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Influential Arkansans 

We highlight more than 50 who shape our state.

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Over the past 40 years, Little Rock furniture maker, carver, photographer and wood-turner Keith Newton has churned a lot of sawdust. In the process, he's shaped himself into arguably the best artist working in wood in the state.

In a huge, cluttered shop on Arch Street (which features a living space that includes a massive tree trunk that's been turned into a spiral staircase), Newton has amassed a collection of iron machines that look like something from a Dickensian workhouse: a massive planer from a defunct coffin factory, a seven-foot-tall band saw, a five-horsepower wood lathe — formerly used to make steam locomotive drive wheels and saved from scrap — that allows Newton to turn mammoth wooden vessels up to 54 inches across. With these, Newton creates works of such organic flow and lightness that it's hard to believe some of them didn't just grow that way.

Newton started woodworking in the late 1960s and bought his workshop on Arch Street in 1983. There was a time when he didn't see himself as anything other than a woodworker, something that slowly changed as his skill set grew. "My clients back through the years started introducing me to their friends as 'an artist,' " he said. "At first, I couldn't say: 'Oh yeah, I'm an artist.' It was too braggy or something. But after awhile and a few awards ..."

In those early days, Newton went through periods where he took design cues from the furniture of other makers, but in recent years, he said he's been finding most of his inspiration in nature. An accomplished amateur wildlife photographer, Newton often incorporates the patterns and shapes he sees in the field into his furniture and turnings.

"I love curves," he said. "I love making things curvy. Flat is boring to me. I'm trying to do things that separate me from everybody else, [and] the craft is so old that you can't really do anything that has much originality if it has nothing but flat planes. I like the challenge of finding new shapes that don't fit into older periods."

Newton definitely likes a challenge. A recent job found him creating a rigid, see-through balcony for a loft that featured a series of thin rails joined into small rectangles that diminished in size the farther they got from the center of the balcony. That required a truly mind-boggling amount of planning, design and skill. "Even people who are really good woodworkers are going to look and that and say: 'Oh God, it makes my brain hurt,' " Newton said with a chuckle. Still, that kind of dedication has its rewards. Newton says his projects eventually start to flow from one to the other.

"I have such a wonderful, creative imagination that I get in the zone to where the juices are flowing," he said. "In my mind, I can just see stuff like you're flipping pages in a book."

MICHAEL MARION
Live music

It would be tough to find someone else who has more of a hand in determining which big-name concerts and other large-scale events come through Arkansas than Michael Marion, GM at Verizon Arena. He's modest about his role, acknowledging the myriad factors that go into booking big events. But he's a showbiz veteran whose contacts come in handy.

Marion got his start in booking concerts as a senior at Mississippi State University in the mid-'70s. The just-elected president of the student body approached him. "He said, 'Hey, do you want to handle concerts?' And I said, 'Sure. How do you do it?' " Marion said with a laugh.

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