“A craftsman may have an excellent knowledge of the standard measurements for all ordinary articles of furniture and yet fail to produce beauty in his work because of the lack of that artistic perception which we call a sense of proportion.”
— “A Matter of Proportion,” Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, 1937
Niels Henrik David Bohr, a Danish physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for his work on atomic structures once said, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”
It reminded me of something Jennie Alexander said during a recent phone conversation for our Meet the Author series, something I didn’t use: “Isn’t this interesting? I’ve only made one type of stool. I’ve only made one type of one-slat chair. And I’ve only made one kind of two-slat post-and-rung chair. And that’s it! I’ve never made a rocking chair. I’ve never made a piece of furniture. I’ve done the same thing over and over and over and it changes, changes, changes—when it’s ready to change. And that’s kind of weird.”
Maybe. But maybe not.
In 2004, while working at Popular Woodworking magazine, I visited chairmaker Brian Boggs (who, by the way, was inspired by Alexander’s book “Make a Chair from a Tree”). At the time of my visit, Boggs’ primary focus was chairs, specifically Appalachian-style ladderback chairs with a contemporary flair. And by that point he had dedicated years of his life to not only building them, but improving them. Improvements came in the form of design, yes, but also tools (Lie-Nielsen still sells the Boggs Curved Spokeshave), joints (his “universal joint” features double offset tenons and housed shoulders) and machines (his hickory bark stripper took 12 years to develop). All of this, simply to make a better chair.
I’m all over the place. There was the Christmas I asked for embroidery supplies. Come Valentine’s Day I tried to embroider my husband a single heart on cardstock. There was a lot of cursing involved, some blood and I don’t think I’ve touched the supplies since.
I rowed for two quarters at college. I took a short evening class on astronomy and spent a few years volunteering at the Cincinnati Observatory until I came to the conclusion that I enjoyed the poetry of stars much more so than the math. Every time I run I think, I should run a marathon.
I find many things to be fascinating. One look at Half Dome and I want to climb it. One meditation class and I’m looking up ashrams in India. One world religion class and I want to enroll in seminary, become a Buddhist and define myself as atheist, all at once.
I suppose this is why I was drawn to writing. For a short while I get to live vicariously in the life of another. And not always, but often, that other is being written about because of their ability to narrow their focus so much that they become an expert, even if that wasn’t their intention. Perhaps this is behind all brilliance.
There’s validity in trying it all. But I’ve also learned that there’s validity in finding a niche. There’s validity in devoting a large part of your life to 17th century joinery. And Welsh stick chairs. And carving acanthus leaves. And making macaroons. And growing the perfect tomato.
Alexander may only have made one type of stool. And one type of one-slat chair. And one type of two-slat post-and-rung chair. But her dedication to doing the same thing “over and over and over,” while allowing it to change and improve while also studying and theorizing and, dare we say, obsessing, has benefitted all those who point to “Make a Chair from a Tree” as inspiration. That type of devotion is why we can buy copper tacks from John Wilson. And moulding planes from Matt Bickford. And letterpress printed books.
I think all experts see what Alexander calls “the flash.” The niche, for them, fulfills. “There is a spirit of shaving wood that fills a place in me that otherwise is not filled as a person, as a thinker, as a human being,” Alexander says.
Coupled with, of course, hard work, dedication and simply showing up at the bench, again and again and again. As Charles Hayward wrote in a 1936 issue of The Woodworker magazine: “Continued application and perseverance do really bring mastery, and in these summer months, when practical work has been thrust into the background, we can still consolidate and even advance our work.”
“According to my experience, one usually makes the best kind of plans during a holiday, and not only, I think, because mentally as well as physically we have a breathing space. We are told that the sunken lanes of England represent the old trackways along which men’s plodding footsteps for two thousand years or more battered down the soil till the banks rose high on either side, giving shelter and protection but cutting off the view. Almost inevitably our daily lives get like that, following the routine paths it seems endlessly, till suddenly we are in the clear again and can see the buttercups in the meadows, the kingfisher flashing across the stream and the wide vault of heaven above us. At holiday times, as we move about the countryside, passing through small country towns and villages which have hitherto only been names to us, perhaps made famous in history or perhaps not famous at all yet with some flavour of the past, some magic of a word in them to link them with the dawn of our race, then something stirs in us; something that knows its affinity with the men who cleared this good earth and who laboured and built and passed on the work of their hands to us, and within it the inherent beauty that showed it was good. They built with chalk and flint and stone and wood just where they found them so that the homes they built fit snugly into the countryside as if they grew there, and everywhere we find traces of very ancient craftsmanship which has lived on in one form or another to the present. There is the ancient craft of flint-knapping which goes back two thousand years or more to the time when flint was used by the huntsman before ever man began to build their homes with it; and there is the thatch, the traditional roofing for humble dwellings long before the Saxons came; and there are walls bonded with brick courses in the old Roman style which, like the Roman roads underlying some of our modern highways, are caught up in a living tradition. We get these sudden glimpses of a remote past sometimes when we are least looking for them and they take us back to our roots as nothing else can.
“… There was a time when men, working with their hands, achieved grace and truth as naturally as they breathed because they worked soundly in a sound tradition. To-day we have to relearn these things and make our own standards. If we are willing to keep a high heart, if we hold fast to those moments of vision which we have received outside the bustle of living, then the skill which we learn will wed itself to the skill we have inherited, something older than ourselves which we can pass on to our children and, till heaven and earth pass away, the price and the joy of good workmanship shall not fail.”
— “Ancestral Voices,”Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, 1955
Nick Offerman, actor, humorist and longtime woodworker whose most recent book, “Good Clean Fun,” was dubbed part memoir/part technical guide with “zen-like life lessons” by Esquire, recently read Nancy R. Hiller‘s “Making Things Work.” And loved it.
“These poignant, honest, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious but always masterful stories are so much more than woodworking anecdotes – they are nakedly human moments, rendered with the hard-won sagacity of the purist. A necessary read for any aspiring craftsperson, but just as requisite for the clientele. I can’t decide in what retail section this book should be displayed – fine woodworking? Sure, that’s easy, but the integrity of Ms. Hiller’s voice, the tenacity of her principles, and the respect with which she endows honest, hard work compel me to suggest instead the shelves of philosophy, self-help, etiquette or even religion, goddamnit.”
We rarely carry books from other publishers in our store – we’re picky. But Offerman’s review illustrates why this book was an easy addition to our collection.
Jennie Alexander was born John Alexander on Dec. 8, 1930. She has lived in row houses her entire life, and their vernacular architecture defines, in part, not only the city she has always called home, but also a more intimate part of herself.
A lifelong Baltimorean, Jennie was educated in the Baltimore school systems, which were quite good, she says. “I was a lonely child. I had a very, very busy father and my mother was rather reserved — a good mother, but rather reserved. After 32 years of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) I have come to recognize that they did the best they could. And I’m starting to recognize that I’m doing the best I can, rather than reaching further, further, further.”
Those who know Jennie consider her a pioneer, instrumental in designing the now-iconic two-slat post-and-rung shaved chair, and responsible for the revolution of “greenwoodworking” (a word she coined, and spelled as one word, she insists, because “it sings.”). Her complex, twisty past in many ways resembles the sinuous shavings that once hooked over her right ear (one of her favorite stories, more on that later), and is essential to understanding how a jazz musician turned divorce lawyer became one of the most beloved chairmakers of our time.
And at 86 years old, Jennie wants to share her story – all of it.
“I had a sister, but we weren’t close,” Jennie says, delving into her childhood while drinking a hot cup of Throat Coat tea. “I was intelligent. I was anxious. I was inquiring. I read out the local library. I was a child of the alleys. There was a park also fairly close by where I could romp. I was a great walker.”
The Alexanders’ maid, Maggie, was Jennie’s “most interesting influence,” and it was Maggie who Jennie was around most as a child. “She knew children and we got along very well,” Jennie says. “I can remember her sitting me on the window sill of the second floor and holding me firmly, singing to me to teach me to climb without fear, to teach me tone. Songs were powerful spirits.”
Jennie’s father, a well-known lawyer, was an anxious man, she says. “My father and I never got along. He knew that when I was a child I wasn’t going to be manly, because I was little. And he sent me to the greatest doctors at Johns Hopkins. As a result, they hung a swing set in the passageway between the kitchen and dining room, and I was supposed to swing on it and stretch.”
This, Jennie says, led to lifelong anxiety and feelings of isolation.
“My mother wasn’t exactly touchy-feely. She was a good mother, and by the way, they both did the best they could, 100 percent. But that led to a lot of these incidents that got me to where I went.”
The incidents Jennie is referring to come later in her story – mostly key people in her life that prompted transformation, including a psychologist, Charles Hummel and Peter Follansbee.
Kindnesses and Recognizing ‘the Flash’
Jennie spent her childhood pounding away at the piano and later became a self-taught jazz musician who played professionally. “I enjoyed that very much, and I met some wonderful people,” she says. “I grew up in the time when New Orleans jazz was being revived and at the same time be-bop was being created. And it was very interesting that the two groups coincided. In other words, they knew each other. They hung out together. We got together and had a good time.”
One of the more well-known jazz musicians at the time was a man named Benny, who Jennie said was very active on the be-bop side, when not in jail. The two never met until many years later, when Jennie was transitioning from male to female. It was 2007. The last job Jennie ever played as a male was with Benny on drums. The two were part of a trio playing at one of Jennie’s alma maters, St. John’s College.
“It was a wonderful job,” Jennie says. “I had driven Benny down from Baltimore and we drove back and I said, ‘Benny, would you like dinner?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’ And so I went upstairs, came back as a female and we went to dinner. We had a very pleasant dinner. He is just a nice, gentle person with a wonderful beat, by the way. And two-thirds of the way into dinner Benny looked and me and said, ‘John! You’ve really changed!’ And that was the nicest, from-the-heart little thing.”
Nothing more was said, and the two finished dinner. “It speaks to jazz, friendship and kindness,” Jennie says. “And those are such wonderful, wonderful aspects of life that I enjoy and, of course, friendship and kindness have much to do with woodworking, too.”
These days Jennie loves when a stranger calls, writes or visits, and she can tell that they’ve shaved wood and they know what that experience is like. “You can see it in their eyes,” she says, describing it as a flash. “It’s incredible. The beauty of that for me is this was given to me, greenwoodworking. And therefore my calling is to give it back. So if they call, I listen. I answer. I think. I’m willing to be called again. There is a spirit of shaving wood that fills a place in me that otherwise is not filled as a person, as a thinker, as a human being. It was given to me, so I give it back.”
Jennie has kept regular files of folks who have contacted her and responses, and every year a few stand out. “They become correspondents, students, critics, adventurers, and it’s such a blessing that that and music has sustained me,” she says.
Woodworking, never mind greenwoodworking, did not define Jennie until later in life. But the seed was always there.
From Student to Jazz Musician to Divorce Lawyer
As a teenager Jennie spent a lot of time taking down dead locust trees on her father’s country property. To do so, she would scrape out some dirt around the trees’ shallow roots and then simply push the trees down. “The problem,” she says, laughing, “you’ve got dead locust limbs up there. And we kids, we didn’t even have helmets on. Absolutely nuts. When we’d hear a crack, we’d run. And so we got the trees down, and I had a little experience with them.”
With both parents working, Jennie’s mother often left Jennie a to-do list, with the freedom to pick up any needed tools from Boulevard Hardware. Jennie says her mother told the owner, “If Johnny comes in and wants anything, you provide him with the best.” What Jennie’s mother didn’t say was that, as a child in Quincy, Mass., she was a student of the Educational Sloyd System, which provided training in the use of tools and materials, and, Jennie says, focused on proportion work.
“So Mother knew a little about wood and grain and so on, and she also had a post-and-rung rocking chair,” Jennie says. “But she never told me when I was growing up or when I was woodworking that I was doing it wrong or anything. Except that she told the hardware man to furnish me with any tool I needed.”
Jennie attended high school at Baltimore City Polytechnic Institute, which specialized in engineering. After graduating she enrolled at Johns Hopkins University as a sophomore to study engineering and was immediately bored. She says the only difference between college and high school at that point was they were teaching to four decimal points rather than two, so she had to get a better slide rule.
Jennie began singing and playing the piano in bars at night, and eventually dropped out of Johns Hopkins and worked for a while. She then attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, a participant in its “100 Great Books” program.
“I learned a lot, but not as much as I should have because in those four years, three of them were consumed with my relationship with Harlan James,” Jennie says. “He was a much better musician than I, but we were both students of traditional jazz, and we played duets for three years. He’s still in his 80s playing professionally in New York.”
After St. John’s Jennie began playing jazz professionally, up to five days a week, making a living. “But one morning I wake up and I have this hideous problem,” she says. “I’m not happy because I know that I’m a self-taught musician. And though I have worked things out – now I can play rather well, and in the style of traditional New Orleans music or blues – I know I’m never going to be a great musician.”
This, she says, was because she didn’t have the real fluidity of playing tone – improvisation. “I can do it, but I’m not free of it because I don’t have that much command, you see, of the keys and of the chords. And that’s very typical of self-taught musicians. Some of them go on to train themselves but that’s not going to happen with me, I know that. So I would love to be a musician but I want to be a very good musician and I’m close, but I won’t make it unless I study, and study isn’t in me for some reason.”
And then, while lying in bed another morning, Jennie hears a voice.
“Go to law school,” the voice said. “And I knew exactly who that voice was. The voice as the voice of Snowball, the imaginary voice of a banjo player who had played on local AM radio in Baltimore when I was 8, 10 years old – ‘Uncle Bill and Snowball.’ Snowball has come back, buried in me. So what do I do? I get up, eat breakfast, put on my best suit and walk to the law school. The University of Maryland is within walking distance.”
Jennie simply walked inside and asked, “May I see the dean?” The receptionist said yes.
“And the dean is an old gentleman, wearing the old library coat sometimes professors wore to keep their suits from getting dusty from books,” she says. “And he’s a Southern gentleman. And he says, ‘From what you tell me you graduated from Polytechnic Institute and from what you tell me you graduated from the Annapolis liberal arts schools, St. John’s. Those are excellent places to learn. You’re admitted.’ No background. No records. Nothing from other schools. And so on that day, probably the 12th of August, just before law school was starting, that’s what happened. Snowball and the dean sent me to law school.”
Jennie took night classes so she wouldn’t be tempted to play music. For each hour of class, she studied an hour, and at the end, came in first in the Maryland bar exam. “But that was also because of the approach I took,” she said.
Years before Jennie had spent a year working in her father’s law office. As a result, she answered her exam questions as if she was working back in that law office – if she didn’t know the answer, she said she didn’t know. “And the law examiner, he probably gave me an 8 or a 9 out of 10. He said, ‘You know, I like this kid because he doesn’t bullshit me. He doesn’t guess. Because when he’s going to work for me and gives me a guess, I’m dead.’ And I had figured that out working in my father’s office for a year. And that’s why I came in first.” That honesty extended into Jennie’s law career, and served her well.
To imagine Jennie as a lawyer, imagine her as she appeared in a magazine article that featured Maryland’s five best divorce lawyers: a 5’3” male wearing a three-piece suit with a vest, what she calls “Methodist minister’s shoes,” with little dots around them, and a red, white-dotted bowtie.
While being interviewed for that article, by the way, Jennie refused to share details about some of her more interesting cases. The journalist persisted but Jennie stood her ground, so as not to out and shame her clients. The journalist left and Jennie assumed she would be featured poorly. But she wasn’t. Twenty-five years later Jennie says she reread the article and realized love in a place she hadn’t seen it before. “I realized love appears in many, many, many places,” she says. “And it appears for me, also, when I’m shaving green wood. And in a piece of greenwoodworking.”
Like the sinuous fibers in a thin shaving, Jennie has come to realize that all of her experiences relate tenuously yet meaningfully, in a way that’s difficult to see until you reach the age of 86.
It was while lawyering that Jennie became interested in woodworking. By then Jennie, then John, was married to Joyce. “Joyce,” Jennie says, “my wife of years and years and years, who is now deceased, and a total sweet, blessed antidote to this very fast, very nervous, very jazzy, very anxious person.”
Jennie was reading books on woodworking and chairmaking, and had collected some tools. Her neighbor, Jack Goembel, let her use his shop. Later another woodworking friend, when he decided to stop woodworking to become a mail carrier, sold her his lathe, band saw and drill press. It was the first loan Jennie and Joyce ever took out and it was with Joyce’s insistence. “It was just so beautiful,” Jennie says.
Jennie and Joyce made several trips to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community, where they met Sister Mildred. The first visit was to see the chairs. Sister Mildred said, “You know, it’s interesting. People think we’re chairs.” They visited a couple more times (to see the chairs, yes, but to also learn about the Shakers). Soon, Jennie decided that she wanted to build a Shaker one-slat dining chair.
Once home Jennie called a firewood man she found in the phone book and asked if he could deliver some 6’ hickory logs. He could, and did, and when he dropped them on the pavement out back, the whole house trembled.
Without a froe Jennie says she whacked them up into a somewhat cylindrical shape and put them on the lathe.
“Now the lathe had a 2-horsepower motor and the sticks were, let’s say, 4” in diameter and all bumpy and irregular,” she says. “The lathe danced across the cellar floor because of the lack of symmetry. So I danced along with them. And then, finally, I got down to the sapwood – and by the way, the wood is soaking wet, which is the other requirement I needed – and the sinuous shavings keep flying through the air and hooking on my right ear. They come off the gouge, hit my right ear and they’re soaking wet. I tell myself I will never go back to the lumberyard. That was my moment.”
And with that, Jennie made her first, rather clunky, she says, one-slat Shaker dining chair.
“I’m John, practicing lawyer, busier than the dickens, full of himself, and by the way I was a divorce trial lawyer, not just a settler,” she says, “which is about the worst profession for a human being that can be.” John spent a lot of his time listening to clients in crisis. Though successful, lawyering never had the flash that woodworking did.
It was around this time that Jennie became a member of the Early American Industries Association (EAIA). At an early meeting she met Charles Hummel, a curator at Winterthur. Charles was Jennie’s introduction to the academic side of woodworking.
Remember when Jennie was talking about that flash? Charles, she says, saw that flash in Jennie. “And his response was to show me, but never explain it,” she says.
Charles was often invited to museums a day before EAIA meetings to discuss complicated issues with staff regarding furniture and tools.
“Charles would often say, ‘John, would you like to go with me?’ And off we would go,” Jennie says. “So I would get exposed to the museum people, their problems, and the professional students. And I would get to listen. And some of these conversations took place down in what they call the Study Collection. Oh my goodness gracious. Here I am with my eyes popping, listening with one ear while looking at everything around me. And, of course, the beauty of what I’m looking at down there is it’s often broken up. And I’m a fiend for traditional joinery. And they were very generous, instructed me, gave me slides and all the information I needed.”
Charles knew what Jennie wanted to see and often, while walking around with a docent, Charles would purposefully lead the docent away, from, for example, a chair that interested Jennie. And while they’d be engaged in conversation, Jennie would be under the chair to get a better look.
“It was incredible,” she says. “We laughed together and we were very personable and I’m still dear friends with he and his wife and oodles of people because they, how should I put it? They loved me before I loved myself. And they treasured me. They sensed this little flame, you see, because they had this little flame. And sometimes, it was very interesting, it turned out I learned a little more about these things than they did. Particularly the construction.”
Jennie became an expert and her study of antique furniture grew into hours spent experimenting with theories on joinery. She decided to write a book (which later would be published as the revolutionary “Make a Chair from a Tree,” in 1978 by Taunton Press, and then later in 1999 in DVD form, directed by Anatol Polillo, a professional videographer and a former student).
However, just as the book was almost complete, yet another twist.
Inspiring a Movement
Jennie was slated to demonstrate at an EAIA event. A week before the event she got a call. “Oh, Mr. Alexander,” the caller said. “We’re terribly sorry but you can’t demonstrate.”
“Why is that?” Jennie asked.
“It’s because you’re using a lathe in front of an audience and we were told by the insurance people that if the spindle flies out into the audience and perhaps injures someone …”
Jennie was devastated.
“I’m down in the basement kicking and cussing and Joyce is upstairs,” Jennie says.
“John?” Joyce says. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
Jennie says she went upstairs, the perfect picture of despair. After Jennie sips some tea Joyce says, “Look. You cut down a tree.Then you take your wedges and your mallet and you split it up. And then you split it into smaller pieces. And then you drawknife and you make a rather good cylindrical piece of wood because now you know how to do all that, not like before. So why don’t you just keep going and shave the entire chair?”
And Jennie did.
And when she returned from the EAIA meeting, she brought with her the shaved chair parts, and made her first entirely shaved two-slat post-and-rung chair.
Once finished, the publication of “Make a Chair from a Tree” was one-and-a-half months away. John Kelsey, then the editor of Fine Woodworking, at Jennie’s request, removed all references to the lathe and the reader was presented with a book about a shaved two-slat post-and-rung chair.
“Give them a mallet, give them a wedge, pay them a lot of attention, give them a froe, fine split it, give them a drawknife, give them a spokeshave, and they’ve got a chair,” she says.
By now it was 1978. “And I keep teaching and teaching and teaching and traveling there and traveling elsewhere,” she says. “So the shaving, really, made the existence of the post-and-rung chair a reality in this country.” People from all over the country were becoming more interested in hand tools, traditional woodworking, greenwoodworking and chairmaking. Jennie’s classes at Country Workshops in North Carolina were filled with experts in the field of traditional furniture, folks like Robert Trent.
And Jennie says, over and over, that it was thanks to Joyce, and a cup of tea.
In addition to the traveling, teaching, demonstrating and chairmaking, Jennie was still visiting her beloved museums. And eventually, she was given permission to carefully disassemble the door of an unusual wall cabinet, which was located in Winterthur’s Study Collection. So she popped out the pins of the drawbored mortise-and-tenon joint and, “It was fascinating,” she says. “Totally fascinating and a large tribute to an incredible piece of joinery. Here I am, this divorce lawyer (and I think I might have been diddling with gin still then, which led to a 32-year career with AA, which has been a wonderful journey) and I take this thing apart and it’s unbelievable. There is no literature on this. There is no written thing to my knowledge of anybody describing the joint.”
“The museum people are fascinated by 17th-century woodworking so much that they want to distribute it and show it to the world,” Jennie says. “And so what they do is they glue it together. It’s creaky, it’s bumpy, so it’s bye-bye joint.” Most academics were more interested in who made the furniture and where it was from versus how it was constructed, Jennie says. “And then they met this untutored person, who now they’re quite familiar with, and they let me go down there and take the sucker apart.”
Another story: One day Charles took Jennie up to a little room filled with 17th century items upstairs at Winterthur. They come upon a chest covered with a rug. And on top of the rug, about $25,000 worth of trinkets — a small cup, a little brass spoon, etc.
“And Charles – I’ll never forget this scene – takes his necktie, droops it over each little item, holds it to the necktie and carries it to the top of the next chest so he can open this one,” Jennie says. “Not saying a word! And so I figured if Charles is not saying a word, I’ll shut up, which is rare for me.”
After all the trinkets were carefully removed, Charles threw open the chest.
“He doesn’t say a damn word,” Jennie says. “And this chest has two back posts, which are both terrible looking. They have knots. They have hatchet slashes. So there I am staring at these two back posts and all of a sudden it strikes me that these two posts are the faded, scratched mirror image of each other. That is if one has a bump, the other has a crevice. In other words, these two posts were rived. They were split.”
At this point Jennie was teaching at Drew Langsner’s Country Workshops. Drew and his wife, Louise, were instrumental in Jennie’s evolution as a chairmaker, particularly in the support they offered by providing a place for Jennie to teach, and bringing in students from all over the world which still, to this day, amazes Jennie.
While Jennie was teaching at Country Workshops, Peter was taking classes.
And the two, as Jennie says, “just hit it off.” They would often talk about joinery, these majestic chests made out of rived wood and the disassembled drawbored mortise-and-tenon joint Jennie discovered at Winterthur. And, as this was before computers, they would look at slides.
While Peter says he saw the slides of the disassembled cupboard door at Country Workshops, Jennie insists it was at her house, in Baltimore. But the where doesn’t matter. What matters is the resulting six books of correspondence sitting in three-ring binders upstairs in Jennie’s row house – page after page of ideas, arguments, drawings and questions between Peter and Jennie, which ultimately resulted in an article on the construction of 17th-century mortise-and-tenon joinery and “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” (Lost Art Press).
Jennie describes it as a “wonderful explosion” and says Peter simply rocketed off. “It was just incredible to watch,” she says. And while Peter “zoomed off into space,” Jennie says, she, “somehow for some reason or another, said, it’s time to go back to making two-slat post-and-rung chairs. And that’s what I’ve done since.”
And she’s done so, “realizing with gratitude the kindnesses to a very precocious, young, unstudied man, from the academics and also from the really accomplished joiners in North Carolina and New England, Maine and Delaware. And it has been a tremendous blessing. A tremendous blessing.”
And Jennie’s comfortable with having stuck to two-slat post-and-rung chairs. (Her health is such that she no longer builds them today.) Many consider her design, which is not from an artist’s or designer’s perspective, she says, but rather a nod to the lumbar spine, the body, perfection.
Despite being responsible for revolutionizing the world of chairmaking, Jennie says “the wonderful thing about this is it has so little to do with me. It’s almost as I’ve been led step by step by step. It was like someone was pulling me by my nose – here we go, you little funny man with the hat.”
Mentorship and Happy Incidents
So who is Jennie today?
“First of all, I’m much, much better,” she says. “At 77 years of age it was suggested that I transgendered by my wonderful therapist who I see every fall when I get depressed.” In the fall of 2007 Jennie visited her therapist, as she does every year, and Jennie shared her “old sad stories with no new data.” The therapist listened, looked at her and simply said, “Are you ready to be a woman?”
“Now, obviously, I had a lot of indications along the way that I wasn’t exactly the full, red-blooded male, but I had never really considered it,” Jennie says. “My wife had died, god bless her, in ’96, my children (Jennie has three daughters) were up in age. I had never even thought about it. And she says, ‘Are you ready to be a woman?’ Seven words. I said, ‘Certainly!’ So we laid out a little course.”
And while transgendering helped Jennie, woodworking, she says, has always been the ultimate cure to years of anxiety and feelings of isolation. “That’s the place where I can be myself,” she says. “That was where I could express my creativity.”
Woodworking, and also playing music. If Jennie could be summed up in two words, it would be “greenwoodworker” and “musician.”
And, I would add, mentor.
Jennie talks a lot about the kindnesses that she has been given, the happy accidents and run-ins and introductions that have led to new discoveries, opportunities and lifelong friends. But in addition to the many students she has taught and corresponded with over the years, several stick out, including Evangelos Courpas, Nathaniel Krause and, of course, Peter.
Jennie taught Peter greendwoodworking, chairmaking, and introduced him to 17th century joinery. “He and I were co-apprentices, whatever that would be, for quite a while, all the way through the stool book,” Jennie says. “And we wrote back and forth and it was a most exciting time. And then he was just rocketing off in space and he is No. 1. He is a better carver. He is a better craftsman. There is no question about that. So I went back to making two-slat post-and-rung chairs, which is really where I belonged for a lot of reasons.”
Evangelos, who Jennie calls Geli, was born in Baltimore in 1960. He was 13 years old when he began a five-year informal apprenticeship in greenwoodworking with Jennie, which took place during the period Jennie was writing “Make a Chair from a Tree.”
Geli lived a few doors down the street from Jennie, and simply began hanging around Jennie’s shop. Eventually Jennie gave him a key. “The interesting thing was, and I don’t know why this ever happened, but I never told him anything,” Jennie says. “I never used words. He watched, you know I might go a little slower on something I was doing, and he watched and he watched and he watched. And after a long time I went to the basement one more morning and there was Geli, putting his chair together. He must have been doing this in the early mornings because I had never seen him making one. At this point, he was shaving rungs for me, or so I thought. And here was a darn, daggone chair. And I’ll never forget the shy, little smile on his face. He was making his first chair.”
But what Jennie found most interesting about Geli’s chair was that it wasn’t a copy. Geli’s back post-and-rung slats, which Jennie says are the most dramatic thing about her chairs, had been shaved just a little bit differently. “He had come up with a feeling for the back posts, which was his,” she says. “You could tell a Geli chair.”
After graduating with a studio art degree from Oberlin College in 1984, Geli began making art and furniture. He spent years building and creating, while also earning more degrees in things like ceramics and electronic integrated arts. In 2013, Jennie gifted Geli tools and a workbench, and since then Geli has gone back to his roots, opening up a woodworking studio in Liberty, S.C.
And then there’s Nathaniel Krause. When Nathaniel was a young teenager, Jennie received a phone call from a school in West Virginia where she was slated to teach a chairmaking class. “Mr. Alexander?” the caller said. “We have a young man here would like to take your chairmaking class and he’s a very nice young man.” He was a young teenager. Jennie said, “Certainly.”
It was clear from the start that Nathaniel was a good student. At one point, when the students were up to their hips in shavings, Nathaniel, who had finished all his parts, simply picked up a broom and started sweeping – something Jennie still remembers to this day.
When Nathaniel’s parents came to pick him up from that class, Jennie shaved and put on a clean shirt. She explained to his parents the importance of the youth in America being involved in traditional woodworking. “They seemed impressed,” Jennie says.
“And so Nathaniel expressed an interest to come to Baltimore in the summer and would you believe his parents drove him from West Virginia and he stayed six weeks, maybe eight weeks,” Jennie says. “And then he started to learn all kinds of things because I was playing with joint stools then, and joinery and chairmaking. And we just had a whale of a time. He is an excellent craftsman.”
The next summer, Nathaniel took the train to Baltimore and again, spent six weeks with Jennie. The summer after that, Nathaniel had his driver’s license and drove to Baltimore for another six weeks.
Nathaniel earned a civil engineering degree from West Virginia University and a masters in civil engineering from Virginia Tech. These days he’s an engineer in Baltimore City Department of Public Works’ Office of Compliance and Laboratories (and was recently named the 2017 Young Engineer of the Year by the Engineering Society of Baltimore).
Once Nathaniel stopped spending his summers with Jennie, for the next 10 years Jennie would still call him, asking him where a tool was – and Nathaniel would tell her. They still have dinner together most Thursday nights.
Jennie’s love of greenwoodworking is infectious. Another example: Jennie still lives at home, alone, and it was suggested that someone visit her five days a week to check on her and provide assistance when needed. Enter Jennie Boyd. In addition to helping Jennie Alexander with daily tasks, Jennie Alexander has been teaching Jennie Boyd greenwoodworking, which Jennie Boyd has fallen in love with – specifically spoon carving. Without much effort, Jennie Alexander has sparked the flash in yet someone else.
In many ways, Jennie attributes her success to others, and “happy incidents.” But the story of her life clearly paints a different picture. It’s the story of an intelligent, anxiety-ridden child who fell in love with music, put herself through law school, immersed herself into the world of traditional woodworking, revitalized shaved chairmaking, coined “greenwoodworking” and “two-slat shaved post-and-rung chair,” mentored many, and rediscovered herself at 77.
“I couldn’t be more fortunate,” she says. “I’m going to die happy, not unfulfilled.”
To end, “You Are My Sunshine,” sung and played on the piano by Jennie, as part of the Baltimore Jazz Trio. You may listen to it here.