This is Part Two of my interview with Kate Swann of the Florida School of Woodwork. You can read Part One here.
As Kate and her husband worked on their
money pit home, she started acquiring tools. “I loved using them. It was magic.” She decided to make a table. “This was still pre-internet. I had no idea how.” She cut up some pieces of wood and put them together. As she carried it proudly up from the basement workshop to show her husband, one of the legs fell off.
Kate worked for a company that did credit card processing, but she spent more and more of her spare time learning to make things with wood.
“There was a local woodworkers’ store, Woodcrafters. [She makes clear that it was an independent store, not a branch of Woodcraft.] It was a wonderland — all these amazing tools with names like Powermatic and Jet. And wood! And people who would tell you about it.” One of the staff members took the time to explain to her how the various tools worked. “I had the most blissful times,” she remembers. “I fell in love with wood. In the northwest there is such an amazing domestic hardwood scene.”
The things she made were still “not very good.” But that would soon change. The Oregon College of Art and Craft had a 13-week program on Wednesday evenings and all day on Saturdays. She signed up. She got to learn from accomplished makers who weren’t judgmental about her ideas, some of which were more sculptural and experimental than was typical of the curriculum. Her pieces stopped falling apart. People started asking if they could buy them. “I’m my father’s daughter, so I said, “How much would you pay for it?” They named a number and I sold it to them.” I began this side hustle of making things and selling them. I didn’t know what to charge for them, and they would tell me to pick a number. My picking a number was very influenced by my lack of confidence at the time. But I really enjoyed that freedom to make and just explore. A lot of those things were very rudimentary, and not structurally appropriate. I didn’t know about grain. But I just loved it. I was deeply obsessed and in love with the craft of making.”
Then came 9/11. Her son, Caleb, was 18 months old. Her husband was recalled to active duty and offered a choice between three deployments: Afghanistan, Iraq or Tampa. With an 18-month-old, they chose the famous cigar-making city on Florida’s Gulf Coast. (The two divorced in 2015.)
Kate knew no one in her industry, so she set up a woodworking shop in the garage and got a listing in the Yellow Pages. Her prize possession was a Powermatic 66 she’d bought with her first bonus check at the job in Portland; it ran on 220 volts. There was only one outlet in the garage, and it was 110. So she stretched a heavy duty extension cord from the dryer outlet in the laundry room upstairs through the window and into the garage.
While establishing herself in the new community, she decided to work on her graduate degree at the University of South Florida.
One of her first gigs made her realize she needed better premises. In an entrepreneurial leap of faith, she rented a 600-square-foot workshop she describes as a “cell-like building in a bad part of town.” Nevertheless, she says, “I remember walking in and going, ‘This is mine. This is where I want to be, what I want to be doing. It was amazing…. In the process of doing commissions for clients you learn new skills, new approaches and techniques – really, my commissions taught me.”
One day, while she was resawing cocobolo in her non-air-conditioned shop in the middle of summer, a guy poked his head through the door. “Cocobolo turns your skin orange,” she points out. “So I was looking kind of weird – orange mustache, orange creases.” The man, Carl, asked if she would take him on as an apprentice. Still thinking of herself as “the most amateur woodworker,” she found the notion ridiculous.
Not long after, Kate got a commission for a large project. The client, who was a walk-in, began, “I have this project I want built. I’ve had a couple of other people build it for me and didn’t like it, so I refused to pay them” — hardly the kind of introduction that inspires confidence. The client wanted some way to display a collection of dolls dressed in national costumes. Kate proposed a set of three cabinets. “I was completely intimidated,” she lets on now. “But I have no fear.” Thinking another pair of hands would be useful for the job, she called Carl. He came in every day, and it turned out that he was a great engineering woodworker. Thus began a relationship that led to a formal business partnership. Over the years she and Carl have collaborated on numerous pieces. Both have learned. That synergy has allowed both to grow as woodworkers and build things that neither could have done by themselves.
Kate decided to name the cabinet “The Three Sisters” after a bit of northwest Native American folklore. A chief had three daughters and was ready for them to be married. They didn’t want to marry; they rejected all of the suitors he arranged. In punishment, the shaman turned them into mountains so they could bear witness. As Kate sees it, “They were bearing witness not to settle for something that wasn’t right for you.” When she and Carl delivered the cabinet, she shared the folktale with the client, who burst into tears and asked, “Did you know I’m pregnant with my third daughter?”
Kate counts a piece she was commissioned to build for the chief of medicine at Harvard Medical School as one of the highlights of her career. Another was participating in the build of a 24-foot boardroom table made of salvaged wood from a cigar factory. Both were things she would never have imagined herself doing.
Along the way she discovered surface and textural embellishment, which she loves. “I found that for me, it’s one of the loveliest things to do, the gilding of the lily. The finishing touch that brings the piece to life.”
Around 2004 she got a grant to take a turning course at Arrowmont with Betty Scarpino. Sharon Dougherty was the teaching assistant; Kate was smitten by Sharon’s work with pyrography and has made that art form a signature of her own work. “The furniture making has become less important than the stories I embroider onto the surfaces of a piece,” she explains. “The pieces [of furniture] are truly canvases now.”
Around 2008 Kate had a call from someone asking if she would teach her woodworking. She agreed. The student came back regularly. Kate enjoyed teaching, and word got out. A few years later she made a website. More students came. “It started interfering with my capacity to get my furniture pieces done.”
In 2009 Carl had bought a disused motor rewinding garage that hadn’t been occupied for a quarter of a century; after a year renovating, it became their woodworking shop.
Eight years later, Carl’s wife retired and his 94-year-old mother passed away. They’d had a couple of difficult clients and were weary. It was time for them both to start a new chapter, and for Kate that was the School.
In 2017 Kate set the school up as a corporate entity and started developing the programming. There were many makers she admired and wanted to spend time with. She also felt, and still does, that her time at the Oregon College of Art and Craft was really precious, and the way she articulates that sense is a fitting expression of how she sees her own school:
It was there that I realized I’d found something that filled my heart with passion and let my imagination and ideas run wild, and my brain and hands play together. It was a wonderful discovery to know I could do that. That I could make — that moment of magic when you step back and think, look at that capacity to create! I think about my teachers at the time, and it was such a gift. They opened a door into a lifelong passion. I feel like I have a responsibility to open that door for others and be a good steward of the knowledge in my head. I’ve had many years of making and learned many things, sometimes in hard ways, and I need to gift that back.
Opening the school was not a scary thing, she says, but more like an opportunity to say thank you. “I feel incredibly grateful. I still don’t feel like I’m worthy. I’m humbled by the caliber of instructors that come in. The delight at sharing the craft is so rewarding. It’s a wonderful place to come and learn.”
As for her evening classes toward a graduate degree, that project also has a happy ending. In 2006, when Kate graduated with a master’s in Instructional Technology, her parents flew over from London. “It was marvelous,” she says. “That 10-second walk across the stage — I’ve never seen my dad’s smile bigger. They earned that moment.”
— Nancy Hiller
You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.