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Carvings Make Grand Entrance for Wife's Antique-Filled Rooms

By Scott Barker
The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Blount County

Visitors to the Park Grill in Gatlinburg are frequently curious about the craftsman who created the two sets of double doors for the restaurant. The doors, featuring carved trees set in relief against the glass make a distinctive entrance for the massive log structure. If patrons attempt to satisfy their curiosity, they'll be directed to the Old Curiosity Shop in Townsend.

They'll know they're in the right place when they pull into the Shops at Nawger Nob and find a door similar to those at the Park Grill. Behind it, they'll find more than they bargained for.

John Wilbourn, the artist who created the doors, may be there, but if he's not, his wife Debbie probably will be. She greets people with a smile and a glass of gourmet muscadine juice. The Old Curiosity Shop, an antique store open just a few months, is the couple's first foray into retail business.

"It's a new adventure to open a little shop," says, an interior designer delighted to be able to indulge her passion for antiques.

Embarking on new adventures is a bug that's recently bitten the two. In addition to running the antique store, they are renovating a 19th century farmhouse and helping one of their daughters, Sarah open a cafe and catering business at the Southern Market on Homberg Drive in Knoxville.

Wilbourn says it takes about a month to complete each of his distinctive doors. When he gets a commission, he presents drawings to his clients for their approval. He then cuts the pattern out of composite board and begins hand carving various woods. When finished, each door is painted and signed.

Looking around the shop stimulates more questions. Like, what about the realistic lily pond, complete with fish flashing beneath the surface, painted on the floor?

It turns out Wilbourn's a painter as well as a woodworker.

"When it's photographed it looks real," says Wilbourn, who's willing to pull out a collection of photographs to show any skeptics.

He describes his woodcarving as a natural outgrowth of his job as a finish carpentry contractor. He's done the finish work for a number of affluent homes and high profile East Tennessee businesses such as Regas Restaurant. He builds mantles, stairs and other custom-designed projects.

With a college degree in fine arts, Wilbourn turned to contracting in order to support the family. Now that two of their four girls have left the nest, he's devoting more time to his art.

"I'm getting too old to do stairs," he explains with a laugh.

Wilbourn and his wife are used to working with each other. Debbie Wilbourn will often refer her clients who need specialized woodwork to him. Likewise, he frequently suggests her as an interior designer to his clients.

"John and I compliment each other," she says.

One thing they don't agree on is auctions. As an antiques dealer and interior designer, goes to them often; her husband would rather go to his workshop

"I love auctions," she says. "John thinks if you don't go to heaven, you go to an auction."

The items she selects for the store reflect her own tastes.

"It's hard for me to purchase anything I wouldn't want in my house," she says.

In addition to antiques, the store carries craftwork by Blount County residents Connie Millar, Debbie McGaha and Millie McClanahn.

It appears the Old Curiosity Shop has yet to satisfy the couple's curiosity for new endeavors. The Wilbourns say they plan to open a bed-and-breakfast inn when they finish renovating the farmhouse in Rockford.

Old Curiosity Shop owners Debbie and John Wilbourn opened their antiques store recently in Townsend. John Wilbourn, who is a carpentry contractor, creates carved doors that grace local landmarks such as the Park Grill in Gatlinburg.

Artist's canvas is a door

By Ronda Robinson
Special Publications Staff Writer

Doors open a world of possibilities to John Wilbourn.

A finish contractor by trade, he has branched into a specialty: hand carved doors. They can be seen at his wife's antique store, The Old Curiosity Shop across from the Dogwood Mall in Townsend.

They also grace businesses, small mountain cabins and large urban houses across the East.

Diners at the Park Grill in Gatlinburg often exclaim over the heavy wooden doors carved with poplar trees. They were Wilbourn's first commission. He chiseled the fronts and backs with branches and maple leaves, the restaurant's logo. The project took him three months.

Sometimes he works all night, 18 to 20 hours at a strech. He compares his door carving to a chess game. "You don't want anything to to divert your attention from you."

His wife, Debbie, said "Really, deep down if I gave John a title it would be artist. He's an artist at heart."

The Mississippi native studied art in college and blends it into his doors. At his daughter's Cafe 5400 in Knoxville, Wilbourn has turned a humble rear exit into a trompe l'oeil painting - an optical illusion. The three-dimensional scene gives viewers the feeling they could walk into the garden, where water bubbles up from a statue. A sea lies in the distance.

"No two doors are alike," Wilbourn said proudly.

He interviews his clients to find an unusual angle. "I'm able to pull some of their personality out" and incorporate it into the art, he said. One woman had a passion for hummingbirds, so he put one on her cabin door.

Another client lived on Fox Trot Lane. Wilbourn playfully wove a little fox into that door scene.

People enjoy his doors which range from $2,000 for one to $7,000 for a set, because of their uniqueness. Debbie Wilbourn says that sometimes clients so like having a showpiece, they won't tell their friends the name of the artist. "It's a little part of human nature," she conceded.

Her husband practices his art at their 150-year-old farmhouse in Rockford. Each door there has a different look.

Tourists who come through The Old Curiosity Shop often are building houses back home and commission custom doors. Wilbourn provides sketchesfor their approval before he begins. Dogwoods, magnolias and mountain laurel make popular motifs.

In addition to the various styles of doors, he builds custom staircases, bookcases and mantles. He designed a garage portico for a riverfront mansion and an entrance armoire for a Symphony Showcase home in Knoxville.

Debbie Wilbourn's interior decorating work often overlaps with her husband's. She might refer a client to him, and vice versa. "Our worlds merge so," she said over coffee at her daughters shop in the Southern Market in Knoxville. "So when you ask me about myself, it's strange. We do so much together."

The couple, married 24 years, agree on the source of their talents. As John Wilbourn said, "It's a gift from God."

John Wilbourn created the incredible doors at the Park Grill in Gatlinburg.

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