Editor’s note: The devastating April 27 tornadoes wreaked a particular level of havoc in Phil Campbell, AL, which is almost 100 miles northwest of Birmingham. A new documentary shows how a group of guys who shared the town’s name first went there to visit as a lark in 1995. They were planning an international Phil Campbell convention there for 2011, when the unexpected twister changed their plans. Instead, they went as a group linked by a name and determined to do good for the community. There is now an ongoing Kickstarter campaign begun by the Phils to help the town. Huffington Post Live did a nice piece on it here.
And others are helping now, as noted in this press release written by the main organizer – “Brooklyn Phil” Campbell. Although he quotes himself and refers to himself in third person, the press release tells a nice story as it is.
Sustainable furniture and precision craftsmanship are rarely combined with charitable fundraisers and viral international media stories, but that’s what happened with Robin Wade of Robin Wade Furniture.
Wade takes downed local trees to make natural, beautiful, usually functional works of art as part of the pursuit of sustainable manufacturing practices. His furniture is shaped by hand, using age-old woodworking skills alongside modern tools. In April of 2011, dozens of tornadoes struck the American Southeast, especially Alabama. One of the hardest hit towns was Phil Campbell, not far from Wade’s studio in Florence. Nearly half the town of Phil Campbell was physically wiped out, and 27 died in a town of only a thousand people.
Wade wanted to help in the aftermath, but didn’t know how. Then he heard about a group of people named Phil Campbell who were organizing to help their namesake town. The Phil Campbells, twenty in all, hailing from Alaska to Australia, were planning to arrive six weeks after the tornadoes, and were being covered by NBC Nightly News, ABC Nightly News, The New York Times, NPR, BBC World News, Reuters, Associated Press, CBC and many other outlets.
Wade went to see the Phil Campbells, who arrived in time for the town’s hoedown, and was stunned by what he saw. Instead of residents looking paralyzed by the tornado’s terrible power, he saw friendly faces everywhere, with people wearing shirts announcing their refusal to be daunted by the devastation. There was a parade. And there were the Phil Campbells, who stood out because they sported “I’m with Phil” shirts and were being given a hero’s welcome. In six short weeks these working-class Phils had created an international viral media storm to raise awareness for the town, raising $42,000 along the way.
Wade approached the “lead” Phil Campbell, Brooklyn Phil, and offered to help. A few months later Brooklyn Phil returned to meet Wade in Phil Campbell, a TV crew from the Oprah Winfrey Network trailing him. Wade picked out a tree, and with the mayor’s help Brooklyn Phil called a work crew armed with chainsaws. The downed tree chosen by Wade for his “I’m with Phil” contribution was an oak tree that was still standing, though nothing was left but its bare trunk. The work crew soon had the tree, which stood about four hundred yards from the Phil Campbell town hall, on a trailer in the back of Wade’s truck.
Returning to his Florence, Alabama studio, Wade milled the log into flitch cut natural edge slabs, retaining the shape of the tree. The slabs were then stacked and air-dried, slowly — naturally, before going into the kiln for the final cure. After more than a year the lumber was back from the kiln and ready for shaping. Wade completed a beautiful cocktail table and smaller side table in mid-July 2013.
Wade is donating both tables to Brooklyn Phil, who is still in the business of helping the little town of Phil Campbell, Alabama. Brooklyn Phil Campbell is now the executive producer of the documentary I’m with Phil, and he’s working with director Andrew Reed, a Phil Campbell resident. Both Campbell and Reed pledge to donate the majority of net profits from the film back to the town of Phil Campbell.
Brooklyn Phil said, “I love what Robin Wade did. He created not only two gorgeous pieces of furniture, he also made for the town a symbol of rebirth – a dead tree, destroyed by a tornado, repurposed into something new, both beautiful and functional. Of all the stories from the I’m with Phil fundraising I experienced or heard, this is my absolute favorite. Wade told through his craftsmanship a true story of hope.”
Campbell and Reed plan to sell the tables to help fund the film, even as they try to use the film to find new, more innovative ways to help the tornado-devastated town of Phil Campbell. Meanwhile, the tables are on display at the Frank Lloyd Wright-Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama.