Grainer-turned-painter prepares for first exhibit

by Brian Clarey

Ever heard of Thomas Kershaw?

Probably not. But among decorative artists he’s a legend, part John Henry part Muhammad Ali, and mentions of his reconstructions of wood grain and marble back in the 1850s still make men like John Kraus pause in awe.

Kraus is telling the story from the dining room of his sweet apartment by the golf course on Elm Street, cool air whispering through an open window, blowing lightly across the stacks of paper he’s squared off on the table. He’s standing, drinking a cup of coffee, blowing his cigarette smoke out the window, and his long white hair flares out madly from the sides of his head.

Overhead he’s created a trompe l’oeil, giving the impression of an oval of molding around the light fixture.

He’s a wood grainer by trade, re-creating wood grains and veined marble using pigment, linseed oil and turpentine. He finds most of his work these days in the restoration of historic homes ‘— doors, floors, molding and whatnot ‘— and he’s a trove of knowledge about the history of the craft.

‘“Early on in America,’” he says, ‘“attempts at graining were very naïve, even in George Washington’s house.’”

But Kershaw, Kraus says, was so good he was accused of using marble veneers to achieve the effect, or somehow transferring the organic patterns of wood from actual pieces instead of using tools, technique and inspiration.

As the story goes, Kershaw invited a select few of his peers to watch him work in a closed room ‘— back then, as now, grainers kept their methods close to their oil-stained smocks ‘— and cleared his name.

Kraus drops another pause into the monologue.

‘“He stopped working after that, though,’” he says.

Kraus, a somewhat reformed Mennonite, was raised as a university brat in college towns from the South to the Midwest and he spent a little time in the Indian sub-continent where his father took sabbatical. He’s been in Greensboro for nearly 30 years but his work takes him across the country, especially since the historic preservation boom in the last 20 years. He recently helped restore a 1799 home in Tallahassee, Fla., peeling back layers of wallpaper and paint, looking for flourishes and patterns in the original woodwork the way an archaeologist digs for fragments of bone.

‘“I say any house built between 1750 and 1850, if you dig deep enough you will probably find wood detail and marbling,’” he says.

He restored two fresco ceilings in the Florida home to their original luster and found a woodwork motif that he replicated throughout.

‘“There are a lot of words people use to describe what I do,’” he says, pulling his hair tight behind his head. ‘“But don’t use the word ‘faux’ please. ‘Faux’ is French for ‘false,’ and it specifically refers to false wood, false marble, false stone. So technically I am a faux painter, but I don’t want to be.’”

Among the clippings, folders, notepads and sketches stacked neatly on the table is a deck of swatches, testament to Kraus’ intimate knowledge of wood grain. He files through them like a kid with his baseball cards.

‘“This one is maple. That’s crotch mahogany.’”

He stacks them neatly and puts them back on the table.

‘“When you look at this work, I am not an artist. I’m an artisan and master craftsman. That’s how I define it.

‘“I always thought I was going to be a woodworker, not a painter,’” he continues. ‘“It’s all about the wood in a lot of ways. Trees have always played a part in my art.’”

His art crowds on the walls of this cozy Irving Park apartment in a tight grid. Canvases lean against the baseboards in stacks, ready to be brought over to Mack and Mack for his very first public show that opens on May 21.

The images are organic, and a lot of them are of trees: trees greening and budding; trees dormant in fields of snow; a forest turning in autumn; bare black boughs illuminated by moonlight; ancient oaks, limbs heavy with age and dripping with Spanish moss. They reach to the sky, their arms winding and tapering like marble veins. A scene of cloud cover makes an inexact pattern like a stippled wood grain.

‘“They’re all locations,’” he says. ‘“My work takes me all around the country. I get off work, I’m sitting in a hotel room and I don’t want to watch TV. I sit in front of these beautiful landscapes ‘— in Tallahassee I was surrounded by seventeen acres of gardens. I paint them. I sketch and I do pastels and I paint. This collection came about over the last five years and [me] finally admitting I’m a painter and enjoying it. People have convinced me to do it and it’s time to do it because I have a bunch of old paintings and nowhere to put them. He adds: ‘“After thirty-five years of immersion in linseed oil and turpentine I finally admit I’m a painter.’”

Kraus moves to the living room and slips on a clean and pressed white shirt to have his picture taken, though his jeans are torn and stained with pigment and his hair stands out from his head in snowy wisps.

‘“As a working artist I have been able to make a living,’” he says. ‘“But to support my vision’… that’s what my paintings are. My paintings are just’… just my own stuff, you know.’”

He buttons the shirt.

‘“It’s been a very good mix.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at