It’s a hard question, perhaps made complicated by my years of research – I could’ve rattled off a favorite cabinet or two with ease before I knew his full body of work. Furthermore, divorcing his life from his work is impossible. There are pieces I love because of their context, but are not his most technical or aesthetically pleasing works. And, frankly, this question asks my opinion, which I’ve tried not to exercise too much during the journalistic pursuit of writing his biography! But, I thought I’d share three pieces here that, after all my work, I find particularly appealing.
All of these pieces, and a couple dozen more, can be found in the gallery of Krenov’s work at the back of biography. And, if you want to join in the game of browsing his work and picking favorites, you can find a huge body of his work on The Krenov Archive, and share them in the comments below!
Cabinet of Andaman Padauk (1979)
If you held my feet to the fire and asked me what I thought best summarized Krenov’s technical and aesthetic body of work, it would be this cabinet. Made in Andaman padauk, a wood that Krenov spent many words praising, with drawer-fronts of pearwood and Lebanon cedar drawer interiors, this piece’s form, wood composition and technical execution put it high on a list of “classic Krenovian” cabinets.
The graceful curves are emblematic of Krenov’s work toward the end of his time in Sweden, as are the floating door panels, which lift nicely away from the frame in which they’re suspended. The cove between the stand and cabinet carcase is nicely faceted, showing his penchant for gouge and knife carving. And, his use of the lighter padauk in the panels, which came from the same planks as the darker surrounding padauk used in the stand and carcase body, is a deft illustration of his careful choice of woods. If I were assigning a county-fair-esque superlative, this might come in at “Best Overall.”
Fossil Cabinet (1993)
If the “Cabinet of Andaman Padauk” is “Best Overall,” this cabinet might be something like the dark horse of Krenov’s oeuvre. Made in 1993, a dozen years after his resettlement from Sweden to the school in California, this piece came in the midst of a flurry of cabinets that played with parquetry and veneer composition. Its unusual use of spalted olive veneers, inlaid into the veneered kwila carcase, make it singular in Krenov’s output. Throughout the 1990s, in his 70s, Krenov played with new ideas and forms, a fact that is missed by many historians, who consider his work to be relatively unchanged over his career.
Aside from the fact of its unique place among his work, this cabinet is also attractive in its proportions and shaping. By 2000, Krenov would focus his work almost entirely on small cabinets on tall, leggy stands, and this piece foreshadows that trend. The shaping in the stand is also quite appealing, and hearkens to the first joined stands Krenov made in the 1960s for his “Silver Chests.”
Pearwood Drawer Cabinet (2002)
This is the only piece of the three shown here that I’ve seen in person; in fact, it was the first piece of his I ever saw in the flesh, when David Welter (its owner and the long-time shop technician at The Krenov School) brought it to the school when I was a student. It’s graceful in just about every way; the carcase veneers are carefully arranged, without being loudly bookmatched or otherwise worried over, the legs sweep gracefully and the interior is full of asymmetric and sweetly pillowed drawer fronts.
This was the last piece Krenov made at the school; at the end of the school’s 20th year, Krenov retired at the age of 81. Not only is the cabinet impressive considering the maker was in his eighth decade, it shows his continuing evolution as a maker. Welter was quick to point out that the legs, albeit joined and arranged in a typical fashion to many of Krenov’s later cabinets, feature a shaping profile and style that was new to Krenov’s work.
Before I sign off, I want to mention something that I’ll go into greater detail on next week. During the past three months, I’ve worked with Michelle Frederick, Kerry Marshall and Laura Mays in Fort Bragg, Calif., on an exhibition celebrating Krenov’s centennial, which is this coming Halloween. They’ve begun releasing short teaser videos that hint at the videos we’ve made for the exhibition on this Instagram feed. Next week, I’ll put up a post with insight into our process and what you can expect when the exhibition goes live on Oct. 31. But if you want to start getting excited, I encourage you to check out their Instagram.
For many American craftspeople (including many I interviewed who had a close relationship with James Krenov and his work), it appeared that Krenov emerged from Sweden a fully formed writer and cabinetmaker. That’s an understandable position; before the release of “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” Krenov’s foothold in America consisted of a few short appointments at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen and Boston University’s Program in Artisanry, and a single article in Crafts Horizon in 1967, “Wood: ‘… the friendly mystery…’”. Many of his students in California, even from the earliest classes, assumed that Krenov’s career began with the success of his books, or that he had been relatively obscure before their publication.
Inversely, looking at Swedish magazines, furniture histories and newspapers, you might get the impression that Krenov’s story ends after his meteoric rise to fame and his departure from Sweden in 1981, just after the release of his books. While a few of his closest friends and colleagues in Sweden wrote about Krenov or included him in their writing on modern Scandinavian furniture, the line goes pretty silent there after Krenov’s resettlement in California.
A rewarding part of writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints” was understanding and marrying these two disparate careers, and looking for the through-line to Krenov’s successes in both places. While this constitutes at least a few chapters’ worth of writing in the biography, I think it’s worth examining in a shorter piece as a means of understanding why James Krenov was a touchstone in the two different craft contexts in which he rose to renown.
When Krenov came to cabinetmaking in his late 30s, he was an outsider in Sweden and its crafts scene. He attended Carl Malmsten’s Verkstadsskola from 1957 to 1959, and it was there he impressed his first, and maybe most influential, pair of advocates.
The first was Malmsten; by this point in his career, Malmsten was perhaps the best-known figure in Swedish craft, having risen to his stature by designing a huge volume of furniture that blended the honest construction of the English Arts & Crafts movement with a strong Swedish vernacular aesthetic. Malmsten designed for the simplest homes and the most luxurious Swedish state houses; he was a household name.
More behind the scenes, but no less influential among the tight circles of Stockholm’s art and craft scene, was Georg Bolin, the principal teacher at Malmsten’s school. Bolin was, by that time, an influential furniture maker and technician of the highest degree. He went on, through the latter half of his career, to design everything from fine furniture to novel “alto guitars,” and even a piano played for many years by Abba, Sweden’s second-largest monetary export, only outpaced by Volvo (until the arrival of IKEA).
As a student, Krenov impressed both Malmsten and Bolin. Shortly after his schooling, both men helped Krenov find a place for his work in the craft galleries and exhibitions of Stockholm, at a time when the Swedish craft scene was casting off functionalism for a more craft-oriented, holistic aesthetic that put craftspeople and handwork at the center.
While Krenov enjoyed minor successes in small shows and galleries (which any craftsperson would be proud to count on their resume), his inclusion in the 1964 exhibition “Form Fantasi,” at the Liljevalchs Kunsthall, was his big break. The exhibition was touted as a point of inflection in Swedish furniture and craft, and at the center of it were two of Krenov’s pieces, a wall cabinet and a silver chest. Krenov got into the juried show as a relatively unknown name (a newspaper article a few months prior misspelled his surname), but his friendship with Bolin and Malmsten certainly helped prime the judges for his work. (Both Bolin and Malmsten were also featured in the exhibition). When the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported the event, Krenov’s “Silver Chest” was chosen for the feature photograph out of the 2,500 pieces from 250 craftspeople. After this show, Krenov won the favor of influential critics and curators, including Dag Widman, director of the exhibition and editor of the publication FORM from the Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Swedish Society of Industrial Design). This led to a solo exhibition, “Liv i Trä” (“Life in Wood”) in 1965, and a cavalcade of features, press and exhibition opportunities, as well as a stipend from the Swedish government given to artists and craftspeople deemed to be doing work important to Swedish culture.
While his cabinetmaking opened the door to his success, there is significant evidence that Krenov’s strong voice as a critic and singular personality helped him rise in the ranks of Swedish craftspeople. He started appearing at public conversations about craft at the Nationalmuseum (which appointed Dag Widman as its chief superintendent in 1966). At the time, Sweden was wrestling with the position of the designer-craftsperson; for a long time prior to the 1960s, Swedish craft had largely followed the trends of continental Europe, with a distinct separation between the designer and the person executing the work. With the revival in craft, Sweden saw an explosion of craftspeople who designed and made their own work, more akin to artists than potters, silversmiths, weavers and woodworkers.
Krenov did not see himself in either of these groups. His education had been technical, focusing on exacting execution according to measured drawings. Krenov eschewed this rigid process after his graduation, but did not swing all the way to the more free-form position of craft as art, which eschewed historic context and technical skill for expression and artists’ statements. His unique position between the two led to a lonely post as an advocate for designer-craftspeople working with traditional joinery and historic forms that were distinctly furniture. He focused on solid construction, graceful form and a distinctly functional intention, but made no attempt to divorce his influences and personality from a piece’s execution. Alongside his appearances at public discourses, Krenov also began writing for FORM, where he took on the voice of an advocate for craft against the bulwark of both unchecked artistry and functionalist design.
By the mid-1970s, Krenov was at the top of Swedish crafts; he was a featured presenter, author and craftsperson in many of the museums and galleries. Few could aspire to more, but his feelings of under-appreciation in Sweden (spurred on by his unique position between two trends) left him looking to the other side of the ocean for greener pastures. In 1966, Craig McArt, a student from RIT, studied with Krenov for several months and persuaded Krenov to share some of his writing. McArt brought an essay back to the United States – the one published in 1967 by Craft Horizons. This first contact with America, and specifically McArt’s advocacy, led to his appointments at RIT and BU. These were combative but engendered a small but enthusiastic following of U.S. students and colleagues. Krenov would have had no problem in Sweden publishing his first book, an extensive elaboration on Craft Horizons essay that became “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook.” But he thought that in the States, unlike Europe, there existed a strong independence around craft, so there would be an eager generation of students who would be receptive to his philosophy – so he wanted his book published in English for an American audience.
And so, with the help of the RIT administration and McArt, Krenov published “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” with Van Nostrand Reinhold, a publisher of art and craft books based in New York. After its publication, Krenov’s reputation in the United States exploded (which surprised his publisher; it had hardly promoted its release). Three more books came in just five years, as did invitations to present and teach stateside, and a few particularly motivated craftspeople on the West Coast established a school based on Krenov’s idiosyncratic approach. It was the school that ultimately convinced Krenov to make his move across the Atlantic, but by 1981, it is clear (in his writings and correspondence from the time) that he had been looking for a landing pad in the States for the better part of a decade.
So, in truth, Krenov entered the American context at a particularly high moment in his career – it was among an American audience that he passed from renowned furniture maker to celebrated author, teacher and influential craftsman. In Sweden, his advocates called for the books to be translated into Swedish. They wanted Swedes to read the philosophy and sensitivity that both Swedish aesthetics and opposition thereto engendered in Krenov. The books were not translated, however, and while there are echoes of Krenov’s influence in Sweden’s woodworking trends (particularly in Malmsten’s schools at Capellgården and Krenov’s alma mater, the Verskstadsskola), his move to the States also largely closed the book on his lasting influence in Sweden.
Krenov’s aesthetic and technical approaches, however, were certainly born in his nearly four decades in Sweden. I would argue that his arrival and warm reception in America constitutes a potent reverberation of the European Arts & Crafts movement’s influence on American woodworking, with Krenov’s direct lineage from Malmsten, who had visited Gimson and the Barnsleys in the Cotswolds in the 1920s. Krenov rose from the plateau of fame he had reached in Sweden to an even higher perch in America, on the back of both his writing and the establishment of his school. If nothing else, he was a singular presence in both countries; his resonance with the curators and critics of Sweden was matched by his reception among the dedicated woodworkers of America – those who were looking for a different approach than the technical manuals that dominated American woodworking publications in the middle of the 20th century. Neither country can claim Krenov as their own; certainly it was Sweden that fostered his development, but it was the United States that gave him his biggest audience, an appreciative student body and a warm reception.
But Krenov never found exactly what he was looking for. He was a Russian-born, American expatriate living in Sweden for decades, including the first two decades of his career as a woodworker. For several years in the 1960s, before the Schneider v. Rusk decision on the status of naturalized U.S. citizens living abroad, he was even a stateless person, having lost his naturalized American citizenship after not returning to the States for several years. While he regained his citizenship in the mid-1960s, it is perhaps most fitting to consider Krenov a stateless craftsperson; it suits his position as an independent force in both countries, someone who never settled for the successes he won.
A story that might sum up his tireless, even contrarian, position was told to me by Tina, Krenov’s youngest daughter. She recalled that in Sweden, when she was growing up, her father insisted that they find turkey for their Christmas dinner, something he remembered from his teenage years in Seattle. But upon the family’s resettlement in California, where turkey might have been much easier to procure, Krenov insisted on ham for their holiday dinner, as the Swedes had preferred. It might be this resistance to comfort that gave Krenov the drive to look to the next opportunity. It is certainly a factor of his success in Sweden, and the driving force behind his relocation to California. With this lens, we can see the continuity in Krenov’s seemingly separate careers in Sweden and the United States, and we might better understand how the perceived loneliness or isolation of his approach ended up bringing him a wider audience and community than any one group or country could have provided.
I’m a furniture maker first and a writer second, or maybe third (after, perhaps, being a master of tangential side projects). So, when I approached writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” my biography of the cabinetmaker who was the founder of the woodworking school I attended, it seemed appropriate to take part in retracing some of his steps as a craftsperson.
In Krenov’s body of work, there is one piece that always stood out to me for its graceful presence and idiosyncratic form: 1977’s “A Playful Thing,” detailed extensively in Krenov’s third book on cabinetmaking, “The Impractical Cabinetmaker.” The piece is a pivotal demarcation in Krenov’s output – both a reprisal of his 1962 “No-Glass Showcase of Lemon Wood” from the earliest stage of his career and a harbinger of his future output of leggy cabinets on stands. I also had the pleasure of seeing the piece in person; Krenov kept it and it is still in the family. Seeing it in person confirmed its appeal to me.
So, in February of 2019, I started my own version of the piece. I was happy to have both Krenov’s original drawings for the piece (published in “The Impractical Cabinetmaker”) as well as the insight I’d gained from examining much of his work. I had a pretty good footing to start on. But the understated form of this cabinet hides the complexity of its execution. Between the veneer work, the drawers that pass through both ends of the carcase, the carefully carved and chamfered legs and rails, and the drive to make every inch just right, even from unlikely views below or above, it is a real skill test. By the time I started this piece, I was five years out of the College of the Redwoods (now The Krenov School), and while I like to think my skills are always improving, the truth is that this kind of work requires constant practice and refinement of execution to be done properly and gracefully. I had some uphill battles.
Some progress shots along the way: sawing veneers, making drawers, carving stepped legs and little blackwood pulls.
Krenov’s original was made with East Indian rosewood and Andaman padauk, woods I wasn’t going to hold my breath looking for these days, but after trips up to Keim Lumber in Millersburg, Ohio, and C.R. Muterspaw in Xenia, Ohio, I came home with some stunning gonçalo alves for the stand/drawer fronts and densely figured soft maple for the veneered surfaces. I rounded those out with aromatic cedar for the drawer bottoms, hard maple for the drawer sides and African blackwood for the pulls, and I’m pleased with my choices.
The result, which I’m happy to still have in our bedroom a year and a half later (and 750 miles from Covington, Ky., where I built it), came out in the way as do many reprisals or reiterations of another maker’s design: different and telling of my process, but in the spirit of Krenov’s original, I think.
Are the proportions exact to Krenov’s original? No. Is the shaping identical? Definitely not. Am I James Krenov? Well, come on, of course not. But in making this piece, and walking a few months in Krenov’s shop slippers, I learned quite a bit. I noticed certain aspects of the piece’s construction that betray Krenov’s history: the dexterous use of a knife in carving the legs and the pulls recall his early life spent carving with a jackknife in Alaska; the aesthetic touch of stepped chamfers and an almost architectural composition echo his teacher, Carl Malmsten, whose roots were firmly planted in the English Arts & Crafts movement.
There is a second stream of influence the piece has exerted over the year and half since I finished building it. With an open and inviting showcase area, what Krenov referred to as a “stage,” it is too hard to resist constantly rotating and replacing small objects to showcase. I find myself picking up the objects in residence and looking them over, something I wouldn’t necessarily do if they were tucked away on a shelf or in a glass cabinet.
And this action, the constant consideration and handling of small, fine objects, might be the most impactful effect this piece had on my consideration of Krenov’s work. Krenov often insisted that his showcase cabinets “complemented” the pieces they displayed, and while the cabinet itself might be artfully done or worthy of examination, it wasn’t doing its job well if it couldn’t elevate or showcase its contents. While I’d read Krenov’s words regarding this, actually living with something that encouraged this interaction made it clear. Throughout his lectures, personal papers and his books, Krenov mentions craftspeople from other mediums, like the potters Bernard Leach or Eva Zeisel, in that light, showcase cabinets like “A Playful Thing” make perfect sense of his role as a cabinetmaker. It may be a “chicken-and-egg” problem – whether his appreciation for small crafts came before his penchant for making showcase cabinets or vice versa, but either way, living with this piece has made it clear how Krenov saw that role.
You can’t write a book by building cabinets. Nor can you build a cabinet just by digging through lumberyards and antique stores. But if you can balance these experiences in just the right way, they might just culminate in work that is more than the sum of its parts. I can’t say I’m sure I got there with my cabinet, but the cabinet helped me consider Krenov’s life and work.
We are taught from a young age that compromise and flexibility are golden attributes. I have seen their reward; I won’t go too far into my own sinuous background, but putting myself into different settings with good people, following their lead or being willing to bend my own path, has brought wonderful experiences and opportunities. In woodworking, it’s been ventures into chairmaking, Krenovian cabinetmaking, historic techniques, slapdash construction and basketweaving. In life, it means having a Master’s in computer music, working at a large media/publishing company, working with CNCs to produce violin parts, writing a book, living in five states in less than a decade and being an underemployed but happy craftsperson.
In my three years of researching, interviewing and writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” a second lesson in compromise has emerged. There is a lot in Krenov’s story that points to the other side of the coin – the side that makes itself apparent when someone refuses to compromise their worldview or creative practice, even at the cost of their own well-being or success. To me, both the reward and punishment of that second approach is no more apparent than in Krenov’s trajectory from an obscure travelogue writer to a widely celebrated cabinetmaker.
As I interviewed people about Krenov – his students, colleagues, friends, supporters and detractors – the downside of his attitude became apparent. Krenov’s frequent lack of diplomacy in expressing his approach to craft closed doors and alienated many. It took him several tries at educational institutions to find a situation that met his demands or could handle his irascibility concerning the validity of other approaches. His articles in Sweden’s FORM magazine express his disenfranchisement from Scandinavian contemporaries and consumers, often because he thought they would not appreciate or adopt his idiosyncratic approach (though it was there that he reached a level of renown few could hope for). His outlook often made Krenov hard to please, and kept him looking on the other side of the fence (or ocean) for greener grass. It made it difficult (for many years, impossible) to make a living at his craft.
But in this lack of compromise, we can see the seeds of Krenov’s success. At the beginning of his career, a time when Scandinavia was moving toward functionalism and practicality, Krenov declared himself and his work to be outside of those considerations. He called for craftspeople, amateur and professional, to enjoy their work, whatever the wider public insisted about its efficacy or profitability. He was the strongest advocate for the inherent worth of work done well.
So many of us who insist on making furniture or practicing a craft at the highest standards we can muster, rationalize our position and damn the time or impracticality of its execution. We insist that our work is more durable and a better investment, or more timeless and not subject to trendiness or fads.
At several point in his career, Krenov relays these considerations – but he was working to different criteria, not obviously connected to financial or aesthetic concerns. Looking over his work and the lessons he taught, it’s clear that these were secondary (or even tertiary) concerns. He encouraged impracticality and insisted that his way was too difficult to be of use to a professional woodworker. He wanted to be remembered as a “stubborn, old enthusiast.”
I don’t mean to imply a lack of subtlety to his position; in fact, many of his favored students eschewed his path in aesthetics, technique and financial success. I offer up the idea that the “middle path” Krenov described between handwork and machine work – a compromise from many perspectives – was part of what made it so successful and appealing to his hundreds of thousands of readers. And there were students who disagreed with his advice that he came to support or enable – in spite of their resistance. He butted heads with students who, like him, insisted on the value of their own ideas, but in the end many of them won his respect. He could be an inspiring teacher and a friendly mentor, whimsical and enthusiastic.
Krenov’s ability to resist outside influence, especially in terms of income, was enabled by the support of Britta, his wife, who was a high school teacher with a degree in economics and finance. He was also supported by the socialist infrastructure of Sweden, which awarded him stipends and gave Britta a steady pension after her retirement in the late 1970s.
But there is a lesson that can be distilled from Krenov’s path. It isn’t exactly “stick to your guns” or “ignore the haters.” But, after years of my own consideration of Krenov’s story and the memories of those who crossed his path, I think one part of the whole reads something like this: Take in what you can from those around you when you set off, work hard to examine what you value and/or enjoy in your chosen pursuit and be determined enough to pursue it at whatever cost.
It may not lead to success in any traditional sense. Krenov’s career might be measured in book sales or influence, but I think it’s best measured by the memories that were shared with me. His students remember Krenov’s satisfaction in shaping the leg of a stand late into the evenings, or the time he spent happily arranging and composing a freshly sawn batch of veneers. Pursue fulfillment; if you’re lucky or dogged or particularly talented, other measures of success might come to pass. If you’re not, at least you can say it wasn’t a waste of time.
There are many ways to poke holes in this idea as it applies to your own world; I’m not one to promote orthodoxy or dogma. You might be able to follow Krenov’s path with a more polite or amenable attitude. You could pick fulfillment as a guide, and still frequently change the tack of your pursuit. But if you read Krenov’s story (and I hope you will) I think the case study in rigidity and conviction that he lived is worthy of consideration. It is not a prescription, but it might be a part of finding your own path.
“Krenov’s first commission, a teak cutlery box, was commissioned by an American anti-Communist spy turned short fiction writer in 1958, and was paid for with a bottle of Scotch whisky.“
That’s a fun mouthful. It’s one of the crazier sentences I jotted down as I interviewed people for my forthcoming biography “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints.”
During the research for the book, which spans the nine decades of James Krenov’s life and four continents, I was lucky to converse with people who knew and worked with Krenov from the 1950s to the late 2000s. The biography, due out this year, will reveal the fruit born from these connections. And as I reflect on the process now, with the book nearly ready for publication, I’m amazed by the people I had the privilege of talking to throughout my work.
Since September 2018, I interviewed about 150 people around the globe, and I think that highlighting a few of these far-flung folks might hint at the breadth of Krenov’s life.
I reached back as far as I could to find living voices, and I was terrifically lucky to find three people who knew Krenov at the outset of his cabinetmaking career in 1957. The first, and perhaps the most “larger-than-life” character, was Harley Sachs. Today, Sachs works as a board game designer and fiction writer, and has retired to a quiet life in Oregon after living in five countries and traveling the world. He’s now in his late 80s, and was a terrifically loquacious interviewee.
Sachs went to Stockholm in 1957 on the GI Bill after (what he describes as) an odd stint as a misfit in the American military during the war in Korea. While in Stockholm, Sachs worked as an English language teacher and an informant and undercover agent for the American government, who worked against Communist influences in Sweden. Sachs doesn’t recall how he met Krenov, but says his work as a spy drew him to the man. Krenov’s own history, as a Russian-born, trilingual American citizen in Stockholm, would have made him a great potential agent. But Sachs recalled that Krenov was uninterested, though they struck up a friendship that would lead to Krenov’s being Sachs’s best man in his wedding in 1960.
While Sachs only knew of Krenov’s woodworking tangentially, not being a craftsperson himself, he was, perhaps, Krenov’s first client. Sachs commissioned a small dovetailed teak cutlery box, for a nice set of stainless flatware he bought while in Sweden. Unable to pay a satisfactory price, Krenov instead enlisted Sachs (and his connections at the American embassy) to find a fine bottle of Scotch whisky. The case is still in use today by Sachs’s daughter, Cynthia Sachs-Bustos, and holds that same flatware that it was made for more than 60 years ago. A small inscription on the underside of the box’s removable tray, written by Sachs years after its construction, notes that the box is the “first cutlery chest made by Jim Krenov,” an allusion to the fact that Krenov would go on to make a series of “Silver Chests” in his career as a woodworker.
I was able to track down and interview two more people from the 1950s who knew Krenov well, and both were woodworkers themselves. Krenov attended Carl Malmsten’s Verkstadsskolla from 1957 to 1959, and thanks to Malmsten Foundation Chairman Lars Ewö (by way of one of my chairmaking students, Matthew Nafranowicz) I was able to get a list of students from Krenov’s years at the school. After some sleuthing, I contacted Manne Ideström and Kjell Orrling. Neither Ideström or Orrling continued on in their careers as woodworkers. Today, Ideström works as a minister and choral director in Ontario, after moving from Sweden in the 1970s as a partner in his father’s furniture manufacturing business. Orrling is just an hour’s drive away from him, also in Ontario, where he now works as an incredible watercolorist, having sold the lighting fixture business that brought him to Canada in 1973.
Often times, in interviewing people about past events I feel guilty asking them to recall those memories – who can be expected to reach back so far with any clarity? But both Orrling and Ideström easily recalled Krenov, perhaps due to his oddity and unique presence as a student. His classmates were largely in their late teens or early 20s, but Krenov was 37 when he enrolled at Malmsten’s school, and Orrling remembers Krenov’s penchant for reciting poetry and reading from his favorite books during mealtimes in the workshop, a habit that Krenov kept up when he later became a teacher. Orrling also provided photos, some of which are reproduced here, from his time at Malmsten’s school. And there is Krenov, the earliest photo of him working wood. How appropriate it is that he is using a doweling jig and a small hand drill – both practices he would share with readers and students.
Perhaps the most memorable interview for the book wasn’t with someone who had ever heard of Krenov, though he did know about the church that Krenov’s father, Dmitri, built in Sleetmute, Alaska.
Much of Krenov’s early life is tied to the lives of indigenous people of Siberia and Alaska, in particular the Chukchi of far Eastern Siberia, the Yupik people of Sleetmute, Alaska, and the Dena’ina people of Tyonek, Alaska. The Chukchi people of Siberia are a well-researched and documented group, and I had a wonderful time researching them as a part of my writing. But when it came to the natives of Alaska, I had a hard time finding the correct terminologies, histories and surviving documents. Unequipped with the all-important “keywords” that might bring up the correct documents, I decided to rely on one of the great interconnecting presences in America – the postal service.
Last spring, while Sleetmute was still covered in snow, I found the number of the local post office branch. Sleetmute is a town of 86, hundreds of miles up the Kuskokwim River from Bethel, and I suspected that if I could get in touch with just one resident, they would surely know who might be able to answer my questions. The clerk, sure enough, told me to call “Frank,” the oldest of the village elders who he thought would welcome the odd call from Kentucky. Frank answered and was happy to spend an hour on the phone with me. I wish I could give you Frank’s full name, or link to a website as I did with the people above, but I never got any such information, nor did it seem appropriate – Frank was happy to be in a place he noted as deeply isolated. He was able to share what he knew of Sleetmute’s history, confirmed the dates of the flood that Krenov’s mother noted in her unpublished memoir, and even better, he was simply happy to chat with a curious outsider. His father was Yugoslavian, his mother was Yupik, and he had lived all of his seven decades on the Kuskokwim River. He also had a few choice jokes about Columbus and his being the “first person to collect American welfare” from the natives he came to colonize and enslave, and told me a good five-minute story that turned out to be a pun on the name of the Yupik tribe (the punchline was something like, “No, YOU pick!”).
This biography, which I am thrilled to say will be in the hands of readers soon, is really just a spun thread composed of the collective memories of dozens of such conversations, writings and photographs. Over the course of the years of research, I’ve realized the power of picking up the phone and finding a friendly and talkative person on the other end of the line. I’ll end with an encouragement, one I heard from many. Share your stories with those around you and with those strangers who might just be interested. Harley Sachs surely has, as is evidenced in his voluminous list of publications. So, too, have Manne Ideström and Kjell Orrling, through their music and artwork. And so, too, did Frank, with the curious young man calling from Kentucky.