Editor’s note: I have three young children. To help pass time while self-isolating we have hung several bird feeders around our yard and the kids are responsible for keeping the feeders filled. The kids like to sift through our Sibley Backyard Birding Flashcards and when they spot a bird, they prop its card on our windowsill, next to their grandpa’s binoculars. More than once I’ve thought about this 1962 column from “Honest Labour: The Charles H. Hayward Years” while watching my kids watch our backyard birds. I think about my own charmed circles and whether I’m living to full capacity or simply continuing to exist, particularly in my artists pursuits, particularly right now. Familiarity can be a great comfort, but with a small wingspan. I know myself and the importance of fledging, even when, especially when, it’s difficult. As Hayward writes, “The biggest, best resource is in ourselves.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
During the early summer months my garden became a battleground. For at least the past 20 years blackbirds had nested in the thorn hedge, but this year a pair of thrushes coveted the spot, and the battle was on. My sympathies, I may say, were entirely with the blackbirds who had probably been born in that hedge and were a friendly, trusting and beautiful young couple. Young Bossy, the male, was a fine, imperious fellow, his orange beak and the orange orbits of his eyes vivid flashes of colour against the glossy black of his plumage. Mabel, as we called his young bride, a sleek, lovely creature, would follow one round the border as tame as any robin. Meet her unexpectedly and she would show no fear but simply stop short with a polite “after you” inclination of the head. It always made me feel I had been waved on by a duchess.
They were building their first nest when calamity came. There were fights, skirmishes, every kind of hostile manoeuvrings as day after day Bossy fought to defend his home and territory. He became more and more battered in the process and in the end the enemy’s persistence wore him down.
But not without a final flash of his old spirit. After a particularly savage fight, he was sitting on top of the fence by the thorn hedge, a bundle of sheer exhaustion, barely able to utter an occasional croak of defiance, when the female thrush sidled up to him with an unmistakable air of “You’ve had it chum.”
The weary head turned like lightning and he gave her a vicious peck. With a shriek of rage the lady flew down into the flower border and let out a shrill stream of all the bad language she knew. Making a prodigious effort, Bossy stood up, flicked his tail with a faint return of his old, imperious manner and croaked out a few bars of song, repeating them several times in hoarse but manifest glee, before subsiding once more into his misery. But that had done him a power of good.
Nevertheless, the happy days were over. Neither side won decisively. Nests were begun and abandoned as the fortunes of war swayed. In the end the thorn hedge became deserted and the garden a kind of “no man’s land” into which neither party could enter without provoking a hostile reaction.
It seems that even creatures with wings must have their one small plot of earth, regardless of their hardier brethren who go winging their ways over the wide spaces of the world when the call comes to them. It makes up their pattern of life and they will fight to preserve it as men fight, wanting the known thing, the familiar thing, leaving the wide spaces of earth and air to those others. It is the way routine closes in on us, circumstances enmesh us, and who can say that for most men, too, it does not make a charmed circle? It can have very narrow confines, it can be deadly and deadening; only it need not. There can be wings in it, too, the wings of the mind, and men, who are creatures of conscious thought and endeavour, betray themselves if they do not learn to fledge them.
Because the issues are stupendous, they make all the difference between living to full capacity and simply continuing to exist. Living to full capacity means working where our true abilities lie and working to develop and extend them. The man of his hands works all the better for bringing his mind to it: the first-class craftsman’s work is intelligent work in which skill is enhanced and developed by the living interest he brings to it. The best work may become instinctive and intuitive through years of experience: it never becomes dull. Truly creative work never is dull. It calls to some deep thing in us, answers to some need of our nature. Brings new growth, new harmony into our lives.
Nowadays, in spite of all the resources that are becoming so readily available to the ordinary man, life can be very empty. Whatever our material resources, it is still we ourselves who have to make our lives and we can only do this by using our own creative energies. The biggest, best resource is in ourselves. When we are working with all the skill it is in us to give, we are ploughing a furrow that will enfold living seed and bring good work to fruition. We are preparing a harvest for our later years that will have in it the good things we have found by the way, the living interests that have nourished us, the challenges accepted, the defeats surmounted and turned into triumphs. And if these things lead to more good work, leisured good work full of enjoyment, they will round out and complete that maturity of personality which enables a man to stand sturdily on his own feet and lead his own life still.
Nancy’s story begins in 1960s suburban Florida, a life that was soon challenged and broadened by homesteading hippies. There was divorce, a move to a tiny flat in London at the age of 12, boarding school in the English countryside, a strict grammar school, work, rain, boyfriends, work, cold, miles spent commuting on her bicycle, a City & Guilds certificate in furniture making, work she loved, more cold she hated, a move back to the States, a marriage, a divorce, work for others, work for herself, love again and grief; but through it all, passion.
This, from Nancy’s July 20, 2019, “Making Things Work” blog post titled “The Problem with passion.”
The problem is, the popular understanding of passion is seriously flawed. The word passion comes from a Latin verb that means to suffer, undergo, experience, endure. While love is central to passion, passion is no easy kind of love. When we’re passionate about something, we’re driven. We serve our passion by dealing with the trying circumstances and sometimes-maddening fallout that come in its train, every bit as much as by enjoying the satisfactions generated by our pursuit.
From Florida to London
“The salient thing is that my mother was always very handy when we were little,” Nancy says when talking about her childhood in Florida. “She was always doing things around the house, like home-improvement projects such as changing the hinges on the kitchen cabinets and changing the faucet on the sink. She built us a playhouse in the backyard. One of my favorite things was that she tore down the wall between our two bedrooms [Nancy has one younger sister, Magda] and so we had a good example of a woman who wasn’t afraid of using tools.”
Nancy’s father was brought up to be a white-collar professional. He went to law school and then into public relations after time in the Coast Guard.
Nancy grew up in what had been the gatehouse of a once-large estate, later chopped up into subdivisions. It had a Spanish-Colonial-Revival vibe and the outside walls were made of coral. Located on a half-acre plot, it had been landscaped decades earlier by a well-known botanist who brought plants from all over the world back to the estate.
“The scale of our half-acre must have been tiny, but to a little kid it was just this huge world of diverse landscape,” Nancy says. “There was a little bamboo forest with gravel paths and there were all kinds of exotic tropical fruit trees, like carambola, kumquats, loquats and all kinds of oranges and mangoes and avocados.”
Growing up middle class in 1960s America, Nancy says her family’s little patch of land was a revelation. While everything else around her was pre-packaged and filled with preservatives, she witnessed fruit growing on trees first-hand. There was a Norfolk Island Pine tree she loved and a little coral stone cottage in the backyard. For a child, it was near magical.
Nancy grew up playing with Tonka toys, Flintstone building blocks, Mattel’s Thingmaker, Play-Doh and LEGO. At the beach she would build sandcastles, bridges and little channels for water to flow.
“One thing I remember vividly is that I loved rearranging the furniture in the living room and in my bedroom as a little kid,” Nancy says. “So I was always interested in how the inside of the house looked and felt.”
Nancy has always been deeply interested in people and their stories. She didn’t love school, but she remembers enjoying learning about Eli Whitney and his invention of the cotton gin. In second grade she went through a stage in which she signed all her schoolwork with different names –– Amelia Earhart, Calamity Jane –– she’s grateful for the teacher who quietly allowed it.
When Nancy was in fourth or fifth grade, on a cold (for Florida) winter night, her parents brought home some young people who had been sleeping in the local park.
“My parents, to their credit, have always been pretty open-minded,” Nancy says. Her parents were impressed with how these young people, from all over the country, were living free-spirited lives, eschewing conventional ways of earning a living and instead building what they needed, growing their own food, and selling natural foods in a society that seemingly loved the opposite. So intrigued, Nancy’s parents ended up inviting some of the young people to stay with them. And that’s when everything changed.
“There were all these different micro-areas within this half-acre lot and so a couple of the hippies lived in this little stone cottage in the backyard and a couple more built a little wooden house and a couple others built an A-frame,” Nancy says.
The experience was undoubtedly formative. “Whenever that kind of thing happens it certainly makes you realize that the way you’ve been brought up to see the world is not the only way,” Nancy says. “So it was opening up a perspective that I think, in principle, is a good thing.”
Then Nancy’s dad told her she didn’t have to go to school anymore on the grounds that she was being homeschooled. But there was no structure. Nancy filled her time with reading the World Book Encyclopedia and spent countless hours watching and learning from the people living in her backyard.
“It was a revelation to see these guys with a saw and sawhorses building a house,” Nancy says. “It was just so direct. It was amazing to see that you could take tools and simple materials and build a dwelling in which you could live, however crude. That was wonderful for me to see.”
Nancy’s grandparents became concerned. Her sister had already gone to live with them. In 1971, Nancy’s parents separated, and Nancy, along with her mother and sister, moved to a tiny flat in London. Nancy’s grandparents had good friends who lived in London and helped them settle. They then sent Nancy and her sister to a boarding school in Sussex.
Her last year in Florida, with its total lack of structure and discipline, did prove valuable. “After that, I craved structure and discipline,” she says. “I was 12, going back to school and I actually wanted to be there. Had we not had this series of events I might have gone through the rest of my educational years totally unmotivated.”
The boarding school was a Rudolf Steiner school, which meant all the boys and girls had to take sewing classes and woodworking. “It was great because it involved a real contact with material,” Nancy says. She carved a serving platter out of Applewood, which she gave to her parents, and a mechanical toy.
“There were so many things I loved about that school because the boarding hostel was in this fantastic old building and to get to the school you had to walk through part of the Ashdown Forest and just all the smells and the seasons — it was a real sensory awakening for me,” Nancy says. “But I just really missed my mother who was in London. So she finally let me move back.”
Nancy then attended a grammar school operated by “an extremely strict, no-nonsense woman and that was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she says. She started learning Latin “which it turned out I had a great affinity for,” she says. “It’s very obvious to me now, because it’s architectural. It’s all about building blocks and how they go together. But it was very good for me psychologically because it was like, ‘Here, take this thing, show me you can do it and I will give you praise.’ It was one of the first times in my life someone said, ‘Oh, you’re good at this. You can do this.’ It gave me a feeling of achievement that was new to me. And that’s important for everyone to have.”
Learning the Trade
Nancy doesn’t talk about lifelong dreams. Instead she has always led her life with an air of practicality. As a young adult, she didn’t have a strong sense of direction. “I knew what I was good at and I knew I had to work,” she says.
Throughout high school Nancy worked in bakeries and cleaned apartments and worked at a local sandwich shop with a woman named Hilda.
“Sure it was minimum wage but it was a job and it was money and it was experience and I never thought I was too good for any of it,” Nancy says. “I was always grateful to have someone pay me to work.”
Nancy was accepted into the University of Cambridge but took a gap year and worked as a clerk at the Automobile Association in London. Several years earlier, her mother had gone back to school to study art, met a fellow student and married. Together they had started a remodeling business. Nancy’s father was freelancing as a travel writer, and she and her sister would see him once or twice a year. Nancy lived with her boyfriend in an old building in Islington, east London, that had been condemned but through a community housing association they were allowed to rent an apartment.
At Cambridge, Nancy loved the studying but couldn’t imagine staying there without knowing how a degree in Hebrew and Aramaic would be relevant to a career. She didn’t want to be a teacher and didn’t know what else one could do with such a degree.
“It just seemed, honestly, so self-indulgent,” she says. “I wouldn’t say that now but that’s how it felt to me.” Nancy was there on a government grant, surrounded by people who believed a Cambridge degree and the right contacts were all they needed to succeed. “There was this overwhelming sense of privilege. I loved my tiny, tiny world of study, but other than that, I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ So I left,” she says.
She went back to the Automobile Association and then, after moving out to the country with her boyfriend, close to where her mother and stepfather then lived, found work in a factory. Having no furniture, she began building some in her spare time. Her stepfather was intensely critical of her work; his harsh and hurtful words prompted her to sign up for a City & Guilds course in furniture making, and she was intent on proving him wrong.
The course was taught in a local community college and she commuted 3-1/2 miles each way by bike daily. Because she had already done her A-levels she was (a) the oldest in the class and (b) exempt from doing course’s required desk work in the afternoons. So she spent her mornings in City & Guild shop classes and her afternoons earning money.
“I set up a ridiculously crude, in retrospect, shop in our dining room and just started making stuff,” Nancy says. She built furniture for her family and neighbors using pine from the local lumberyard. “It was pretty miserable,” Nancy says. “Mainly because it was always freezing and my stepfather was just not a kind person.”
After earning her City & Guilds certificate, Nancy put an ad in the local newspaper, looking for a workshop with a place to live. A man named Roy Griffiths, a Slade School of Fine Art-trained designer, answered. He owned a kitchen company called Crosskeys Joinery that built mostly pine kitchens.
“He drove out to where I lived and I showed him pictures of what I had done,” Nancy says. “I went and visited his workshop. He had bought a Georgian brick house, which sounds fancy but it was just what all the houses were along the river in this little town of Wisbech.”
Roy’s house had come with brick horse stables, which is where he had set up his woodworking shop. There was no insulation, all the windows were single pane and the only heat source was a wood stove.
“It was freezing cold but you know, I had never seen anything like it,” Nancy says. “It was really cool. And he had all this old machinery he had fixed up.”
At first Roy wanted Nancy to build a set of upper kitchen cabinets (what he called a dresser top) as a trial, for pay. But then he simply offered her a job. Nancy left her boyfriend, accepted the job and moved into a room in Roy’s house. But a week later, near frozen, she moved out, choosing instead to move back in with her boyfriend and commute to work by bicycle each day.
“To get to his place was four miles each way, which was not a lot at all and it was all flat but it was always windy and this was through all weather, so it was really, really cold and miserable and always damp, throughout the year,” Nancy says. “But in retrospect I’m so glad I did it because I know I did it and no one can take that away from me.”
Roy served as Nancy’s mentor, not so much in the way of craft but in the way of business.
“I learned from him the importance of being efficient, working efficiently, and designing things for efficient production as well as beauty,” she says. “I mean he certainly impressed on me the importance of good materials and proportions. He was trained as a fine artist, a painter –– he had been to art school, like many of the big names in English furniture making who came from architecture and the world of fine arts. It was before the renaissance in craft training.”
Nancy learned a number of techniques using old, restored, English machinery that are less common in America, such as a tenoner and a sliding table saw. She worked for Roy for about two years. By then, she had decided she no longer wanted to be a woodworker.
“That was my only experience in professional woodworking, and I found it depressingly monotonous,” she says.
Nancy acknowledges that Roy had given her a plum job, building the upper kitchen cabinets that were decorated with custom-made mouldings, and little doors and cubbies. But still, she spent much of her time cutting hundreds of tenons and mortises, and while it was not factory work, it began to feel like factory work.
“I was just doing the same basic processes every day and going out of my mind with boredom,” she says. “Plus, I was freezing all the time. I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining. That was just the reality. It was depressing. And I was in my early 20s and I had not yet developed the capacity for that kind of routine work I now possess. That is a real learning experience, learning how to just keep doing it. It’s part of growing up in any line of work.” Nancy was desperate to use her brain.
So she and her boyfriend moved, and Nancy got an office job with a travel agency at the University of Reading in Berkshire, England.
“That was a great experience because it was run by this fabulous woman, Bobbie Gass, with whom I’m still friends,” Nancy says. It was an office of women and they became so close that they still stay in touch and even got together for a reunion several years ago.
But eventually Nancy felt an urge to return to woodworking and she found employment at Millside Cabinetmakers, a rural shop located in a converted chicken shed where craftspeople built custom furniture and kitchens. Nancy was the only woman, and there wasn’t even a bathroom when she first worked there. So Nancy used her lunch break to ride her bicycle into town to use a public restroom. “They were nice to me, or they tried to be,” she says.
Back to America
Nancy worked at Millside for about a year and then, for a number of personal reasons, began thinking about moving back to the United States. By this time she had gone through a divorce, and both her mother and sister had already moved back to the States.
“I just wanted to be closer to my family,” she says.
While preparing to move Nancy got a temporary job in the carpentry shop of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford Airbase. There she worked on displays, cabinets and platforms with older, unabashedly sexist male woodworkers who, she says, she got along with splendidly.
Nancy wanted to move to New England, specifically western Massachusetts. But she couldn’t find work there. So she ended up taking a job at WallGoldfinger in Northfield, Vermont, a woodworking company that made architect-designed furniture mostly for financial-market offices on Wall Street and in Boston.
The work, made with architectural-veneered panels, edge banding and highly rubbed-out lacquer finishes, was completely different to what she had been doing in England. “Superficially, the work was absolutely gorgeous, and I learned a lot there about using sheet materials and European hardware.”
While at WallGoldfinger, Nancy fell in love with fellow craftsperson Kent Perelman. They soon decided to leave Vermont together, seeking work in Montana. It was 1988. Nancy was 28. But within the year, they married and moved to Brown County, Indiana, close to where Kent’s parents and sister lived. They opened their own furniture and cabinetmaking business, Credence Custom Furniture. They worked together in their home shop and, after a while, Nancy decided she wanted to go back to university. So she began taking one class a semester while also working in the business. Soon she decided to attend school full time. She won a scholarship, which paid for her tuition. She continued working at Credence, doing design, bookkeeping, client visits and helping with installations and deliveries. The combination of school and work, she says, was good.
Kent and Nancy divorced in 1993. (Kent, who Nancy says was an outstanding craftsman, moved back to Montana, where he remarried, had a family and continued woodworking until he died in 2016 from cancer at the too-young age of 53.) Nancy went on to graduate school with the intent of getting her doctorate and teaching. “But in my first two years of graduate school I realized that an academic life was less likely to be about teaching and much more likely to be about research and bureaucracy,” she says. So after completing her master’s degree, she stopped.
“The one thing I knew is that I did not want to build furniture and cabinets anymore” she says. “I wanted to get an office job.” No longer weighed down by the lack of a degree, Nancy applied with optimism. But it was one rejection after another. “You’re over-qualified.” Or, “You ran your own business, you won’t want to work for someone else.” She became exasperated and, frankly, needed to make money.
She called up a man whose house she had rented with another grad student her first year of graduate school. She remembered his bathroom being almost totally decrepit. She asked him to hire her to remodel it at a reduced rate, because she would be learning as she worked. “I’m not sure whether it was a good thing he said yes but he did,” Nancy says, laughing. “And that was how I got back into the trades.”
Initially Nancy focused on remodeling old houses. She wanted varied work, outside of a solo workshop, allowing contact with fellow human beings. She needed more than working with mute material. But over the years she simply found herself doing more of the woodworking parts of the jobs and less of the remodeling. There was no grand vision. There was no dream. Rather, life happened. Practicality reigned.
“If you said to me, ‘What has driven you?’ I would say it’s really been the need to make a living,” Nancy says. “But also, the desire to be happy and for me, part of being happy is doing what I have to do. So it’s not like a person who feels she knows she has a burning desire to do something in particular. I’ve always been happily motivated by necessity. And when I say happily, it’s a happiness that isn’t always recognizable by everyone as happiness but there is a peace in accepting what is necessary. I know this is not a fashionable way to think in America. But I find it key to happiness. Doing what you have to do and finding happiness in that, finding the bright spots or something that gives you the feeling of comfort or hope or joy or — look at that joint, that joint fits well —I’m happy about that. And I build it up out of little, little things.”
Nancy started her own business, NR Hiller Design, in 1995. She incorporated a few years later at the advice of her accountant.
“I didn’t want to be self-employed,” she says. “It just seems so scary to me.” But she leans on Mark Longacre, her partner, who also is self-employed (Mark Longacre Construction Inc.) and has been for most of his adult life. “It helps to have somebody with whom you can discuss the problems and challenges,” she says.
Also helpful is that Nancy and Mark have built and become part of a network, made up of customers who have become friends; employees (Mark has three and Nancy says they’re as close as brothers); colleagues; acquaintances met through research and at talks; readers; editors; students and more. This larger community of like-minded individuals, this connectedness, has helped ease the anxiety that inevitably comes with self-employment.
Nancy knew of Mark the same way you’re aware of other people in your larger field who also live in your town, she says. They first ran into each other at an appliance store where they had both gone independently to look at appliances for their respective clients. “It was shortly after my first article in Fine Woodworking had been published and the local paper had written a story with a picture of me. He said, ‘You’re Nancy Hiller, aren’t you? I recognize you from your Fine Woodworking articles.’ And I said, ‘Well, there aren’t articles, plural, there’s only been one.’” She then asked, “You’re Mark Longacre, aren’t you? I recognize you from the article the paper did about you.”
At the time they were both involved with other people. For a few years they would run into each other every so often. “I always thought he just seemed like a nice, capable, kind, down-to-earth person,” Nancy says. Nancy and Mark both split up with their respective partners and on the night before Mark’s 50th birthday, Mark called Nancy and invited her to dinner. That was their first date, in 2006. They’ve been together ever since.
Although Nancy never wanted to be a mother, she says she was given the extreme privilege of becoming a stepmother to Mark’s brilliant son, Jonas. “I was lucky,” she says. “I was just so lucky to walk into a relationship in which there was this beautiful, intelligent, self-motivated learner who was just endlessly curious.”
That curiosity is, unfortunately, what ended Jonas’s life on Jan. 2, 2014, at only 15 years old. Described by many as an old soul and deeply curious about the word around him, Jonas was interested in everything, from robotics, advanced calculus and writing software to Latin, constructing languages and reading (at the time of his death he was reading Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden”). He adored spending summers at Camp Palawopec and was keen on learning primitive survival skills. He was considering a career in computational linguistics.
Nancy was the one who discovered Jonas on the night he died. Out of simple curiosity, a desire to better understand how the human body works, Jonas had experimented with what’s commonly called the “choking game.” It involves self-strangulation as an experiment, to feel what it’s like to have oxygen rush back to your brain after it’s been cut off. Only Jonas died before he could un-strangle himself.
Nancy says she believes in the importance of telling this part of her life story for no other reason than to share the light of Jonas with others and to raise awareness about the game. “I was very lucky to get to know him and be a part of his life.”
Finding the Bright Spots
These days Nancy works on her own, although she has had employees in the past (see her post “Daniel O’Grady is in the house” here). Her work is now so varied, employing someone would be difficult. In addition to shop time Nancy’s writing, designing and meeting with clients. Flexibility is important and, Nancy notes, it’s often nice to not carry the heavy weight of responsibility that comes with being in charge of someone else’s livelihood.
At the end of last year Nancy spent three months building and installing a couple of kitchens. The installation process in particular is intense, physical work, manhandling cabinets made out of 3/4″-thick veneer-core plywood with solid face frames while scribing them to fit walls and floors. There is travel time between the client’s houses and Nancy’s shop, along with ongoing business-related work: preparing quotes for customers, design work, drawing and more. For book projects, Nancy might block out three weeks at a time to focus on writing, attending to small parts of the business in the evenings or on weekends. And then, it might all reverse. She’ll spend her days in the shop, using her nights and weekends to write her next blog post for Fine Woodworking.
“I find the more variety I have the more hours I can work because changing is refreshing,” she says.
It is here, though, that Nancy’s lifelong work ethic deserves praise. I ask her about it. “I just have this deep-seated admiration for people who work hard,” she says.
Nancy isn’t sure where this came from. Perhaps England. Perhaps hidden in the prayers she had to recite at school. Perhaps, paradoxically, she says, from the hippies. “Even though people think of hippies as layabouts, what I saw was a lot of work being done.”
Growing up in the 1960s, Nancy says as a child, she associated working hard with being a man. “I didn’t aspire to be a man,” she says. “I just thought, well, those are the people who have respect in our culture. They were the people who were recognized in public life and they were the people who did important things with a capital I. It’s hilariously ironic because look at women’s work! It’s just that women’s work hasn’t always been appreciated (and is still vastly underappreciated) in American culture.”
And it’s not that Nancy loves working for its own sake. “It’s that I’m building toward something,” she says. “There’s a tangible result, a satisfaction, and I feel connected to the world, and I feel like I have a purpose. All of those are important motivators for me.”
This, of course, all ties back into Nancy’s definition of passion: While love is central to passion, passion is no easy kind of love.
Nancy finds herself thinking a lot about the tiny bright spots in her life. It’s easy to feel depressed right now, she says, by politics, ecological realities, the pandemic. “So much of it is just psychological,” she says. “It’s like playing on the monkey bars, going from one rung to the next. You just keep going. And it’s weird because I know that I’m depressed a lot of the time lately. I recognize that clearly but there’s also kind of an underlying happiness at the same time and it comes partly from acceptance and partly from finding joy in tiny things and not needing everything to be perfect. I think there’s happiness to be found in kind of letting go of trying to control your fate at every level of your life because you can’t. Or, at least, I can’t, and I don’t know anyone who can.”
When we’re passionate about something, we’re driven. We serve our passion by dealing with the trying circumstances and sometimes-maddening fallout that come in its train, every bit as much as by enjoying the satisfactions generated by our pursuit.
And so Nancy spends time at home, with Mark, and in her shop with her shop cat, her dog, Joey, often by her side. She reads. At the time of our interview she was reading a biography of Thoreau. She finds reading about the obstacles humans overcome both helpful and fascinating. She likes gardening (but despises the chiggers). She likes the changing of the seasons, the way the soil, plants, animals and trees change with them. She loves to laugh. Nancy Hiller has thebest laugh.
Not too long ago Elizabeth Knapp, managing editor at Fine Woodworking, read Nancy’s “The problem with passion” blog post. Liz asked Nancy if they could publish it in the magazine (Nancy said yes). It’s easy to see why. It sums up Nancy’s life so beautifully but with that air of Nancy practicality.
Doing what you love for a living demands that you cultivate a larger understanding of loving what you do, she writes. And that is why, because of everything, despite everything, Nancy can say, she’s happy.
Editor’s note: For the next several weeks, we will feature some of our favorite columns from “Honest Labour: The Charles H. Hayward” years, along with some thoughts about why these particular columns hit the mark.
This column from 1960 is so timeless and relatable. There’s the inner nagging we all experience when a workshop or tool chest or pantry or closet has become disorganized, full and unmanageable. And then there’s the quiet scolding we all feel while organizing — “I will never let this happen again.” Next, the sweet satisfaction that accompanies the completed work. (Have you ever, later, stepped into your workshop or opened the closet door just to admire the tidiness?) Then the promises, the resolutions. But seemingly always, life gets in the way, as life does, and the whole cycle repeats itself.
Another reason I love this column? In it, Hayward peels back the gloss and reveals something he struggles with and even discloses some enviousness. For as much as I adore Hayward and his Chips from the Chisel columns, sometimes, especially if I read many in one sitting, I feel, well, exhausted. How could one person be so good at all the things? But here, Hayward recognizes his more human side, allowing him to pass along a lesson with empathy.
Finally, there’s his bit of jealousy. How wonderfully perfect is his discovery that all is not as it seems when comparing his workshed to that of his friend’s? And how often do we all do that, tenfold, now that we have social media showing us only the best of the best of everyone’s lives? For every beautiful piece of furniture shown there was the hidden heartbreaking split. For every organized workspace posted on Instagram you didn’t see what it looked like three days prior. For every smile, you didn’t know about last week’s anguish. And yet, Hayward recognizes the importance of reality — “after that I felt much better” — but also uses the experience to ever-push himself — “although the vision still leads me on, not so much now with a feeling of guilt as of an objective to be attained.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
A Kind of Order
We need to achieve a kind of order—that will enable us to keep an eye on things
There are few things more immediately rewarding than having a grand old turn out. It produces a feeling of satisfaction that is positively Jack Hornerish, if it was indeed that nursery-rhyme character who said “What a good boy am I,” at least in anyone like myself who never clears up his workshed until driven to it. When I can find no more space for anything or, more shameful still, when the right size screw of which there should be plenty somewhere simply refuses to come to hand, then I really start in. It is an event more or less annual, usually at this time of the year when home activities are getting well under way again. And never, never does it happen without my passing good resolutions to do this more often in future and, what is more, when dirty, tired but happy I stand back to survey the spick and span result, that at least I will in future keep everything in its place and a place for everything. Alas for good resolutions! Sooner or later one comes up against the time factor; things have to be put away in a hurry, odds and ends accumulate, and the whole business starts all over again.
I can confess this the more openly because for years the standard of tidiness always nagging at the back of my mind was the one glimpsed in the workshed of a friend who had recently moved into a new house. As I stared at the tools neatly ranged in position, garden tools hanging on appropriate nails near the door, carpentry tools in racks above the workbench, I felt awed. For John is an artist as well as a first-rate craftsman, a man whose creative gifts keep him in a state of almost perpetual ferment so that time ceases to have any meaning for him. And yet he could achieve this. What a beauty there was in such order and what a lesson there was in it for me. He beamed when I said as much.
The memory remained with me like a conscience, giving me a dismayed feeling of “What would John think of this!” when my own lot got out of hand. But it was not altogether without fruit. Little by little, after every grand turn out, small improvements began to creep in: there would be an additional shelf, extra hooks, even partitioned trays for those elusive screws and nails and small tools (cheap wooden or plastic cutlery trays, with partitions added as desired, are handy for this when time is lacking, as it usually is over this kind of job), so that at least a certain order began to persist through the bad periods. But how it lagged behind John’s I had ruefully to admit. And then, after an interval of some years I met him again and somehow the subject cropped up. He and his wife stared at one another in blank astonishment. “John’s workshop tidy!” she cried. “Oh it can’t have been his you saw. Why, it’s always in a hopeless mess.” Firmly I recalled the time and circumstances of the vision I had seen and they both burst out laughing. It must, they said, have been the one and only time it had ever been tidy.
After that I felt much better, although the vision still leads me on, not so much now with a feeling of guilt as of an objective to be attained. Common sense says that order in one’s work surroundings is an excellent thing, time saving and making for efficiency, in its own way carrying with it an inspiration to good work. Hard fact says that in an imperfect world where time is short and the demands on it fairly heavy, it is not always possible to do things the perfect way and, as always, we have to compromise. We need to achieve a kind of order, something that will enable us to keep an eye on things in general so that nails and screws are to hand if we want them, tools are kept in good, rust-free condition an oddments of wood protected from woodworm. It is no good storing those small choice pieces over the years if, when the time comes to use them, they are riddled with woodworm, liable to spread the pest all around and fit only to be burned. One of the “mucking out” precautions is a quick lick of wood preservative over any pieces that are likely to be stored for some time, and this is the time of the year when extra vigilance is most certainly desirable.
Everything will not get done at once, but keeping at it, little by little and bit by bit, we do more or less keep pace. The high-lighted moments when we can look round at the perfect picture as we should like to keep it are few and far between, but how good when they come. And how good that we should have them, rather than let good materials go to ruin and the good tools deteriorate which our old faithfuls and the companions of our hands.
Editor’s note: September 1, 1939, two days before the declaration of war, Britain imposed mandatory nightly black-outs to prevent enemy aircraft from identifying targets. The black-outs resulted in many people spending long, quiet hours at home once darkness fell.
Years ago I knew an old schoolmaster who, after his retirement, had made a hobby of landscape painting. All through the summer months, and on any mild winter’s day, you would meet him stepping out briskly with his folding easel, sketching stool, paints and canvas—a lean, dapper, grey-bearded man, with weather-beaten face and twinkling eyes. A man who enjoyed talking to any man, woman, or child he met, who had his own cheery philosophy of life and sent every one away smiling from the encounter. A man who in the evening of his days was leading a contentedly full, happy life.
Even then I did not realise, till after his death, all that he had gained from it. It happened that I was invited to his house to choose one of his pictures as a souvenir. I was one of the merest of acquaintances, just one of the many who used to enjoy a gossip with him by the way, and I had never entered his house during his lifetime. I remember gazing about me in astonishment at the overwhelming evidence of his industry. Not only were the walls of every room completely covered with pictures, but there were stacks of them in a lumber room as well. And, looking at them, one realised that not one moment spent upon them had been wasted. They were not great art. They would never make him famous. Probably by this time, except in the houses of those who loved him, they have become real lumber and have long ago been destroyed. But in them he had captured the sunlight shining on the buttercup fields, lighting up old red roofs, glinting on the surface of a running stream and on the grey-green of overhanging willows. He had caught the sky in all its moods, dappled with drifting cumuli clouds or dark with storm. And he had looked at it all with the eyes of understanding and painted the best he knew. Gazing at those pictures, you felt how he had enjoyed painting them. They had taken him into another world, shown him the beauty that lies hidden in simple, everyday things. No wonder he was a very happy man.
All this comes back to me now in reflecting how much more in the months—perhaps even in the years—to come, we are going to be thrown back upon our own resources for the filling of our leisure time. There will not be the same facilities for pursuing our pleasures away from home, still less an inducement to do so during the long black-out evenings. But if we can really concentrate upon some hobby or occupation that will keep hands and minds employed we shall not lose by the change. The man already having a fair proficiency in woodwork who sets himself to become a skilled craftsman, the novice who determines to remain a novice no longer, by so doing enter into a new world, one in which they are discovering the possibilities of their own powers, establishing new standards of self-reliance. And one never knows where discoveries of this kind will end. …
… So that we have to set to work to make our plans for the black-out evenings—plans that will not allow us time for brooding over-much over what the future may bring, because that is futile and weakening. “Don’t cross your bridges before you come to them” is excellent advice. Our imagination is so apt to run riot, to show the bridges breaking down under our feet, without revealing the other side of the picture—that there is always some way of getting across. Let us therefore keep these troubled minds of ours fully occupied over a good practical job and worries and anxieties will assume reasonable proportions: In times like these we cannot hope—or even wish—to escape them altogether. To do so would be to stand altogether aloof from the common danger and the common purpose. But we can learn to cope with them like men.
Editor’s note: This article, by Charles Hayward, appeared in the June 1951 issue of The Woodworker magazine, and will be included in “Honest Labour,” which will be available this year. This essay is a bit different from Hayward’s Chips from the Chisel columns, but Thomas Sheraton’s story is fascinating (and a bit tragic, as Hayward notes in the title of his piece). This article also highlights Hayward’s vast knowledge of the history of furniture making and its makers, as well as his dedication to research.
1951 is the bicentenary of the birth of Sheraton, and it is interesting to recall what little we know of the man whose name has become so associated with one of our great furniture styles
It is a strange coincidence, with regard to the three greatest English cabinet makers of the eighteenth century, that no portrait of any of them, not even a rough pencil sketch, is known to exist. Thus, any enterprising film producer contemplating a presentation of one of these matters must rely solely upon his imagination –– no difficulty where Hollywood is concerned.
No name in the furniture world occurs more frequently than that of Thomas Sheraton. What manner of man was this gifted individual? Indisputably an artist, we should say, perhaps even a poet. Who else could have conceived those “elegant appurtances” of a lady’s boudoir, those dainty little cabinets and dressing tables, with their slender tapering legs, their festoons and painted medallions, their rich satinwood veneers mellowing with time to old gold like beech leaves in autumn?
Sheraton furniture forms the ideal setting for fluttering fans, brocaded hoops, powdered ringlets, diamond shoe-buckles. Its designer is the Chopin of the cabinet-making craft, with, maybe, something about him of the Chopin of the keyboard — pale, fragile, dreamy, romantic.
Alas! Such a picture is far from the truth. Woefully far! Sheraton was born at Stockton-on-Tees, of poor parents, in 1751. So that this year is the bicentenary of his coming into the world. How amazed so obscure an individual would have been at the mention of a bicentenary!
Early days. — He was apprenticed to a cabinet maker, and contrived somehow or other to pick up a knowledge of drawing and geometry and a small store of classical learning. Since he himself tells us that he never at any time received a collegiate or academic training he must have taught himself these things.
Somewhere in his thirties Sheraton arrived in London and attempted to establish himself in Soho. His trade card, issued from Wardour Street, is still preserved. It informs the public that Thomas Sheraton “teaches perspective, architecture and ornaments, makes designs for cabinet makers, and sells all kinds of drawing books.”
The only way for a designer of furniture to become known in those days was to publish a manual of design. So that shortly after the northerner’s arrival in London there appeared “The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book,” by Thomas Sheraton. The publication attracted some attention by reason of its novelty of treatment and expert draughtsmanship, but competition was heavy.
The 18th century books. — If our Georgian forefarthers failed to equip their homes in “the most elegant and approved fashion” it was not for lack of instruction. Never was such a spate of manuals and guides let loose on a suffering public. From Chippendale and Shearer down to plain George Smith’s “Household Furniture” they came tumbling one over another, one relentless everlasting flood.
All these publications had certain features in common; they began with long-winded, stilted prefaces which make amusing reading to-day. The authors did not scruple to condemn as utterly old-fashioned the designs of their rivals even though such designs might be no more than a year old.
As there was no copyright law, no man hesitated to “lift” the design of another and incorporate it in his own publication. So that Mr. So-and-So’s “New Guide” might be new in so far as it consisted of one-fifth of his own inventions and four-fifths of other people’s.
These manuals were circulated among provincial and country cabinet makers who could not afford the time or expense to make a journey to town to replenish their stocks. It was here that poor Sheraton started at a disadvantage with men such as Chippendale and Hepplewhite, who were the heads of established firms, able to receive and execute orders.
There was no firm of Sheraton. He may conceivably have received orders which were put out for others to complete, but in all likelihood he received none, and more astute and business-like rivals profited by his designs.
A curious mixture. — There was another reason which tended to his impoverishment. His work did not stand first with him. This may sound strange in the case of one who is now universally admitted to be a genius. Nevertheless, Sheraton’s real bent was towards religion. He was a Baptist minister, and a rabid minister at that.
Instead of making contacts which would have enabled him to build up a business he spent countless hours on the composition of verbose inflated religious treatises which nobody read, or in delivering sermons to which only a few listened.
Sheraton’s religious tolerance, however, did not extend to his business rivals. Like most frustrated characters he was prone to condemn all and sundry. The designs of his predecessor, Chippendale, he dismissed as “wholly antiquated and laid aside.” Those of Hepplewhite were “erroneous in perspective, already in decline, and likely to die in disorder.”
Finally, of Manwaring’s “Cabinet Makers Real Friend,” an excellent manual, which had achieved a considerable circulation, our generous critic declared that there was nothing in it that “an apprentice boy might not be taught in seven hours.” The tit-bit, however, occurs in his own preface where the aggrieved Mr. Sheraton denounces “the ill-nature of those who hate to speak well of any but their own productions.”
Sheraton’s last refuge in London was in Broad Street, Golden Square, where he kept a squalid little bookshop, taught drawing, sold stationery, and wrote and published his books, including those voluminous religious dissertations which now lie in obscurity in the British Museum. His last mad project was an Encyclopedia which it was intended to issue in 125 numbers, only 30 of which he lived to complete.
A pen portrait. — It was in connection with this publication that Adam Black, the Scottish publisher, then a young man in London, called on Sheraton in the hope of finding employment. Black’s unforgettable picture of the man and his surroundings has so often been quoted that one may be excused from repeating it at length.
“He lived in an obscure street,” says Black, “his house half shop, half dwelling-house, and looked like a worn out Methodist minister with threadbare coat.” The writer goes on to say how one afternoon he took tea with the Sheraton family, and found that there were but wo cups and saucers in the house. Mrs. Sheraton drank out of the child’s porringer.
Black stayed with them for a week, writing articles and putting the shop in order, for which he received half a guinea. “Miserable as the pay was,” he adds, “I was half ashamed to take it from the poor man.” It was the old story of Jack-of-all-Trades, as Black’s closing words show. “Sheraton’s abilities and resources are his ruin,” he asserts. “In attempting to do everything he does nothing.”
The end. — Sheraton died in 1806 in his fifty-fifth year, leaving a destitute family behind him. The man who had designed some of the most beautiful and graceful chairs in English domestic furniture gave utterance to these pathetic words: “I can be well content to sit in a wooden bottom chair myself, provided I can but have common food and raiment wherewith to pass through life in peace.”
— Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, June 1951