Something that quietly becomes clear in Nancy Hiller’s newest book of essays (“Shop Tails,” now shipping) is a subtle underlying theme of worth. “Blue-collar” vs. “white.” Grades earned, degrees obtained and at which institution. Worth in the eye of friend, teacher, sibling, parent, boss, client, beholder. Critique. The worth of a commission. Representation in a shop. The worth of a stray. Staying, leaving and their reflection of your worth to self and others. The worth not of a house, but of a home. The worth of pets, even when problematic, and love, and life. The worth of good pudding. Self-worth.
“What I wanted, for 50 years, was to prove that people were wrong about me, to exceed their low expectations. When people mentally translated my work as a furniture maker to “She makes ‘furniture’ out of pallets or fruit crates and decorates her work with cut-outs of ducks and bunnies – you know, because that’s what women like,” I would show them my take on an Edwardian hallstand with a perfectly fitted door and drawer and a cornice of compound bevels. Anyone who assumed that, as a tradesperson, I would be less intellectually curious and articulate than someone who works in an office (any kind of office would do; this is a matter of longstanding prejudice against “manual” and “blue-collar” workers) would have to square that assumption with a growing body of published essays and books in which I brought my academic training in classical languages, history and ethics to bear on the social and economic significance of commonplace things such as kitchen furnishings. I did my best to illustrate the ways in which a house, typically thought of as “property,” could fulfill many of the roles we usually associate with a human partner. In response to the critics who might deride my ways of putting cabinets together, I would point out that there really are as many ways to build a cabinet as there are cabinetmakers, not to mention that the cabinets I build, however simple their construction, are far stronger than most that are commercially made.”
Last week one of my twin 11-year-old boys was outside when our dog, Io, found a squirrel, already hurt and hiding in a bush. He pulled it out proudly, carrying it by its tail. My son yelled at him to drop it. On its side, its big beautiful brown eye stared at us while it breathed ever-shallower breaths. My other son appeared, and we gathered a box and a towel. One boy bit his tongue, the other was indignant: “We can’t save him. It won’t work.” Two defense mechanisms that failed to stop silent tears. I thought, It is OK to be 11 and soft while simultaneously thinking how best to end a small animal’s life in order to end its palpable pain, knowing I couldn’t possibly actually do it. (The squirrel died on its own shortly after.)
I share this story because my sons’ recognition of the squirrel’s worth in that moment reminded me of something Nancy wrote to me, the day before this incident:
“Every time I think about ‘Shop Tails’ I am filled with delight at the thought that the stories of these animals, some of them strays, some wild, others abandoned to the shelter, get to be commemorated in a book – a beautifully produced hardbound book, with pictures. There’s something about this that I still don’t even quite grasp. It’s the opposite of the usual publishing world, where Important People are the only ones who get remembered or have their stories told. (Yes, thankfully that has been changing over the past 40 years, but I still see a distressingly overwhelming hangover from the middle of the 20th century and before.) There’s something wondrous about this noticing of the rejected and otherwise-un-notable, especially those who had short lives. And of course I’m aware that there’s a vast genre of books about animals, this one is by no means alone, etc. But still! Little Alfie with his explosive digestive problems and impossible William, pathologically jealous Henny, champion-of-gratefulness/gimp-boy Joey, the turkey vulture by the side of the road, and ‘Henry’ the mourning dove, all get their day, as do others. It’s a kind of triumph. Yeah, these stories are written from my perspective, not the animals’, but that’s a limitation we have to live with.”
There’s a shift taking place in the woodworking community, where more people than ever before are getting to see their worth in more welcoming environments Among them The Chairmaker’s Toolbox, a slew of Instagram feeds that show work by members of populations that have long been underrepresented by the majority of woodworking populations, the proliferation of scholarships for classes at woodworking schools that are now available to members of underrepresented populations and the “Gallery” in Fine Woodworking magazine.
It took Nancy more than half a century to come to terms with her own worth, both in the shop and out. In doing so, she has acknowledged the danger of being too dependent on outside forces – of people who express their approval, just as much as those who express their opposition. Consider the consequences this can have on representation in community, in craft – even in the personal work you do, in the choices you make about the tools you buy or the pieces you make. They’re huge.
“It suddenly felt deeply exhausting,” she writes. “I let my awareness of that exhaustion sink in. Whatever might happen with the course of my cancer, I was not going back to my old ways of living.”
This book is a celebration of not just the “otherwise un-notable,” but also of the notable who are just beginning to realize their worth. And in that, I imagine Nancy’s not alone.
The illustration we used for the diestamp for “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” is fitting in myriad ways, the most important being it was created by Elan Robinson.
In 2000, Elan, who was 11 years old at the time, traveled with Monroe to Dick’s cabin.
“I knew I was traveling with a young and impressionable child and I wanted to create a meaningful experience in everything we did,” Monroe says.
By this time Dick had left his cabin to live with his brother in California. The National Park Service had contacted Monroe to restore the roofs on Dick’s cabin and woodshed.
“I wanted Elan to understand that their dad would do this work exactly as Dick’s original work, allowing future visitors to see Dick’s life and craft as it was, with as few changes as possible,” Monroe says. “I wanted Elan to understand the importance I placed on the impressive craftsmanship of the Civilian Conservation Corporation workers during the Great Depression at Chiricahua National Monument where my father worked during my youth.”
Meeting Dick Proenneke
While Elan would spend many summers between elementary school and college graduation with their father at Dick’s cabin, that first summer was particularly memorable.
“The cabin and the surrounding trails were like a wonderland for a kid my age,” Elan says. “Dick never threw anything away, and I remember being really impressed by the stacks and stacks of empty ink jars stashed in Dick’s outhouse. I wanted to write and document my time there like he did. My journal from that first year is funny to read now because of how much I complained about missing my friends, craving different foods, being bitten by mosquitoes, and doing manual tasks like carrying water or putting oakum between the cabin logs to keep the cold out. My memories of that first summer are much more positive than my journal entries!”
Dick made his final visit to his cabin in 2000.
“I was thrilled that Elan would meet him,” Monroe says.
Dick and Monroe exchanged many letters after their first meeting in 1982, and Monroe says Dick always included Elan in his letters. Elan and Dick meeting in person for the first time was a significant moment for both Elan and Monroe. And they were thrilled to accompany Dick on the float plane that took him back to the National Park headquarters where he stayed a few days with Leon Alsworth.
“I only met Dick one time, for just an hour or so, when he visited his cabin for the last time,” Elan says. “I wish I had a better memory of what that was like. But I have a photo, and in my journal from that first summer my pre-teen complaining is interrupted with my entries about how excited I was to meet him. I feel pretty honored to have been there that day.”
On Hikes and Observation
Monroe spent 19 summers at Twin Looks and says many of the more memorable moments centered around the camping trips and hikes he took with Elan around Twin Lakes. They would regularly see dall sheep, brown bear, moose and caribou. Together, Monroe and Elan observed the behaviors of these animals, and Elan spent a significant amount of time sketching them.
Monroe remembers one hike that began with the two of them kayaking from Dick’s cabin 10 miles west before embarking on the hike.
“That night a wind came up so fierce that our tent flattened to the shape of our sleeping bags,” Monroe says. “Since sleep was impossible I opened the tent zipper at 2 a.m. to look out in the orange glow of the ‘midnight sun’ below the northern horizon. Elan set the mood by springing forth with, ‘Oh! What a Beautiful Morning’ as we both gripped our nylon tent before it blew away.”
One summer, Elan, Monroe and Monroe’s wife, K. Schubeck, spent nine days hiking a loop, beginning at Dick’s cabin and then moving west, around the Volcanic Mountains and into Big Valley through Low Pass and back to Dick’s – about 30-plus miles. Early in the trip Elan spotted a fox den that would be a significant site in the course of K. and Monroe’s wildlife observations over the next 15 years.
“We spent several hours sitting in the rain watching one red kit and three black color phase kits fight and play, including a dramatic display of kit competition when the vixen brought in a dead ground squirrel,” Monroe says. “Later on this trip Elan sat motionless next to me as a lone wolf trotted toward us. We watched as the wolf chased, lost, and then caught and gulped a ground squirrel.”
Most children have memories of sitting quietly and listening to adults who don’t realize they’re being so astutely observed. Elan vividly remembers a time when a number of folks from Port Alsworth were visiting Twin Lakes.
“They had all come over to Spike’s Cabin and were sitting in folding chairs in the tight space, talking about Dick, sharing memories, and even arguing about what Dick had thought or felt about this or that,” Elan says. “I was watching all of this from under the bug net on the top bunk. I think I was too young to take part in the conversation, but not too young to be impressed by the intensity everyone was expressing around their memories of Dick, and their strong feelings around his legacy. At school, we had been talking about heroes and legends, and about how stories around real people grow and transform as they are told and retold, and I was aware that I was watching that happen.”
“I did a lot of drawing out at Twin Lakes over the summers I spent there,” Elan says. “I recently dug up my journal from my first visit there, when I turned 12, and it’s full of drawings of animals, scenery and little scenes from our everyday life that summer.”
Monroe remembers an 11-day hike he and Elan took across the lake from Dick’s cabin over the mountains and west to Sheep Lick mountain. They watched caribou, dall sheep, brown bears, black bears and a wolverine, and they even found two fox dens.
“Their journal on that hike included many illustrations including flowers, plants, the skull cap of a young caribou left at one of the fox dens when the fox den had been used by wolves years earlier, the partial skull of duck that the foxes had not bitten apart and an illustration of Dick’s cabin,” Monroe says. “Each time I look at this journal I am impressed with Elan’s art and the skill in creating a written narrative that holds my attention whenever I read it.”
One year Elan kept a nature journal as an independent study project for high school credit.
“I was really interested in botany at the time (I still am) and was really inspired by some of the detailed botanical drawings in the field guides we had at the cabin,” Elan says. “I learned from that summer that sketching the plants we found in detail was a really good way to commit the characteristics of each plant to memory.”
Monroe says Elan drew many illustrations of the Alaskan plants around Dick’s cabin, not only the physical plant but also how the Alaskan Native Peoples use the plants.
“After an injury to K.’s hip, Elan made a poultice of wormwood to relieve the pain and lessen the swelling,” Monroe says. “I was delighted with Elan’s interest and encouraged their efforts as an artist.”
Elan says they have had an on-and-off relationship with illustrating for most of their life.
“I drew a lot in elementary and middle school, but got a little more serious about it in high school,” Elan says. “I really liked the fine lines in the work of M.C. Escher and the moody inkwork of Edward Gorey, and I consumed any manga and anime I could get my hands on.”
Like many artists, there have been times that Elan has struggled with perfectionism.
“I’ve definitely had periods where that gets in the way of me being able to just have fun making art,” Elan says. “I got back into it again about five years ago when I was going through a really rough time with my mental health. I started buying cheap notebooks and drawing with ballpoint pen; the paper meant I didn’t feel so bad about ‘wasting’ nice paper on a drawing I wasn’t completely happy with, and the pen meant I couldn’t spend hours drawing, erasing and redrawing like I tended to do with pencil. I was doing it to try to express some of the stuff I was going through, but couldn’t express with words. I got to where I was drawing every day, often multiple times a day, without thinking at all about the final result, just about how it made me feel. As time went by, when I went back to things I’d drawn a year ago, I was surprised by not just how much I’d ‘improved,’ but how much I’d started to embrace my own style and feel confident about being able to produce something kind of consistent. I guess I needed to let go of meeting some standard of quality in order to feel more comfortable.”
Partnering Together for this Book
Elan says their dad’s work has been a huge influence in their work in the creative field.
“I’ve always wanted to be like my dad when I grew up (again, I still do),” Elan says. “I sometimes wish I had made more of an effort to learn woodworking from him, but even though my carpentry skills pretty much end with tightening screws and assembling IKEA furniture, I’m positive that growing up with my dad and around his artist and craftspeople friends meant that I always felt very supported and encouraged in all of my creative pursuits. I also think I learned a lot from my dad when it comes to attention to detail, and that shows up in the subjects I’m most interested in and the way I like to draw.”
These days Elan works as the community engagement operations manager at Pride Foundation, an LGBTQ+ community foundation supporting transformational work in five states in the Northwest, including Alaska.
“Graphic design has become an increasingly significant part of my role, and I do occasionally get to contribute illustrations to a design project,” Elan says. “I’m really lucky to have a day job that I feel passionate about and where my passions are supported. Outside of work, I write zines, including The Queer Language of Flowers, and occasionally do freelance illustration. I feel like I have a lot of learning to do still as an artist, but it’s been really fun and validating to find more outlets for my work in recent years.”
(You can find Elan’s work online here and on Instagram here.)
As a child and teenager, Elan says they were a little intimidated by the level of detail at Dick’s cabin.
“I tried to draw some of the objects around the cabin, and once spent hours trying to draw the cabin, and although I was pretty happy with how it came out, I knew it wasn’t accurate – I had trouble getting the number of logs and the other proportions right.”
So Elan was excited to revisit Dick’s cabin for their father’s book many years later.
Monroe says having Elan’s art as the cover for his book is deeply meaningful in that it symbolizes Elan’s presence in his care of Dick Proenneke’s legacy.
“It’s really special to me to be able to be a part of this book,” Elan says. “I think that the time I got to spend at Twin Lakes has had a big influence on me – on my relationship with craft, with nature, and with myself and my own sense of what I’m capable of accomplishing, so being a part of the ongoing legacy of Dick Proenneke is meaningful to me personally in that way. More than that, though, contributing an illustration to a book that I know my dad poured so much of himself into, and that I really believe only he could have written, makes me feel so proud.”
“The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” should ship before the year’s end.
— the instinct to create, to make things with our own hands, is part of every man’s natural inheritance
I like to think that somewhere in the work we do lies the secret of existence. Something our work demands of us, differing perhaps with each individual and yet, rightly understood, demanding our best; something it gives to us, helping to mould us and through us giving a contribution to the world. The man who receives much and gives much is the man of genius, but we others, each in his different degree, have all something to give and can give willingly and feel our powers grow and strengthen or we can refuse and dwindle to less than our full stature. What that stature is nobody knows this side of eternity but we can add enormously to the purpose and meaning of our lives by trying to find out.
— Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, 1954, excerpted from “Honest Labour“
One of the most difficult parts about writing the “The Curse of the Nannau Oak” (an illustrated book forthcoming from Lost Art Press) was being so far away from where it all took place. Time and money aside, the pandemic made a trip impossible.
Much of the story could have been written anywhere, but several scenes in the story, I felt, needed the eyes of someone physically there. One scene features detailed plasterwork in a restaurant in Dolgellau, a small town in northwest Wales. The other is a walk the main character, Cadi, takes with her grandmother.
The Nannau estate is about three miles north of Dolgellau. In our book (which I wrote and is illustrated by the brilliant Elin Manon Cooper) Cadi and her family eat in a restaurant in which there is a frightening and detailed plasterwork scene of a large tree on the wall. The waiter tells her it’s the hollow oak of the demon – the Nannau oak. This plasterwork scene is real and exists, as does the restaurant, called Y Sospan. Legend states that the plasterwork has actual branches from the Nannau oak embedded in it. From what I gather, the armorial (another plasterwork scene next to the tree, also featured in our book) was constructed as late as the 19th century, perhaps when the restaurant was used by the Dolgellau Cricket and Reading Club. The tree, on the other hand, was possibly constructed as part of the 1758 restoration of the hall, as the subjects’ clothing in the scene matches that time period. As far as branches from the Nannau oak actually being embedded into the plaster? Who knows! It’s one of the perks, I suppose, of writing heavily researched fiction.
A detailed Standing Building Report commissioned by the Snowdonia National Park Authority was instrumental in helping me describe this scene accurately, and find a place for it in the story, without actually being there.
I think I’ve watched maybe a dozen total videos on YouTube in my life, a fact that is shocking to my children. But I was thrilled to find the delightful Margaret Hall, who lets viewers walk with her through the Nannau Deer Park. It was the next best thing to taking the walk myself, and being able to listen to her speak Welsh while reading the English subtitles was wonderfully instructive as well.
But then I found Elin Manon Cooper, who is now my partner on this project and who is producing the most gorgeous illustrations. This summer she went to Y Sospan. And she walked through the Nannau Deer Park. She saw Coed y Moch (a lodge on the Nannau estate); Aran Fawddwy, Aran Benllyn and Cader Idris from a distance (southern Snowdonia mountains in North Wales); and Yr Hen Ardd (the Old Garden, built in the 1790s).
“Cadi knew this was land that held secrets and stories.”
Elin tried to find the stone pillar that marked where the Nannau oak once stood, but it’s now in someone’s private garden. While wandering, a deer jumped out right in front of Elin and her family – a magical sight, she says.
“Despite not being able to find the exact spot of the oak it was an incredible place to walk around anyway,” she says. “You got a real sense of time and story all merging, swirling and stretching together.”
With many traditional, big-name publishers, such a close partnership and collaboration between author and illustrator would have never happened. Often, a writer and illustrator never meet or speak. And so to have this experience, I’m grateful.
As a reminder, Sean and his brother, Simon Clarke, are the second generation to run Christopher Clarke Antiques, in Stow-on-the-Wold, England. Sean and Simon, who helped Christopher Schwarz with his research when writing “Campaign Furniture,” are considered leading historians of campaign furniture.
In this lecture, Sean covers the history of campaign furniture during the golden period for portable furniture, the many different types of British and Irish makers, those who used campaign furniture and its eventual demise.
Sean notes that wealth and rank mattered, and how well your tent was fitted out was a good sign of your social standing.
“There was the opinion that the better prepared you were, the better you would do your job, so camp comforts were a necessity,” he says.
He quotes from a lieutenant’s diary, written in 1813 during the Peninsular War, about the need to equip one’s self with 600 pounds of personal baggage. “The more an officer makes himself comfortable, the better will he do his duty, as well as secure his own health, and the comfort of those belonging to him. It does not follow, that because we attempt the best in every situation, that we cannot face the worst.”
Later in the lecture Sean shares this cartoon, drawn by A.S. Boyd, published in “The Graphic” on October 19, 1901. The soldiers are weighted down by their furniture and personal items, which in the illustrations includes everything from a grandfather clock and a piano to a cradle and lawnmower.
The great joy in this lecture is the many clever examples of ingenuity in the metamorphic furniture shown. Consider the patents alone. Before 1866, Sean says there were 28 patents for chairs. Between 1866 and 1900, 306 patents existed for folding chairs alone.
In this lecture you’ll see a late 18th century mahogany cylinder bureau bookcase that, at first glance, you’d never guess would break down – but it does, considerably. A four poster patent screw bed by Thomas Butler, circa 1800, that is easily set up or taken down without screws, nuts or bolts, and even has a canopy for mosquitos when hot or drapes when cold. There’s a mahogany Naval bureau from 1750-80 with a top that comes off allowing the bottom to become a temporary operating table if needed.
The Victorians broadened the campaign furniture market, building furniture such as the Thornhill Patent Games Table, circa 1910, which easily folds into a small suitcase and could be used at home, in the garden or while on picnics. Sean points out that a plastic version of Thornhill’s folding picnic table and benches can still be found in most camping shops today. And, of course, the Roorkhee Chair is the predecessor to the folding chairs we take to our children’s sporting events, minus the cup holder (and elegance).