businesses and reconnecting with creative passions they’ve had since early childhood.
After 32 years on the job, South Charleston native Jerill Vance walked away from the chemical industry in the Kanawha Valley and went back to college at the age of 55 with funding assistance from the TRA (Trade Readjustment Act) federal program. He felt it was time to take a chance on his dreams. Vance is the only person in West Virginia to have received an Associate Degree in Fine Woodworking within the state. He graduated from New River Community College in December 2010.
As a boy, Vance learned carpentry skills working alongside both his father and his grandfather. At age 14, he rode his bicycle to his first paying job as a carpenter helper during the summer months. He never dreamed those formative years would lead him to the full-time career he enjoys today as an artist.
“My aspiration is ultimately to teach,” says Vance. “I’ve been working in wood for about 30 years in what spare time I have had. I just decided it was time to make the move and pursue my dream full-time,” he says.
Today, Vance enjoys success in designing and building unique furnishings using some of his favorite woods – native hardwood, cherry, walnut, maple, oak, poplar and ash. He especially enjoys creating furniture in American Country or Colonial styles and researching the history of pieces. However he has built some period pieces such as a drop front Queen Ann Secretary. Much of his work is custom-ordered. Vance loves designing pieces that hearken back to another time including dry sinks, ice boxes, hutches and water benches. All of these are functioning pieces of furniture for the common man in the 18th and 19th century.
A recently designed piece that is proving to be quite popular is a quilter’s display cabinet that can be personalized by the customer. The cabinet incorporates a panel that can be changed as the customer desires with fabric, embroidery, painting, glass panel or many other options. This cabinet provides a place for quilters to proudly and safely display their prized quilts.
Vance said his career path and personal life took a few turns before he realized his true calling in woodworking. In the fall of 1972 he enrolled as a math student at Marshall University where he met his wife, Belinda, who was majoring in music education. Although he left his math studies for building homes Belinda went on to earn her Master’s Degree in Music Education. They settled in Culloden and began to build their family.
It was the late 70’s and early 80’s when Vance’s childhood love of working with wood began to resurface. “I was doing the craft circuit by the time the 90’s rolled around,” says Vance “and was awarded the Outstanding Booth Award at the Handmade Holiday Treasures show in Mason County in 1993.” “But, my wife and I had two sons who were very active in little league, so I gave up my business license for a while.”
His sons are grown now. The oldest, Jeremy, is a CNC machinist with a degree from Robert C. Byrd Institute, and the youngest, Ryan, who earned a degree in Journalism from Marshall University, now works in the IT Department at Marshall. His wife just recently retired from her job as band director at Hurricane Middle School. Although she has assisted her husband by creating a web site and keeping records she is starting a new career in embroidery.
“I’m proof that it is never too late to pursue a new career. There is funding, and there are organizations working to help people find a new path. You just need to start somewhere…to start looking,” says Vance.
Vance is a member of Mountaineer Woodturners and was one of the first members of Valley Woodworkers of WV.