Ask Duncan McKinnon how he likes the rural lifestyle and he might just hand you a collection of photographs he’s taken of his adopted county.
There’s a CSX train rumbling through the Hayden tunnel and other Blount scenes as varied as a nearby farmhouse, a rusted pickup ready for restoration in Cleveland, a toothy-smiling Nubian goat, a giant billboard of a rat advertising a ride at the Blount County Fair and more—things you might pass every day and not notice unless you are really LOOKING.
If you’re lucky, he and his wife Patsy Blake might just give you a tour of their spacious 2,800-square-foot, two-story home that once was Hayden’s Masonic Lodge!
And, if you’re even more fortunate, you might get to smell the sawdust and see pieces of maple and poplar come to life in intricate reproduction furniture in Duncan’s next door workshop, situated in the old Hayden Post Office building.
While they both literally live and work INSIDE history, that’s still not the main reason Duncan and Patsy love Blount County.
"It’s the people," Patsy explained. "You just couldn’t ask for better neighbors."
"It’s without a doubt their generosity and kindness," she noted, wondering at the wide variety of food they received from their next door neighbor’s bountiful garden all last summer.
Then Duncan added, "Then during a storm the tin roof on our little shed was blowing off. Our neighbor got a ladder and screwed the roof down. Never said a word. You don’t find people like that often in the city."
Another time Duncan had unknowingly left a portfolio of photos outside and the wind blew them everywhere. He found them all later neatly stacked beneath a rock along their fence, where another neighbor had safely collected them.
And the couple always sees the beauty of the area, a beauty they fear too many local residents don’t see because they’re just too "used" to it.
"We may be looking through rose-colored glasses," Duncan explained "But the sunsets. The scenery. You just don’t get any prettier."
Rose-colored glasses or not, Duncan and Patsy are passionate people.
Duncan noted the main passions in his life are his photography, woodworking and Patsy!
Duncan held a variety of interesting and intriguing jobs before beginning to work with his dad in his 30s.
His father, Joe McKinnon, was a well-known interior decorator in the Birmingham area. He regularly had furniture frames made to which he could upholster variously designed fabrics to better fit houses he was outfitting.
One day about 35 years ago, a couch and chair came back so badly built Duncan told his dad, "I could do better than that!"
His dad took him up on the idea, buying him a Craftsman Radial Saw which he still has in his shop!
"I started out doing those simple frames and then began to do more complicated items," Duncan recalled. "I must have inherited some of my grandfather’s talents. He was my mother’s father, Ulric Shaw, a carpenter."
Wherever the basis for his knowledge came from, Duncan has woodworking talent that only is born to a man! One bed he crafted required intricate overlay designs and took him more than a month—working diligently and carefully every day—- to build for a decorator.
"About 90 percent is designer work," he explained.
He can take a photograph, or a drawing he makes from a client or designer’s suggestions, and then craft a beautiful wooden masterpiece that will be an heirloom for generations.
There are chests, tables, benches, dining chairs and so much more. If you see it or can dream it, there’s a good chance Duncan can built it!
Likewise Patsy sits in the front well-lit corner of their home-lodge with an array of acrylic paints scattered around her. There are many canvases of bungalow-style homes from the 1950s and 1960s Avondale Mills and Southside areas of Birmingham.
She began drawing and painting while still a child and sold a few along the way as she raised three children.
But she didn’t begin painting seriously until a few years ago. Now she paints from photographs, things she sees or on commission.
The depth of her paintings can fool your mind. Small children often come toward her paintings with their hands outstretched trying to play in the shadows which are actually painted on the canvases!
She’s a master of large-canvas paintings, selling them up to four by six feet, but tiny paintings are also detailed.
Then there’s the McKinnon home, where they moved about six years ago. Who would have envisioned the old Hayden Masonic Lodge, which later even served as a church, as being a showplace home?
Old carpet which had been glued to the upstairs floors was painstakingly removed by Patsy and the beautiful oak floors refinished. There’s original bead-board ceiling all across the loft as well. Windows have chains and lean outward, each original to the more-than-90-year-old building.
Doing much of the work themselves has been time-consuming but the end result is well worth it.
Downstairs is still a work in progress as well. A bank of old post office boxes did not come from the next door post office –workshop, instead from the old Empire Post Office which contains the box previously rented by Patsy’s own parents!
Duncan and Patsy hope their paintings and photography can help introduce them to others in the Blount area.
He began shooting photos when he was just a kid using his old Brownie camera. He now shoots with Nikon D300 or a Nikon D70 as the couple explores the county’s highways and byways.
They hope their paintings and photos (and even the woodworking!) can "convey the message we really are surrounded by so many beautiful things," Duncan explained. "Sometimes we just have to open our eyes to see it!"
(Duncan’s photography can be viewed
and ordered at http://www.blurb.com
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County.