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Cainsville farmer creates furniture, paintings, poetry

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“I used to make some little pieces, odd stuff like bird houses, tables and cabinets. Not quality furniture but rustic. I make the chests for the fun of it and to make money.”

The chests, which vary in size, are priced from $30 to $250. He does his woodworking inside a tin-sided building that served as Freas Ayers’ country store the first half of the 20th century. The old store squats on a limestone foundation and has two wood benches in front on a short porch.

A second old country store, which also closed  years ago, stands on the same side of the highway about 40 yards away. It was operated for 60 years by Jess Harris, the grandfather of Alexander’s wife, Brownie Sue.

The couple has been married for 36 years. Much of their farmland has been passed down from her side of the family since Cainsville was established in 1829.

Donald began sowing the seeds of creativity as a youth. He was born in Murfreesboro and raised in Lascassas, a Rutherford County community about 3 or 4 miles south of the Wilson County line.

“My grandfather was a sharecropper and farmer, and my daddy did the same. He got into some carpentry work in the 1950s,” said Alexander, who has farmed all his life.

His living room displays several of the paintings that he has produced the past few years. Most are rural landscapes, places he can relate to. One shows a man with his head bent beneath the hood of a pickup truck. It’s titled “Shade Tree Mechanic.”

In another he has placed birch trees in a winter forest, while a third painting features a snowy scene with a covered bridge.

As for his themes, Donald said, “I like all the rural stuff. I stay away from people as much as possible. I don’t feel like I can capture a person.”

He begins by drawing the scene with a pencil on wood. He next puts texture to it using a woodburner and then completes the piece by coloring it.   

“I’ve been doing artwork ever since I was 5 years old. Drawing and coloring is all it is,” Donald said. “Everything I do is on wood. Most of the artwork are woodburnings, and the reason for that is it’s cheaper than canvas. I never thought I’d do woodwork but got into it as a hobby. I just kind of picked it up. I do it for the fun of it because I have wood.

“I like doing the artwork and going to shows. I don’t make a lot of money but it sort of pays its way. I like to meet the people. I feel better if somebody pays me a compliment on my work than about the money, because if I sell it, all I have is the money,” said Donald, who goes to four or five shows a year, including Oktoberfest in Lebanon.

He makes the frames for his paintings from ash, poplar, walnut and oak, and his artwork is priced from $40 to $100.

One of his most delightful paintings captures Brown’s Mill and Dam on the East Fork of the Stones River at moonlight. There’s some family history behind the site. Brownie Sue’s grandfather, Robert Leffel Brown, operated the mill in the early 1900s. Brown’s middle name came from a piece of machinery that was put in the mill, a leffel gear, about the same time he was born.

As for rhyming prose, Donald, who graduated from Lascassas High School before earning a degree in agriculture at Middle Tennessee State University, said, “I’ve always liked literature. I minored in lit in college. I always like poetry and poems. I’ve written most of these in the past two years. They’re about simple farm life.”

The farmer-poet guards his verses in a small ledger book, and said that when he has shown them to folks at the furniture and craft shows, “I usually get a laugh.”

His briefest poem, “Reverse,” goes: Mirror, mirror, On the truckHelp me backThis pick-up up.

Donald, who appears to use every corner of his mind to write, paint, build and farm, also uses as much of the natural resources on his land as possible.  

“We got the sawmill last summer. We had a lot of timber on the farm, but I didn’t want to sell it. I thought Matt had a good idea when he came up with their idea for furniture design. We got the sawmill to provide him with wood, plus I use it on the farm, and all the scraps I use in the (wood-burning) heater.”

A few weeks back, he and his son sawed up a stack of slabs of walnut lumber running 2-feet-wide-by-10-feet-long from a tree on the farm.

“I went up to cut the tree 10 years ago. I felt sorry for it, thinking, ‘It’s too pretty.’ Then I decided to get a sawmill. A friend told me, ‘You need to get that tree before wind or lightning gets it.’ I felt bad about it, but I cut it. I used all of it,” said Donald, a pragmatist as well as a dreamer, and a man who uses everything he has, whether in the earth or in his head.

Feature Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.  

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