The legend of Leroy Graves: From fields to fame in furniture

Black History Month

(WRIC) — If Black History Month is a celebration of the African-American experience, of triumph in the face for adversity, then it’s a perfect time to honor Leroy Graves, a furniture conservator at Colonial Williamsburg.

Graves is the star of an exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Art Museum called “Upholstery: CSI”, which explains how conservators restore furniture from the 1700s and 1800s to original appearance using forensics and special techniques, techniques invented by Graves.

“The Graves Approach” solves a simple but vexing problem in furniture restoration: How to upholster fragile wooden frames without damaging or destroying them with new nails or tacks. It’s been adopted by museums around the world.

Graves never imagined what his life would become. His formal education was grade school, interrupted by years pulling tobacco to help support his family.

He started working in the fields at age 6.

“We lived in a two-story house with 2 rooms downstairs and a big room upstairs. Probably 15 of us,” he recalls.

The work was grueling, unpleasant, and dirty. “You go out and you start pulling tobacco. By the time of midday you’re completely black—with tar on your face, your clothes are just like oil.”

Crushing poverty followed Graves to Williamsburg. His break came in 1967, a job with the Colonial Foundation … in maintenance.

“This was accidental,” he said. “Friend of mine was working here, one of the gentlemen working with him fell ill and they said they needed to have someone to work in his place for a few weeks. And a few weeks ended up being 52-years.”

Graves got out of maintenance and into furniture…by making himself indispensable.

“They had upholsterers come down from New York to do upholstery work on pieces they could not ship to New York like sofas and easy chairs. So I would spend my lunch hour hanging out with those guys and so finally they put me to work.”

His industry was matched by able hands and a sharp mind. But the art world might never have known Leroy’s talents. It was only when he threatened to leave for a better-paying job at a new brewery that he was formally promoted to Art Handler, with a raise in pay.

After nine years as a Handler, Graves was assigned to Colonial Williamsburg’s Furniture Lab, where he refined skills in decorative carving and fabrication. His brilliance was about to be tapped.

Leroy first suggested to his boss that upholstered frames could be slipped atop the seat, front and back of a chair, or a sofa without damaging the object’s structural integrity.

Early models depended heavily on copper. Today Graves uses a blend of copper, acrylic, foam and fabric.

Respect for the “Graves Approach”, wasn’t earned without a grudge or attempts to steal credit for Leroy’s “Non-Invasive” technique.

“Getting into a situation that you didn’t belong in because of the color of your skin made me more determined to let them know, okay, that’s what you think. That’s not the way I think. And the more I heard that the more I was proving them wrong.”

Graves is also renowned as a forensic investigator, able to discern counterfeits and fakes from authentic Colonial antiques. Graves is so skilled himself that he can identify the work of an individual Colonial craftsman by examining an object’s construction and upholstery.

Now in the twilight of a career spanning 5-decades Graves works a little less at the Furniture Lab, about three days a week, and enjoys life a little more.

What does a man like Graves do in well-earned spare time, we asked?

He tells us he makes furniture.

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