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Taking his turn: Natchez teen learns craft of turning bowls

Joseph Simmons, 14, was visiting his friend Burnley Cook in Natchez last year when he said he saw a lathe in Cook’s workshop.

“He said, ‘What about that lathe? Can we make something with it?’” Cook recalled Simmons saying.

Cook, who is a craftsman who uses his workshop to restore antiques and create arts and crafts, said he had not used the lathe in many years.

“I bought that lathe in 1996,” Cook said. “I still have the sales ticket.”

Cook said he used the lathe to turn some spindles for a project and maybe made a few bowls but then had not used the lathe for many years.

After Simmons asked about the lathe, Cook set Simmons up on the lathe and taught him how to make a bowl. One of the first bowls Simmons made is still his favorite, Simmons said, because it is small and looks like a dog bowl, which is why he calls it the “Dog Bowl.”

Since then, Simmons has made several bowls.

“It can be fun, but it can be dangerous,” Simmons said of his first year’s experience turning bowls and spindles on the lathe and adding that he has not yet had any injuries. Bowls are his favorite subjects, though, Simmons said.

The process of creating a wooden bowl comes down to selecting the piece of wood, cutting it down into a manageable chunk with a foot on one side to attach it to the lathe, removing the bark, then putting it on the lathe and letting the lathe tell him what type of bowl the wood will be, Simmons said.

“It depends on the chisel and the lathe,” Simmons said of the form that emerges from the wood on the lathe.

Simmons, a ninth-grader at Natchez Early College, said his parents, Jennifer and Fred Simmons, and his younger sister, Kadi, 12, all support him in his woodworking efforts.

Cook said Simmons is working on developing design skills for his bowls and improving his art.

Simmons said he creates his bowls to be works of art, and they are not produced to be utilitarian. He is, however, considering finishing some bowls in the future to be sealed for use for eating.

Cook said people are captivated by Simmons’ woodworks.

“I can post a beautiful bowl on Facebook, and people will say, ‘Ah, nice bowl!’” Cook said. “If I post one of Joseph’s bowls, people say, ‘I want one! Where can I get one?’”

Cook said the social media interest in Simmons’ work gave them an idea.

Cook was able to acquire a large piece of a cedar tree from the Port Gibson Cemetery that was blown over in a storm.

Simmons is in the process of making bowls out of the wood, and he hopes to be able to produce approximately 20 bowls to sell as a fundraiser for the cemetery.

“They have an event call ‘Whisper in the Cedars’ in Port Gibson that is like our Angels on the Bluff,” Cook said, adding they hope to sell the bowls for approximately $50 apiece and plan to donate the proceeds to the cemetery.

More information will be available on Burnley Cook’s Facebook page about acquiring the bowls Simmons is creating for the fundraiser, Cook said.

Or call Cook at 601-445-9994.