While on a bicycling vacation in 1994, Laura Mays found herself at a village crossroads in remote County Galway, on Ireland’s western coast. Each of the first three corners housed a pub; the fourth, a large Victorian building. Intrigued by the architecture as well as the structure’s status as the odd one out, she stopped to look around.
She learned that the building had been a boys’ reform school – one of those infamous institutions where abuses of children, sequestered from public view and in the charge of authorities subject to scant oversight, were routine. After the place was decommissioned in the ‘70s, it became home to a woodworking school, Letterfrack, part of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. The school employed instructors from England, most of them graduates of Parnham College, the renowned institution started by John Makepeace.
For Laura it was a moment of serendipity, a crossroads as figurative as it was literal.
Laura is the second of three children born to parents who were both professors of English; they met as students at Oxford in the 1960s. (They are now retired.) Shortly after her father earned his doctorate they moved to Ireland, where he taught at University College, Dublin. Laura arrived in 1967 and grew up in the suburbs with her two brothers. She remembers it as “very homogenous, white, Catholic,” though she’s quick to note “we were classed with the Anglo-Irish, who had been in Ireland for the previous few hundred years, ‘planted’ there by various English monarchs, and basically the oppressors, [e]ven though we had arrived very recently. I think also being gay made for a marked feeling of separation and difference.”
A quiet child, she spent her time reading, drawing and in art classes and has happy memories of swimming in the ocean every summer. When the time came to think about university, she settled on architecture. “I was one of those kids who was good at everything,” she explains. “Architecture school seemed like an all-around education.” (She suspects her father’s longstanding interest in the field and her older brother’s prior decision to pursue an architectural degree may have influenced her thinking.) It was five years of instruction, with heavy emphasis on historical perspective – “a fantastic basic design training,” she says. “But when it came to working as an architect, I disliked it intensely, [down to] the smell of the carpets in architects’ offices. I hated going out on site where all the guys were; they already hated architects, and here comes a young woman telling them to do stuff that is not as convenient for them. I found the disconnect between building and designing very off-putting – telling people to do stuff that I didn’t know how to do.”
After working in that field for a couple of years she decided it was time for a break. She spent a year in New York and six months in Japan, taking any job she could get to scrape by. On her return to Ireland she worked as assistant to a graphic designer – the job that allowed her to take the bicycling vacation at the start of this story.
Having found a woodworking school right in her path, she decided to apply. “I had an inkling that making things with my hands would be holistic and engaging,” she explains. “As an architecture student I had enjoyed the making of drawings, and thought about them more as finished products than as a means to an end (to a building).” She was accepted in 1996 and began her training that fall.
On the first morning of class students had to flatten the soles of their planes with glass and carborundum powder. “This is really serious,” Laura remembers thinking. “They were teaching us something that was going to be high quality. It was everything I had missed in architecture about making stuff – [here] the implications would be on you. You would see the continuum all the way through.” She completed a two-year program in design and manufacturing. “They were training us to work either for industry or for small-business owners making one-off furniture on spec.” The student culture was intense – “we were really, really keen, all of us,” she says – so much that they would secretly prop the workshop door ajar when they went home on Saturday night, so they could sneak in Sunday morning.
After graduating in 1997 she moved back in with her parents, who had relocated to a farm in County Wicklow, near Ireland’s central-eastern coast. She took over a couple of outbuildings to use as a furniture workshop but notes that despite her training, “quickly I realized how little I knew!” She subscribed to Fine Woodworking and gleaned all she could from the pages.
Meanwhile, her friends were settling down and having children. They’d approach her about furniture for their houses. After making several large tables where families would gather happily for meals, she couldn’t help reflecting on her own situation as someone nearing 30 and living with her parents. As she puts it, “There was definitely something missing.”
It was during this period that she came across the books of James Krenov. “Something about the way he wrote I found very engaging,” she remembers. “He talked about failure.” Before that, everything she’d read seemed to be about the shiny, the perfect, the most efficient. He proposed a different approach. She looked at the back cover and saw the bio. “Teaches and lives in Fort Bragg, California.” She looked the place up on Google, a relatively new phenomenon at the time. Up came a website: College of the Redwoods. She sent a note by email. “Before I knew where I was,” she says, “I was on my way to Northern California to study at the school.” Would she hate it? She figured she could always go home.
As things turned out, she loved it. Following her graduation in 2003 she returned to Ireland, where she taught at Letterfrack for eight years. In her spare time she pursued a master’s in design through an online program of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, adding another credential to her résumé.
Laura may well have continued to teach at Letterfrack, had she not received a note from the College of the Redwoods in 2011 asking whether she’d be interested in applying for the position of director. Krenov had retired in 2002. Michael Burns, who’d held the position of director since the school’s founding in 1981, was about to do the same. She applied and got the job.
“When there isn’t a pandemic,” she observes wryly, she teaches 22 hours a week. An important part of her work is getting to know the students well enough to be able to help out when emotional, financial and other challenges arise. She also liaises with the part-time faculty (Jim Budlong, Greg Smith and Ejler Hjorth-Westh) and with shop manager Todd Sorenson; oversees the budget and admissions; and handles the school’s publicity and social media.
“I think it’s a really, really good program,” she comments, immediately deflecting the praise away from herself: “They set up a really good program in 1981 – deeply immersive, a 48-hour minimum week, six days a week, very intensive. Students learn a lot from each other…. We’re fully committed to passing on the craft as well as we can, really trying to help people understand the material. To see. To use all their senses to gather information and be responsive to what’s going on. I see it as a gift I am passing on. I was given that gift and I like to give it to others.”
Instead of finishing up the 2019-2020 academic year with 23 students in the shop, Laura had to shut down classes on March 20. The plan: switch to teaching online. “But it’s so antithetical to everything about the program that it really didn’t work very well,” she concedes – not that this will come as a surprise to anyone who has been attempting to teach or study woodworking this spring. While it’s true that students would ordinarily have been working on projects more independently by that point in their training, she and her students have missed the camaraderie and celebrations that customarily mark the end of the school year. Some students found garages or other spaces to work in; another finished up her coursework with a paper outlining how she would start a furniture business in South Africa, her homeland. Things will be different in the fall, with changes designed to enable social distancing. Instead of a 17-week class for 23 students, there will be a six-week class for ten students, with a plan to hold more frequent classes of smaller size and shorter duration.
Still, Laura has her work cut out for her. Not only does she have the usual complement of administrative work she faces every summer (the Krenov School is a program of Mendocino College); she’s also collaborating with Deirdre Visser on a book about women in woodworking. (They started the project with a third collaborator, Phoebe Kuo, who understandably found the pressure of juggling the book with her workload as a second-year MFA student in Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art overwhelming.) Making a Seat at the Table: Women Transform Woodworking grew out of a discussion with Deirdre, curator of the arts at the California Institute of Integral Studies, when she was a student at the College of the Redwoods in 2015-2016. The basic premise is to show that despite the relative invisibility of women in the field – at least, until the past few years – women have been building with wood for as long as woodworking has existed; examples in the theoretical section of the book go back as far as 4,000 BCE but become more widespread in the Middle Ages. The book also includes profiles of contemporary women in woodworking and illustrates the diverse ways in which women are making their impression on the field. The book is under contract with Routledge; although it’s not yet scheduled for publication, it may appear as soon as summer 2022.
Related to the book, they organized a show of work by 43 makers that ran from October 2019 through January 2020 at Philadelphia’s Center for Art in Wood.
With Rebecca Yaffe, Laura is also mother to a daughter, Thea, who was born in 2012. “She’s amazing,” Laura says. “Very strong-headed. Smart. She’s emotionally more intelligent than I am, for sure!” Laura and Rebecca met when both were students at the College of the Redwoods and moved to Ireland together. They shared a workshop there when Laura was teaching at Letterfrack and returned to Fort Bragg together, but have since split up. It’s an amicable split; they co-parent, each taking Thea half-time. “Being a parent is like ‘all the things,’ says Laura. “Too hard to explain! It’s great and it’s boring and it’s tedious and it’s wonderful. It’s planning all the time. It helps me; it’s made me more organized.”
You can see more of Laura’s work at her Instagram account.
–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work
And now, enjoy some gorgeous Irish scenery provided by Laura.