Larry Favorite’s art studio is tucked away near Mebane’s Exit 154 off 1-85/I-40. Although it used to be more secluded than it is now-- with a new apartment structure under construction next door-- it is still a quaint getaway: an open, red-painted wooden building shaded by a large oak tree.
Favorite has been a Mebanite for about 14 years, since he and his wife moved from Rockingham to build a house in a more convenient location for her commute to Duke. They live about a mile down the road from Favorite’s studio, which is located at 951 S. 5th St. in Mebane.
Although Favorite has lived and worked in North Carolina for the past 29 years, he is still dedicated to a medium from another region, desert ironwood. Ironwood has a higher density and is harder and heavier than other types of wood. Favorite was first introduced to his medium while working as a mechanical engineer in Arizona.
“I had a pretty good job offer in Phoenix, which I took,” Favorite said. He worked for a few months, then “40 years ago, one Thursday morning, I quit.”
“I changed clothes, went out in my backyard, and picked up a piece of wood and said what can I do with this to avoid poverty?” Favorite said, referring to his first project with the desert ironwood.
The job in Arizona was okay, Favorite said, but “there were things about it that I didn’t like: basically the things you have to do to survive in business.”
So he changed course and started to use his mechanical mind to create art out of desert ironwood. “I was always a problem solver,” Favorite said.
But success for Favorite didn’t happen overnight. “I had to learn,” he said.
Processing ironwood can be difficult. “It’s very time consuming,” Favorite noted. “The wood is extremely hard; normal woodworking tools won’t cut it.”
“I do a lot of sanding and grinding,” he said.
But, despite ironwood’s challenges, Favorite is not likely to take on another medium. “Other woods are soft,” he said, “I wanted something that would last.”
Favorite said his style is rooted in a fateful trip to the library while he was discovering what to do next with his life. “I walked down the aisles of the library,” Favorite said. “and, if a book jumped out, that was going to be what I was going to do.” The book that eventually made that jump was a sculpture book by Barbara Hepworth, an English modernist sculptor who worked in large pieces of wood. “I really liked her style and feel,” Favorite said.
Otherwise, Favorite describes his artistic style as natural with a “southwestern influence.”
Once achieving his ideal style and medium, things began to come together for Favorite. He was juried into the Arizona Artist Guild the first year he applied, which is uncommon for the group, and his popularity grew in the area.
But there were still milestones to overcome. One of the major stepping stones in Favorite’s artistic career was learning to do inlay in wood. Before, he was simply gluing scraps of silver and turquoise to his desert ironwood. A good friend pushed him to develop his craft and now he is a master at the process. “I break up turquoise in an old garbage disposals,” Favorite said. He then uses a jeweler’s loop to carefully place the pieces in the inlay.
After quitting his job, Favorite lived in Arizona for two to three years, then moved to the Oregon coast for a while, then back to his native Indiana, until a friend in Raleigh gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse: “[my friend] told me that if I would move to Raleigh,” Favorite said, “he’d help me move. I said. ‘that’s the best offer I’ve had in a long time.’”
That was 29 years ago.
Favorite was initially drawn to the area, because it is a day’s drive from “about half the population of the country,” making it a prime location for his art shows.
But Favorite has since moved away from the art show scene and now primarily sells his work through galleries across the United States. This opens him up to a diverse and impressive group of clientele, including Bill and Hillary Clinton who purchased three of Favorite’s pieces last Christmas.
“The gallery owner told me Bill was very impressed,” Favorite said, “[Clinton] said ‘I’m from Arkansas and we have good woodworkers in Arkansas, but I’ve never seen anything this good.’”
Other high-profile clients include a president of an international company and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But even with his VIP clientele, Favorite is remarkably humble. “Being an artist, I have learned to live very modestly,” he said. Although, “I do like things like indoor plumbing,” he joked.
Favorite arrives at his studio around 7 a.m. every morning to begin work. “I like to feel, when I walk through the door,” Favorite said, “like I’m walking through a filter-- walking in with a clear conscience, clear soul.”