My first woodworking lesson
My woodworking career began when I was seven years old. I wanted to build a playhouse, and my younger sister had agreed to help with the construction. The building material available to us came from melon crates that we could get from the grocery store for free. We had to pull out all of the nails, and straighten them for re-use. The boards could be then used as siding for the house. But we were going to need some long pieces of wood for framing members if we wanted to build tall enough walls for a real playhouse. My Dad said that he would cut whatever I wanted, so I said that I wanted 4 pieces a little taller than I was. It must have taken tremendous patience on my father’s part, but he never said a word as the project progressed. Of course I had estimated wrong, and our house only had two walls because I had not asked for enough framing members.
After we were done, Dad asked me how the project had gone. I admitted that it hadn’t come out quite right. He said that he would show me how to plan a playhouse. We sat down together and he showed me how to make a perspective drawing of a box, calculate the dimensions of everything, and make a list of what we needed. The next playhouse was a real house! It had 4 walls, a roof, and a doorway. I spent many happy days “living” there, and was always doing remodeling projects. I guess I was on my way to being a cabinet maker!
The Piano Company: Discovering my natural abilities
After graduating from high school, I was eager to get out into the world and live life. I wanted the responsibility of working at a job, managing money, and having a home of my own. College didn’t interest me. I was ready for the adventure of real life. The adventure began with moving from the quiet Boston suburb where I grew up, to the big city of Los Angeles, California. I went out there with a “friend”, a girl that I had known for all of 2 months. I had about $600 saved up and, after buying an airline ticket, within 3 days of landing at LAX I had an apartment and a job as a coffee shop waitress. I was very proud of myself.
After working as a waitress for a couple of years, I needed something more rewarding. I answered an ad for a “mechanical assembler with typing skills”. The brand new Universal Piano Company was building modern player pianos, and was the hobby of a wealthy lawyer. Like any small company just starting out, they thought they could fill two positions with one employee. I was supposed to do typing in the morning, and assemble the mechanical parts to the player piano action in the afternoon. After the first day, they realized that my typing skills were minimal, but my mechanical assembly skills were excellent. Within a month I was supervising production and doing the final assembly of the player pianos.
At this job I discovered that I have natural talents and aptitudes, and that I could make my living doing something that I am naturally good at. This was a big revelation for me. The high school that I went to didn’t let girls into the wood or metal shops, and since I was a smart kid I wasn’t even told about trade school. The owner of the Piano Company loved old machinery. He had a fully equipped 19th century machine shop run by a steam engine that he would fire up once a year to put the old machines through their paces. He had modern machinery of all kinds in the shop, too, and he let me experiment with any machine that I was interested in. I loved it all, and tried everything, but woodworking had my greatest interest. I spent my lunch break reading a woodworking textbook that he gave me, and was always dreaming up projects that I could do to build my woodworking skills.
During the time that I worked at this company I got a good background in metal machining, brazing, adhesives, hardware, furniture finishing and touch-up, and, of course, woodworking. Thanks to the owner of the Piano Company, and the opportunity that he gave me to discover my talents and interests, I have always felt free to follow my heart and to know that work should be something I love to do. When that company got too big for my style of working, I went to work for a local one-man cabinet shop. Cabinet and furniture making was my living until the mid-1990s when I was ready to be self employed full time.
Experimenting with self-employment
Becoming a self-employed artist has been an evolutionary process for me. On the way to my current business as a woodturner, I have tried several different careers. Sometimes I did two or more of them simultaneously. It was a natural for me to get into manufacturing and repairing hang gliding equipment, since I was an avid pilot and always inventing new items for my own use. This was interesting, but I still kept escaping to the wood shop whenever I could find an excuse. Plus, it was too hard to make a living when all of my customers were my friends.
After getting my single-engine airplane pilot’s license in the mid-1990s, I couldn’t resist trying out a career buying old airplanes, fixing them up, flying them for awhile, and then selling them. Problem was, I had to borrow the money to buy the airplane to begin with, and then the selling price only seemed to cover the cost of the parts. A nice hobby, but not a good living. Besides, I kept coming back to wood working.
I had always worked for cabinet and furniture makers, but custom work just didn’t appeal to me. I have never gotten the knack of accurately predicting how long something will take to make. I lost money on every woodworking job I did. One of my business adventures was as part owner of a small company that made wheel chair seats. This was where I saw what a profitable business could be like. I also learned about manufacturing as an alternative to custom work. The seat business was profitable, but it was very uninteresting. We were making a product to someone else’s specifications, and it was very repetitive. Plus there were issues of partnership and employees. I found that I really wanted to have a business where I did the whole thing myself. The money was good, but when the contract ran out after 12 years, I wasn’t disappointed to let that business go.
Inspired to become a craft artist
The true inspiration for my career as a wood artist came from my friend Alicia. I worked for her Dad as a cabinet maker. In my spare time I would make gifts for Alicia, for every birthday and Christmas. When she was three, I made her a set of colored wooden blocks. Several of her friends’ parents wanted to buy blocks for their kids, and one thing led to another. Soon I was selling sets of blocks, and other wooden toys, at a local store on consignment. As Alicia grew, her gifts got more mature, too. I made her a hair comb, barrettes, an earring holder, turned boxes, and a turned wooden pen. Now I had ideas for more wooden items that people liked to buy and I liked to make. Then came my first craft show, and acceptance into a brand new local artist’s co-op. I had finally found my true path. I could make things that I was inspired to make, price them after I was finished, and find people to buy them.
Woodturning: Creativity and a viable career
A chance meeting with a woodturner at one of my holiday shows introduced me to the woodturning community, both locally, and nationally through the American Association of Woodturners. Getting involved with the woodturning club helped me to learn good turning skills, and my path became further directed. I had pursued woodturning as a hobbyist for a decade or so, but now I could see that it offered me endless creative possibilities in my career as a craft artist. And I thought that the turned pieces could support me, too. It wasn’t long before all of my creations at the shows and co-op galleries were turned. As my woodturning skills improved, my pieces got finer and more complicated. They also got more expensive, and I have had to look for new markets as my work evolves. My goal is to always be making the work that challenges me to reach further. I’m sure that my work will continue to grow and improve as I, myself, do.
When I’m ready, it all comes together
While I was working in the hang gliding business, or as an employee for a cabinet shop, I never wanted to be involved in the business end of running a business. The energy for marketing, promotion, and pricing my products properly just wasn’t there. When I found the world of art, and woodturning, I was ready to make it work. Now that I have a business that I feel is really my own path, I find that marketing and business are fascinating subjects and are exciting parts of the process. I am connecting with not only the making of my artwork, but bringing it to the people who will take my work into their homes and lives, and the process of making the whole puzzle come together into a rewarding life and work. Through marketing my work at shows, I have met and developed relationships with many of the people who are now the custodians of my pieces. I guess I am really still making gifts for people! And if I can make it into a viable business, then I can keep on bringing my energy into other peoples’ lives through their appreciation of art.
Finding a partner
David Nittmann and I first met at the woodturning clubs that we were, and still are, members of. We were both fairly well established woodturning artists at the time. I was doing it as my full time living, David was making art part time while he worked a “real” job in order to get his life back in order after a disastrous self-employment venture. Where we really became acquainted was at the Utah Woodturning Symposium in Provo, Utah. One thing lead to another and we found a connection, both in our life’s philosophy and our careers. We have been life partners since 2000, and continue to offer each other encouragement and inspiration. David’s emotional support helps me to have the confidence that I often have trouble finding, and he routinely “knocks me out of my loop” if I try to get stuck. We share a shop, but each run our own separate businesses with different styles of work. We often critique each other’s work, brainstorm together to solve a creative problem, or explore philosophy. Our newest adventure together is collaborative Artworks. Usually I do the turning, because my style is recognizible as a turning style, and he does the decorating in his style. We are learning new levels of cooperation and compromise as we create pieces that we are both very proud of.
Along with the recognition of my work in the woodturning community has come requests for me to teach workshops to other turners. I regularly teach classes and give demonstrations at established craft schools, symposiums, and woodturning clubs nationally and internationally. The desire to explain what I do to others has improved my turning skills tremendously. I also passionately believe ithat if we woodturners will all share our secrets, that we all will grow and that the quality of wood art will improve as each artist’s work improves. My goal for every class is “to learn more than I teach”.
Our workshop is a big part of the life style that David and I have created together. A big priority for both of us is to have the best workspace that we can imagine, filled with all of the tools and materials that we want to create with. It has taken a lifetime of dedication and prioritizing, by both of us. And we have been a bit lucky, too. Living at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, we both like to run on the trails that start right at the door of the shop. Before David and I met, I had run a few marathons. Running is an adventure in itself, and together we have explored the self-discovery and mental discipline that long runs require. Beginning with his 60th, it has become a tradition for us to do a challenging run on David’s birthday in September. On several birthdays, we have run 50K (31 miles).
The greatest value of self employment, for me, is being able to keep my own time schedule. This means going for a run when the sun is shining, and working during the hours that I am most creative. David and I both typically work until the early hours of the morning and get out of bed around noon. My life is rich in quality. I live with a wonderful cooperative partner, in a beautiful place. My creative workspace is an artist’s dream, filled with all of the toys that I love to play with. Organic food, envirnmental conciousness in the community, social interaction, culture, and good weather most of the year complete a very rich picture.
The rest of my family is 4-legged and furry. Raja, Wiley-O, and Carter are formerly stray cats who “work” with us in the shop, and offer their own style of companionship and entertainment. Wiley-O and Raja were feral kittens born in an abandoned van at our old shop. The process of convincing them that domestic life with humans was a good idea has been an ongoing and rewarding experience of self discovery on both sides. Earning the trust of a feral cat requires a lot of time and patience. Discovering the “hidden treasure” of his affection and companionship is an example of what I symbolize by the hidden jewels inside of my lidded vessels. Relationships are the greatest joy in my life!