To everyone who contributed to the fundraiser Megan Fitzpatrick organized on my behalf last winter, sent kind comments, notes of support or handmade gifts, shared garden bounty, good wishes and prayers: Thank you.
After several months I thought it time to express my gratitude with an update. I still have Stage IV pancreatic cancer, per the original diagnosis. But if I hadn’t seen the scan images and read my doctors’ reports, I wouldn’t know it.
Six months of Folfirinox chemotherapy – not something I can recommend if you’re looking for a good time – shrank the primary tumor by two-thirds. Six weeks off chemo, starting at the end of June, gave me a chance to recover strength, energy (and my sense of taste, which was super-bleh due to Folfirinox). I started the alternate chemo regimen, Gemcitabine and Abraxane, in August and have had no side effects to speak of so far.
Most important, I feel better than I have in years. My diet is seriously wholesome, I haven’t been drinking alcohol, I exercise every day and am working with some excellent integrative healthcare practitioners.
Throughout most of this period I have continued to work. I started by writing “Shop Tails,” which is forthcoming from Lost Art Press, then built and installed the cabinetry for the kitchen of a 1920 bungalow (above). I’ve been blogging as usual for the Pros’ Corner at Fine Woodworking and the Little Acorns series of profiles here. Thanks to the success of “Kitchen Think,” I have also had a number of kitchen design commissions, among them a few rivals for Most Challenging Kitchen Layout of My Career. I do love a challenge. This week I will start prepping for a shoot with Anissa Kapsales of the plate rack article we’ve had under contract for longer than I can even remember, between the pandemic and various chemo-related delays on my end. I’m also working on some Voysey two-heart chairs.
I am feeling strong and optimistic. Please don’t ask about medical specifics – not because I am trying to keep any of this a secret (I’m not), but because I honestly feel so great that I’m done with seeing myself as a cancer patient. I am a healthy woodworker, design professional and writer who is living with cancer. Seeing myself this way does not equate to denial. There is no denial going on here. To the contrary, this has been and continues to be a transformative experience, and I wouldn’t want to deny any of it because it has taught me so much. If you’re interested in hearing more, there’s plenty in the first two chapters of “Shop Tails,” as well as in the conclusion.
The outpouring of love and generosity from Lost Art Press readers and editors has been one of the most moving experiences of my life. You have kept me company, shared cancer-related resources and made me laugh, in addition to providing invaluable help with medical expenses, which are significant even for those self-employed people who pay through the nose for the most affordable healthcare coverage. The best way I can show my gratitude is by continuing my efforts to recover from this disease that is widely considered incurable. So that’s what I’m doing.
Australian woodworker Carol Russell’s carvings of animals are a visual form of haiku. With a few judicious swipes of the knife, she transforms small chunks of wood into figures so evocative that it’s a challenge to avoid reading into them distinct personalities and tales of adventure. The curious cock to a dog’s ear, the satisfied curl of a cat’s tail – these and other details bring her animals to life. So when Christopher Schwarz asked whether I had any ideas for the dustjacket of “Shop Tails” (which we anticipate receiving from the printer in early October), an image of Carol’s animals was one of my three suggestions. As it turned out, Chris, Megan Fitzpatrick and Kara Gebhart Uhl are also fans of Carol’s work. So Lost Art Press commissioned her to carve a dog and a cat. She surprised us all by adding a second cat, this one orange; we instantly named him Tony.
Scattered among the animals in Carol’s Instagram feed you’ll also find the occasional rowboat. Carol grew up in Tasmania, a small island off the south coast of Australia known for its pristine wilderness and endemic timber species. Tasmania has one rare native species, Huon pine, that has been traditionally used in boatbuilding and high-quality furniture making; its high methyl eugenol content makes it resistant to marine borers. Carol says “it’s very rare now, and a protected species; there is definitely romance attached to it, partly due to its beauty and the fact that it stands as a monument to the amazing forests it grows in.” She finds a special charm in Huon pine boats – they evoke “that daydreaming aspect, that [English children’s book writer] Enid Blyton [thing] of [children] floating away for a day of adventure without their parents. And usually as a kid you’re accompanied by a scruffy dog that’s up for anything. That’s the dog I’m always trying to capture.”
“We always had animals,” Carol says. In the 1960s, when she was a child, her family lived on the edge of Launceston, right next to open fields. The area where they lived was far from prosperous. Many people couldn’t afford to have their animals spayed or neutered, so there were always stray, injured and abandoned animals around. Her family took in most of those who showed up at their house. In addition to dogs and cats, her brothers occasionally found other animals to rescue. One time they brought a little kangaroo home, where it joined the other animals in the house and curled up by the fire. “At one stage we had 13 cats, three dogs, a kangaroo and a sheep,” though the sheep had to stay outside. “It was completely mad! We just had a little suburban house with a veggie garden.”
It was another time, she points out. “We’re not encouraged to keep wildlife now, and many groups work hard to re-house animals back into the wild. It was a lovely way to grow up, though.”
Her father, Len, worked on telegraph lines for the postmaster general. One day, before Carol was born, he fell from a telegraph pole onto his back. The injury left him in terrible pain that became chronic. Although he was able to walk, he couldn’t walk far. Nor could he drive. In response to his dramatically changed condition, he planted a vegetable garden and grew most of the food for his family of eight – he and his wife had six kids, of whom Carol is the youngest. “He was enormously methodical,” Carol says. “The garden was the focus of his life. He couldn’t do a lot. A bit each day, though, mounted up. I grew up with the most amazing food.” All of his friends had served in the Second World War. He hadn’t gone because he’d had a double dose of the smallpox vaccination by mistake and had become so sick that he was repatriated home. Survivor’s guilt led him to drink heavily in the early years, though he eventually got that under control. “I never knew him to work [at a job], but he was a very wise, very gentle person, a lovely man. He adored my mother and would sing old love songs to her. It drove me mad, but now I can see how sweet it was.”
Although her dad received a disability pension, it was modest. “Which is why my mother was always coming up with schemes to make more money. She would send us door to door, selling cakes. We’d have big trays of lamingtons (a sponge cake rolled in chocolate and coconut) and highly decorated cupcakes and slices. They looked amazing; no one would refuse when confronted with these delicious goodies.” At Christmastime her mother sold dozens of her Christmas cakes and puddings; people would order them months ahead, and storing them took all the available cupboard space.
Carol’s mother, Valerie, had been born in Dublin. As a young woman, her grandmother had fallen in love and married an Irishman, who was “quite a devilish man.” The family emigrated to Tasmania, where Carol’s grandfather left them and went to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to grow tea. He never contacted them again. Valerie was largely raised by her grandparents and was a voracious reader, as she remains today at the age of 92. Carol’s father was born in Tasmania of Welsh ancestry. He and her mother met in Launceston around 1950; each brought children to the marriage, and they had three more together.
“My mother was enormously resourceful and enthusiastic about everything,” says Carol. “Always making and growing things.” None of this was unusual where they lived during the ’60s and early ’70s, she points out. Lots of people made what they could and bartered their work for that of others. “The lady who made clothes made clothes to swap for homegrown vegetables or preserves. That was just what people had to do to get by.” Her mother, to this day, sometimes says, “’I think I should go and get a job.’ She hates idleness.”
Given her love of animals, Carol wanted to be a veterinarian. Throughout high school she had a weekend job working with a local vet, a Scotsman “who distilled whiskey in the tearoom out the back of the consultation room” because his wife wouldn’t let him do it in the house. “I’d sit next to it drinking my tea and hear it gurgling away. I learned so much from him; he was so generous to people and animals and was never too busy to teach me what he could.” When they delivered puppies by caesarian section, the vet would hand them to her and she’d rub them to get them warmed up. “I loved it,” she says of this work. “It was just a delight, but it could be sad, too.”
As a child, Carol had been a huge reader and one of those kids who could pick up almost anything. She was particularly interested in drama, English and art and adds, “I had a healthy opinion of myself as well!” When she was 17, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) offered her a cadetship as a journalist, a type of internship that involved research and writing articles. All was going well until the day she was flicking through a newspaper and happened on an ad for a crew to sail a 35′ trimaran to New Guinea. She applied to be a crew member, forwent the cadetship and left Tasmania “on a little red yacht sailing off into the sunset in winter.” She quickly adds: “If my son tried to do [the same thing] now, I’d lock him in a room!”
She and her crewmates had a wonderful time. The Bass Strait between Tasmania and Australia has beautiful islands with bird rookeries and seal colonies; they saw “a lot of amazing things over the course of two months while sailing around photographing wildlife.” It was July, the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere. Unlike the other crew members, Carol had no previous sailing experience and found even the most mundane aspects of the trip rewarding. One of her jobs was to cook for the crew. There was also a routine in which each crew member spent two hours at the tiller while the others rested. They were on the water in what felt like “the middle of nowhere. I’ve never forgotten it, that solitary sense,” she recalls today. “You could see the phosphorescence in the water, and sometimes, dolphins would whiz past leaving a silver trail behind them. I think that’s why the boat thing is strongly ingrained in me. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of freedom.”
But it wasn’t all idyllic. The man who owned the boat was insufferable. If he lost at chess, he’d go to his bunk and sulk for days. “After four months or so I got really fed up with it.” By the time they arrived at Mooloolaba Beach in Queensland, she’d been in a quarrel with the captain. She got her backpack of clothes and said she was done, so he rowed her to shore and left her there. It was nearly 40 years ago, long before the widespread availability of cell phones. She had only just turned 18. “I watched the boat sail off and thought ‘What am I going to do now?’”
Her sense of pride kicked in. She couldn’t go home just four months after leaving, so she made up her mind to head for Brisbane, the nearest big town. She met some people on the beach who offered her a ride. “I didn’t choose Brisbane,” she says of the city where she’s spent most of the intervening 30-plus years. “It just happened. At that stage I was a blank slate with a little bag of clothes and no money, but lots of enthusiasm and self-confidence. It’s amazing how you can rebuild a life. I often think back to that little bag of clothes…” – quite a contrast with the many possessions and responsibilities that she, like many of us, has collected over the years.
For income in Brisbane she worked at Aroma’s Café, one of the first places there to roast and blend its own coffee. Sometimes she worked as a model – it was a great time for emerging clothing and jewelry designers. In time she met new friends, one of whom, Wayne Crotty, was a musician/furnituremaker. “That was it,” she remembers. “I saw what he was making and was so astounded that you could make a table. I’d never thought about how things were made before.” She asked him to teach her. He did. She worked with him for 10 years.
Her first job was a Shaker table with a tripod base. She learned about mortise-and-tenon joinery, dovetails, sharpening and setting up machines. “Wayne was not a fine woodworker. He was a good ‘practical’ woodworker. He knew a lot of people. He took me to meet people that owned areas of forest.” They would selectively choose and mill particular trees, being careful not to take too many. They also salvaged a lot of logs from forestry clearing, so she saw the whole process and developed a deep understanding of wood as a material. Of the men she worked with, she says “some of them appeared quite gruff and very blokey, not the sort of people I thought would take a young woman very seriously. I discovered, though, they loved the fact I was so keen. If you’re interested and you listen, the world opens up to you.”
She also ventured into the world of building theater sets. While working for a company that made stage sets for big events, she learned about what she calls “practical construction” – nothing precious or fine, but more “how to turn a ballroom in a grand hotel into a fantasyland or forest for a particular event or conference. You all worked together really hard on tight deadlines and drank a lot of cheap coffee.” The comradery was fabulous.
By her late 20s Carol was ready “to make things that were really special and would mean something to people.” She began to design her own pieces and developed her own customer base; people would come to her with an idea that she would sketch, then build for them. For about seven years she did one-off pieces, working in Wayne’s shop, with the occasional exhibition of work that was more creative. “I started reading all the [issues of] Fine Woodworking magazine I could get my hands on,” as well as books by James Krenov and George Nakashima. She was especially interested in Japanese design. Unfortunately, she has few photographs of her work from that time.
In her early 30s, when she was running her custom furniture business, Brisbane furniture maker Simon Hooper, whom she calls “a real hero of mine,” asked if she would come to work with him at Bell Brothers, an old Brisbane furniture making institution. Carol leapt at the chance. The company also owned a funeral parlor; the shop was next to the coffin makers, and they often needed extra people to help with funerals. Carol would have to change out of her shop clothes into a black suit and drive an old Mercedes hearse. After the funeral it was back to the bench. “It gave you this crazy perspective on life,” she remarks. “If this board was twisted, well… It’s not the end of the world; it can be straightened. Everything is really about people,” she realized. “It’s not about stuff. People have been very generous to me with their knowledge and I have encountered mostly kindness.”
“I’ve not had formal training at all,” she continues. “We have some amazing woodworking schools [in Australia] now, and I think I would just love an opportunity to dedicate two or three years to learning.” Lacking that option at the time, she traded labor for instruction. There were no apprenticeships available in the kind of work she wanted to do; it was the 1990s, the dark age of particleboard and MDF. She wanted to work with solid wood. She picked up any new skills she could. As a result, she calls herself “a bit of a Frankenstein woodworker.”
Carol had met her husband, Nick, in 1996 through a mutual friend. They met at a country pub, The Dugandan Hotel in Boonah – “a pub in a paddock,” she calls it. Nick was working as a consultant for an IT company and had just returned from an assignment in Sydney. It was unlikely they would ever have met, but their friend was celebrating a birthday at that particular pub that day. They married in 1998.
The year before, she’d taken a job working in the showroom of Carbatec, a woodworking supply company that had recently begun importing the kind of high-quality tools no one else was selling. They also imported traditional woodworking tools made in Japan. “It was a wonderful place full of beautiful tools and enthusiastic people,” she notes, explaining why she left her own furniture-making business for a job in retail. “The prospect of a steady job was pretty enticing, too.”
When her employers announced they wanted to offer classes, she decided to teach joinery. She went to night classes to learn teaching skills and her work shifted to teaching and writing. Carbatec also had a fabulous catalog that required Carol to write a lot of copy. The owner of the business, Geoff Lowe, had sons-in-law who were American and worked in the business; the new American-made tools were quite an attraction. “Geoff was very generous,” she recalls, “always giving me the new tools and beautiful pieces of wood to try [them on].”
Carol continued to read woodworking publications while working for Carbatec and was inspired by examples of work done by other women. She traveled with the company to Japan, where she met craftspeople and learned about Japanese woodworking tools, which prompted her interest in hand-tool woodworking. For years she’d worked with tools made by Stanley, Record and Marples, good solid stuff made in England of Sheffield steel. But “to pick up a Lie-Nielsen plane or a Japanese chisel…there was real poetry in that.”
Carol started to write for Australian Wood Review, published by Linda and Raf Nathan. She was thrilled to be the first woman on the cover – around 1999, she thinks. Australia had other woodworking magazines that she says were full of “more practical” stuff, but Wood Review was different – it published work of fine quality and cutting-edge design. The Nathans employed her part-time as an editor for a while, and it struck her that she’d returned, in a way, to the world of journalism where she’d started at the age of 17.
Animals & Life
When Carol was 38, she was sharing a workshop with two renowned Australian makers, Roy Schack and Robert Howard, as well as a few others. It was an inspiring environment with a lot of creative energy.
One day, 32 weeks pregnant, she had a brain hemorrhage. Fortunately, she survived, and her son, Hugo, was born without damage. But recovery took a long time and has changed Carol in so many ways that she now thinks of her life as “before” and “after” the aneurysm. Although she’s loath to use those changes as an “excuse” (her word), she hasn’t made much furniture since. The hemorrhage left her painfully sensitive to noise – routers, shapers, thickness planers and other machines all became unbearable. Her sense of sight was also affected. She tried to go back to furniture, “but it just wouldn’t come together.” Four years later, after Nick completed a doctorate, he was offered a post-doctoral position in the Netherlands and they lived there for two years. Carol didn’t make anything during that time; instead, she worked as what she calls a handywoman for the local school. But there’s a great tradition of carving in the Netherlands, which sparked her interest in that field.
After Carol and her family returned to Australia, Carbatec hired her back. One day she made a spoon in a class with Australian woodcarver Gary Field. “It was the first thing I’d really done in all that time [since the aneurysm]. The idea [is] that you start with a whole, and you take away. What you’re left with is the object.” After being wowed by the process of building a Shaker table in her 20s, she experienced a second epiphany in the spoon carving class. She decided to become a wood carver. “You’re going along and all of a sudden your life’s completely derailed,” she explains. “You have this partner who’s trying to make things right, but you can only make things right to a certain point. I was a furniture maker. But I wasn’t a great furniture maker, I never felt completely at home, I had moments where things were quite good. But [carving] was something I felt quite passionate about. It felt like coming home. Other than a band saw, I don’t use machines anymore.”
Whether you’re building furniture or carving a cat, she says, the work is “so much about people,” and never more so than when you’re teaching others to build or carve, as Carol does these days. “[Teaching is a skill] that you get to share with people. It literally saves people. It’s saving people now, in these really difficult times.” She refers specifically to Australia’s latest wave of lockdowns, which have filled many with a sense of foreboding. “That little bit of peace of mind people get from making something or growing something with their own hands can just keep them going. It’s the one part of their week that they can rely on.” They come to class and can – well, must – really focus on the work, because it’s so intense.
“I always look at animals,” Carol tells me. “I stare at them constantly. Nothing has ever brought me so much joy as creating these animal forms and trying to distill the essence into this little block of wood.” She compares the intensity of packing so much into a tiny form to the Japanese art of netsuke; it’s “an implosion instead of an explosion, an exercise in not overusing your skill – a couple of cuts in the right place.” In terms of her work, she says, “the world is shrinking into something small, but I’ve needed all the bigness of everything I’ve ever done to be able to distill it down into this small gesture.”
Carol and Nick have no animals of their own at present, which only enhances her appreciation for those other creatures who share many of our lives. There’s an Australian tradition of observing Anzac Day every April 25 to honor members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who participated in the Gallipoli Campaign early in the First World War, and all the wars where Australians have served since. It’s a national day of remembrance when people go to a cenotaph and listen to speakers and pay their respects. “We have a lovely local service that we go to, but it can be hard to hear because the PA system isn’t so great,” she laughs. What prompts her to mention the occasion is that “many people take their dogs, it’s in a park close by our home.”
This year she really noticed the dogs, “looking at their body language and how they’re looking at each other, wagging their tails, then looking up at their humans and waiting so patiently. There was this whole canine world below people’s knees. Watching them, I just felt that unadulterated joy that animals give us and we seem to give them – it’s like your heart is going to burst.”
Hugo is heading to university in Melbourne. Carol and Nick plan to move back to Tasmania. Both are looking forward to having four seasons, a pleasure Nick recalls from his native England, after so many years in Queensland’s tropical climate. And Carol’s looking forward to living with animals again, as well as developing her carving practice further.
In the meantime Carol has a beautiful workspace in Brisbane she shares with fine leather workers Blue and Grae and Andrea and Gary Fitzpatrick, who have transformed an industrial space into the beautiful Botanick Nursery. It’s a space where she can carve and teach. “It has an incredible atmosphere, I feel so fortunate to be there. About 35 regular students come through each week and carve, chat, drink coffee and share their stories. Life is good.”
Here’s what I knew about Caleb James before I interviewed him for this profile:
He makes hardwood spokeshaves that are handsome enough to qualify as sculpture, in addition to being a joy to use. The spokeshaves alone made Caleb worthy of a profile.
He makes Danish Modern chairs based on original designs by Hans Wegner, and those chairs are not just comfortable, but marvels of craftsmanship.
He is a devoted family man with a wife and two daughters.
He’s a clean-cut guy who dresses nicely.
He has a refreshingly down-to-earth take on woodworking, especially when it comes to making furniture and tools as a livelihood.
I had no idea that Caleb does all this while living with an auto-immune disorder, nor that he’d spent years making a good living by selling household appliances – never mind that he once dreamed of being a helicopter pilot and went a good way toward achieving that goal before life caused him to change course.
We spoke by phone on a recent weekend. Caleb was working at home, at the end of a street 5 miles from downtown Greenville, S.C., where he and his family have lived for eight years. “All you see is woods at the back of the house,” he told me. There are deer, bears and wild turkeys just outside the back door. A deer was foraging in the woods about 40 yards away as we spoke.
The South has always been Caleb’s region. He was born in 1981 in the Gulf Coast town of Ocean Springs, Miss., where his father, a Vietnam War veteran and a framing carpenter by trade, worked for a manufacturer of mobile homes. When Caleb was 5, his parents split up and he moved with his dad to northern Arkansas, which had originally been home to his father’s family. A few years later they moved to Branson, Mo. After that he lived in St. Louis, where his mother had moved to be near her sister and was attending night school through a community college program while supporting herself by waiting tables; following her training she became a legal secretary.
That’s a lot of moving. By the time Caleb was in ninth grade, he’d attended 11 different schools and was living with extended family and friends while working for his aunt, who ran a roadside fruit stand. At 14 he dropped out of public school and did his best to keep learning while employed as a dishwasher and waiter. He took college courses in air conditioning and appliance repair work, and earned a GED certificate.
At 17 Caleb moved to Texas; his mother, aunt and two brothers were living outside of Houston. His brother ran a stucco business and invited him to work there; they worked in traditional stucco, as well as Drivit, a cladding system that resembles stucco while enhancing a building’s insulation. Working outside in south Texas weather was not a viable long-term gig for “a white kid out in the sun,” as Caleb puts it. “It wasn’t something I thought I would survive at for very long.” Even his hands got sunburned.
He took a job working for a guy who bought used appliances from Sears – the washers, stoves and refrigerators hauled away from homes where customers had replaced them with new ones. His boss sold the used appliances in Mexico. Caleb was in charge of loading the truck that headed south across the border. “We would stack them to the ceiling,” he laughs. “Needless to say, I was in the best shape of my life.” When his boss expanded into buying and selling appliances that were slightly blemished (“scratch and dents”), one of his fellow employees suggested they repair the damaged appliances and retail them locally rather than sell them wholesale. Caleb found he had an uncanny knack for repairing appliances and removing blemishes. Retail sales exploded. The company he worked for initially had three employees; within three years they had 30.
It was steady work that paid well. “I really didn’t think about much more than survival,” he says of that time. Even so, Caleb played a central role in the business and ended up making better money than he’d ever anticipated.
He wanted to go back to school and train to be a helicopter pilot. Because his father was a disabled veteran, Caleb could go to school under the G.I. Bill until he turned 26. The authorities approved him for the commercial helicopter pilot program, but the Veterans Administration “pulled the payment” shortly before he completed the private pilot portion of the training – he learned that they were legally permitted to do so by some fine print in the G.I. Bill. So he decided to build on his experience with kitchen appliances.
An Appliance Business of Their Own
In late 2003, at the age of 22, Caleb and his brother, Jeremiah, started a business selling blemished appliances of better quality, among them Gaggenau, Wolf, Thermador and Sub-Zero. They focused on kitchen appliances because kitchen remodeling was big business at the time; it was before the Great Recession, which devastated so much of the housing and remodeling market. “If you’ve got a built-in oven and it’s got a ding on the back side, it really makes no difference. We were a perfect option; if you were going to pay $1,000 for an oven, you could buy it from us [instead] for $500 – $600.”
Caleb met his wife, Tracy, through their church community in Houston. Both are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Tracy is from the Canadian town of High Prairie in the province of Alberta. Coming from a family of avid travelers, she had set out on her own at 17 to visit friends in Texas. After she and Caleb met at a church service they stayed in touch; about a year and a half later, they were married. It was the only way they could continue their relationship, he notes – “I couldn’t move [to Canada], and she couldn’t move to the States.” They celebrated their 20th anniversary this past May.
In around 2006, Caleb bought a table saw at a yard sale so he could build stuff for their home – “You buy your first house, and then you start building furniture,” he says. Plywood was one of his go-to materials. “A turning point was making an end table,” he says. He made the top and aprons, “having really no idea of what I was doing,” then proudly showed the piece to a cabinetmaker friend. “The look on his face was, ‘Wow, this is terrible.’ At that point I realized I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just kind of piddled with woodworking.”
The following year an acquaintance called out of the blue to tell Caleb about a gentleman who was retiring. He wanted to sell his shop equipment and wondered whether Caleb and Jeremiah might be interested in reselling it. They went to take a look. Faced with a 5-horsepower Delta cabinet saw and dust collector going for $275 (for both), Caleb “quickly realized ‘here’s some equipment I want to keep for myself.’ I was always interested in woodworking.” At that point his training consisted of 7th-grade woodshop class, augmented by what he’d learned through exposure to his father’s carpentry work. He started reading books on the subject; specifically, he cites the series of books by Danish-American furniture maker Tage Frid. Rounding out the year, Tracy and Caleb had their first child, Claire, that December.
Caleb grew more and more interested in woodworking. He appreciated the solitude of the work, which he found therapeutic. He was drawn to Danish Modern design, and also experimented with Windsor chairs and tried steam-bending parts in the garage. People would tell him his work was nice and ask whether he made it to sell. “I don’t have time,” he’d respond. He was building furniture at night and on weekends. But when he started to think about leaving the appliance business he posted some work on Etsy. It sold. “Here I am working every day at my normal business,” he continues, “and I get to a point [where I] ask myself ‘what are you doing? Do you just want to work all the time?’” By the time the James’ second daughter, Petra, was born in May, 2011, Caleb had signed the papers to sell his stake in the appliance business to Jeremiah.
Transition to Professional Woodworking
Caleb’s first large orders were for beds. A contact in Houston who had recently taken over a historic hardware storefront in Rice Village wanted to add local handcrafted furniture to his already hard-to-find items. He was already selling his own line of paints that were free of volatile organic compounds, specialty rubber mattresses, and more, and was looking for a craftsman to represent; he figured that if people were spending $8,000 on a mattress, maybe they’d also spend $3,000 or $4,000 on a bed. In addition to building beds, Caleb continued to sell chairs on Etsy and took commissions through an architect in Charleston.
Tracy “is a go-go-go” person, Caleb says; she loves to learn new things and be involved with people. He, on the other hand, “would probably stay and work in my shop and never leave home unless I was forced to.” When they were living in Katy, a suburb of Houston, Tracy took a course in computer drafting and worked part-time as draftsperson for an electrical company. When Caleb and Jeremiah started the appliance business he convinced her to join them; she handled sales and logistics while Caleb ran the warehouse. He calls her “a perfect salesperson. She has a knack for it – probably because she’s genuine.” Her interest in interior design didn’t hurt, either; clients appreciated her enthusiasm and readiness to go beyond the minimum required when dealing with their projects. She grew into the role of sales manager and kept that up until they sold the business in 2011. Tracy continued to do electrical design part-time while Caleb switched to full-time woodworking in his shop at home.
Caleb has had an unnamed auto-immune disorder since his late teens. After the family moved to Greenville in 2013, he became extremely anemic and developed some other health problems. He had discovered he had celiac disease in 2008; other health challenges appeared to stem from this condition. It took about a year to figure out what was going on and get back on track. Caleb now takes many supplements because he doesn’t absorb nutrients adequately.
While he was having health problems he found himself unable to handle heavy materials – “I’d be worn out in 45 minutes,” he remembers. A few years earlier he’d taught himself to make side-escapement planes, appreciating that a purpose-designed handplane would work well for some of the coped joints he used in chairmaking. He learned a lot from a Lie-Nielsen Toolworks video of Larry Williams on making tools. “I would make a bunch of furniture for somebody, then spend a couple of days making hand tools.”
During this period, Tracy worked full-time for about 1-1/2 years. “I was Mister Mom,” he says. It’s one of his favorite jobs.
Handplanes were a product he could make with limited strength and energy, so he started making them, even though he had no idea whether anyone would buy them. As it happened, Peter Galbert, with whom he’d taken a class, called to say he was going to be a presenter at Woodworking in America (WIA) and asked whether Caleb might like to demonstrate turning techniques at his booth; he pointed out that it would also be a good opportunity to gauge interest in his planes.
Hard as it might be to imagine, Caleb was a total stranger to the larger woodworking world in 2013, so he calls attending WIA that year “kind of a new experience for me.” A Lee Valley Tools representative approached him with a colleague, Fred West, who was known for buying and collecting tools. Fred, says Caleb, was reputed to be the kind of person who, “if he liked what you did, would buy as much of your stuff as he could, to try to help you.” He placed an order for almost $5,000-worth of Caleb’s tools, which convinced Caleb that tool making could be a viable way to make a living. Deneb Puchalski of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks invited Caleb to join the company at events around the country, at no cost. “I was very flattered,” recalls Caleb, “and thought this was a great opportunity.” He got his shop in order. Fortunately, he had already brought in a store of beech for the work.
Not long after his introduction to the woodworking community at WIA, Caleb met Christopher Schwarz at another tool event, this one in Charleston. Chris had been blogging about Danish furniture and asked if he could blog about Caleb’s tools, adding, “You ought to write a book on Danish Modern furniture for me.” Caleb had been blogging about his Danish furniture for a couple of years by then; he suspects Chris may have seen his posts, which prompted the offer.
“I thought he must have been joking,” Caleb remembers. “The next day he mentioned it to me again, with ‘I’m not joking. I don’t make this kind of offer unless I’m serious.’”
“I chewed on that” for several years, says Caleb – not least because he was so busy making handplanes, thanks to a blog post Chris had written about a side bead plane that Caleb had started producing. That post resulted in orders for about 100 planes in 36 hours at WIA. “I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” he says. Although he had made dozens of planes, he’d only sold a small number of them before this avalanche of orders. He stopped taking more orders, unsure whether he’d be able to fill them all. As Caleb puts it, “I just wanted to make sure if this was a bad idea it didn’t get any worse!”
Luckily, things worked out. He made side escapement planes for about three years, building scarcely any furniture during that time. Then he turned to spokeshaves for a couple of years. “So I’ve spent as much time doing tools as furniture.” And he’s working on that book.
Caleb attributes his proficiency in part to watching his father build things. His dad never felt any hesitation, he says; instead, his attitude was “If you need it…just build it yourself.”
“I’m very much an auto-didact,” he continues. “I have no problem reading about something, then thinking through it.” That said, he doesn’t consider himself self-taught; as he sees it, “I learned from books.”
He did take one class with Peter Galbert circa 2011, because he wanted to spend time with someone who was making a living from their craft. He wasn’t building chairs like Pete’s; he just wanted to see how Pete was making chairs for a living. Caleb told Pete he was building chairs of his own for a living, in response to which Pete “dropped a big stack of his plans on the bench” and gave Caleb permission to build as many of his designs as he might wish, and sell them – a generous offer that Caleb appreciated, even though he didn’t build any of Pete’s designs for sale. He had his own ideas.
Pete, in turn, had learned a lot from Curtis Buchanan. Curtis contacted Caleb after Pete told him Caleb was good at drawing. Curtis proposed a swap: Draw a chair for Curtis and take a class in payment. So Caleb took a two-week comb-back armchair class; that was the chair Curtis wanted him to draw. Caleb found he had to redo the drawing multiple times “because Curtis builds ‘by feeling’; you had to unpack what his design was” in order to draw it on paper. That process took him into drafting on the computer, which made edits easier. Caleb produced two sets of drawings: the comb-back armchair and a continuous armchair. When they came to a third drawing, he told Curtis that he wasn’t a professional draftsperson and they should find a professional. He and Curtis happened upon Jeff Lefkowitz after a few failed attempts with other professionals. Jeff was already doing the manuals for Brian Boggs chairs, he says, “and did a fantastic job going forward.”
“I try to avoid a philosophy with my woodworking and just do it,” Caleb answers when I ask for his thoughts about the larger woodworking picture. “I’m very much a ‘do what works and make it fit the application’ person.” While some woodworkers say “OMG, I would never buy anything from Ikea,” he says “I can’t afford to make all my own furniture. Here’s this nice solid-wood pine bunk bed, which probably used fewer materials [anyway]. I could probably take it apart and ship it to someone else after my girls outgrow it.” On the other hand, when it comes to his own work, he makes every chair to the best of his abilities and charges a premium price, even if that’s an indulgence for him and his client. He finds more appeal in Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea that “‘the home will be consumed by the environment at some point.’ If it lasts the entire lifetime of one individual, great. If you can hand it on to someone else after a lifetime [of use], that’s even better.” Caleb thinks of himself as pragmatic.
“I really avoid the philosophical discussion of woodworking, especially in social media,” he continues. “It feels like a source of argument. Opinions in that environment often turn into dogma. And in the end, I don’t know that any of it matters. ‘That’s great,’” he says, as if talking with an acquaintance, “‘have a discussion with your buddy when you’re geeking out on it, and then just leave it there.’”
Someone recently asked how people reacted when he started showing more machines in Instagram posts about his work. “‘Did they react to you like when Bob Dylan started playing electric guitar?’” he recalls. “I laughed. Because I never try to present that all my woodworking is hand tool woodworking. It’s not. I’ve always used power tools to make my hand tools! It depends on your objective. My feeling is, every tool is equal. You use it for what it should be used for. Sometimes I’m working for therapeutic purposes. But then my objective might be to execute a design. And then there’s, ‘maybe my purpose is to make this piece at a price point that’s appropriate to my client and me.’ I just use the right tool for the job and don’t worry about the rest.”
Shane Orion Wiechnik (pronounced “Wichnick” by some and “Vee-eck-nik” by others) first came to my notice through his posts on Instagram. I wasn’t sure whether he was Australian, or an American in Australia (he is both at this point, as an American who married an Australian citizen), but we cleared that up when he asked me to be a guest on “This Crafted World,” the podcast he runs with English furniture maker Harry T. Morris. From the first time we spoke, I was impressed by the breadth of his interest in artifacts and the activities of making, as well as restoration – possibly even more so than in the objects he produces — as well as the ambitious ways he has devised to further his skills and knowledge. “I’m very excited about processes and materials – how humans work and have worked,” he says, “how we experiment with materials around us to develop techniques, the innate material intelligence we develop as we work with things, and how objects and crafts tell us about history.”
In this age of “take a class, then teach it,” I was charmed by Shane’s modesty about his skills, training and pretty much everything else, especially in view of the high-caliber work he shares through Instagram. It took me a few years to feel worthy of identifying myself as a cabinetmaker, even after my first-year training in furniture making through the City & Guilds system in England, where I was living at the time, and a few years’ experience of work in others’ shops. So Shane’s humility resonated – though based on the work I’ve seen to date, he’s due for a recalibration of where he stands as a craftsman.
Shane is especially interested in how craft “enables” – how it empowers us to function more responsibly and fully – especially those of us who have grown up in cultures that take the making of things for granted, and have accustomed so many of us to call others for repair work we might otherwise do for ourselves. “It’s a grounding for me,” he says of this enabling. “When you’re a teenager, you’re being a hooligan and making a mess because the world already existed [and was there for you]. You’re not really a part of it. But learning historic craft and engaging with materials and seeing that the world came from something, through a variety of processes by people just like you, grounds me in a kind of reality and makes the world something I can care about more and understand.”
Shane was born in 1987 at Fort Wainwright, a military base in Alaska near where his father was posted. His dad recently retired after a career in the Army. His mother worked in administration at medical offices for much of the time he was growing up, though he adds that when he was in high school she took a position as an emergency medical technician, which he says was “probably her favorite-ever job.”
When Shane was a kid, his father repaired cars as had his own father, but he didn’t train Shane to do that kind of work. Shane’s introduction to tools came through his involvement in theater at high school, after which he studied film and television production at college. That introduced him to set building. “I found set building and prop work to be enthralling,” he says. “I mostly watched others work, and it seemed so creative and like there were no rules, but still you ended up with something beautiful. My interaction with tools was poor and without any respect and understanding for what they were doing. If it wasn’t working you just forced it more or blamed your strength. If I wasn’t able to screw something in, as a scrawny kid, I assumed it was because I was weak, even though I was using a power drill or driver. Always wanting to hide weakness,” he adds, in a bit of customary self-deprecation. “I was never smart enough to ask someone how to use the tool properly.”
“I was a very frustrating high school student,” he says, adding that when he asked a teacher for a letter of recommendation to submit with his college applications, she said she couldn’t. He was obviously very smart but did not apply himself. Determined to get a degree, he started at a community college in Lebanon, New Hampshire, then attended classes at Keane State in New Hampshire. His older brother, Damon, had moved to Sydney several years earlier, at the age of 18. While there on a visit, Shane met Andy, an Australian who would later become his spouse. He moved to Sydney at 21 and graduated from Edith Cowan University in Perth.
When I asked what had inspired his interest in the history and culture of making – not to mention larger questions such as whether we are making too many things, instead of repairing those that still have decades of usefulness to offer – he credited his brother, who he says is quite well-read, especially in history and geography, and their father. “Through listening to them I hear a wide variety of perspectives,” Shane says. But “traveling to Australia had a huge impact” as well. “It’s one of those things, moving to another country, when you have to question everything. I’ve had a lot of those moments and dig down in them.” For example, he continues, it’s important to recognize that the world is made; it didn’t just spring into existence. “Growing up in the States, I had no connection to food or where it came from. My first girlfriend in high school lived on an old farm. They whipped cream – it didn’t come out of a can. It was a revelation to me.”
He also credits his academic education. Studying film and television entailed immersing himself in psychological and sociological theory, which introduced him to new ways of seeing.
Getting into Woodworking
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, Shane moved to Boston in 2010 because his study visa expired. In many ways, he says, he had a strong friend group and connection in the States that he hadn’t felt while studying in Perth. He’d moved to Boston hoping that he could return to that life and build from it. “I had been thinking about returning to the States and reconnecting with friends and colleagues there,” he says. He took a job with an event décor company that handled props and sets for events. “The business was run by an art director and his wife who’d worked in Hollywood. If you were [in charge of] some sort of corporate event and wanted to have a Christmas party in Boston, they would do the décor.” They specialized in décor that was Boston-related, with lots of set-type props. “I mostly painted things then,” he laughs, referring to hours spent with a roller. What ignited his interest in woodworking was not the work alone, but two colleagues who became his friends. Ken Decost, he says, “was very particular, with high standards.” Sam Gabrielson “was very smart; he got very excited about solving problems.” Sam, who came from a furniture family with ties to the furniture industry in the States, was also very encouraging.
He worked on setting up a film business, “but the film business plans fell through. I struggled to find new work opportunities, and I barely saw the people I’d missed. I missed Andy a great deal and felt quite lost in what I was trying to do. Financial prospects also looked better in Australia, so Andy and I decided I should move back to Perth. I left the job to move to Western Australia and be with Andy. We got married in 2011 and brought me back on another visa until I could get permanent residency.”
Of the time after this, he says, “I wasted five years of my life.” He struggled to find any kind of creative work in Perth and ended up working at a company that programmed radios (walkie-talkies) for mine sites, a job he stuck with for two years, even though, he says, “I absolutely hated it.” Andy had bought a house that was in seriously compromised condition and required a lot of work, but Shane says, “I was not nearly as capable a person as I wanted to be. Andy and I are not those people you see on YouTube and Instagram who really ‘tackle’ the house. We just lived in a crappy house for years.”
By the age of 26 he’d had enough of the job he hated. In search of work that would engage his interests and capabilities, he moved to Sydney and volunteered at a nonprofit environmental charity dedicated to reducing landfill waste. One arm of the operation involved repairing furniture, to extend its useful life. “I had no training other than what I had learned from the two carpenters, Sam and Ken, at the event décor job.” The workforce included some old farmers, along with one guy, Mitch Lavender, who was a big fan of Lost Art Press; they would share what they knew with Shane. “Mitch was a fitter and turner/metalworker, who was…setting up his own forge in his backyard. He was a big influence in transferring the prop building knowledge into grounded craft knowledge.” Shane and his housemate, Robbie Karmel, “a wonderful artist,” regularly watched “The Woodwright’s Shop” in the evenings, then worked on projects in the backyard until their neighbors yelled at them for making noise.
“I’d quit my job in Perth and been unemployed for two years. That was a genuinely awful life for me. When I came to Sydney I wasn’t certain that I was capable of working. Nine to five was something I wasn’t sure I could do for the rest of my life. But to pay rent I would wander around the alleys of Newtown [in New South Wales]. In Australia there’s a lot of furniture on the side of the road. So I would go around and find stuff that needed work.” Then he took it to the place where he volunteered and sold it through them. His rent was $250 (Australian dollars) a week; he lived off about $50 of groceries per week. With his income from fixing up old furniture, he just about broke even.
Eventually the manager of the nonprofit created a bona fide job for Shane – fixing stuff for resale. This position grew into something much bigger. They had started in a tiny shed attached to a building, then expanded into offering classes in carpentry and furniture repair “based on my extremely limited knowledge,” he interjects emphatically. The furniture program moved to another building with five benches and more space; they also invested in some basic machines. Over the course of five years it became a full-time job for Shane, managing the woodworking department of the charity. He taught an introduction to woodworking four nights a week, as well as on weekends. He was working six days a week – managing volunteers, fixing furniture and making furniture with no formal training.
“When I was first starting to make a job at [the nonprofit], we were looking at products I could make and sell. I was opposed to anything that wouldn’t last and wouldn’t be used. As an example, the manager wanted to make those wine bottle holders that lean and balance. I figured no one actually uses those for any period of time and they just get thrown away so what the hell is the point and why would we spend energy making them. Our first product ended up being a basic wooden crate, like an apple crate. It allowed us to use all kinds of discarded timbers. Around that time I went back to the States and visited a friend for dinner. She and her friends were going around the table talking about these amazing developments in their respective impressive careers. Then she turns to me and says ‘so… tell me more about these crates’ and I felt so dreadfully embarrassed.” Pretty ironic, when you consider that wooden crates can be handsome and practical ways to move and store things, not to mention last for many decades, if not centuries.
By the time Shane reached age 30, he decided it was time to learn the proper ways to do what he’d been doing with no training. He applied to West Dean College to study furniture restoration/conservation and gave his employer seven months’ notice. “It was in the week before finding out [whether I’d been accepted] that I started to panic. I was already training my replacement, Luke Mitchell, by that point.” Fortunately, he got in.
Shane made his way to England and arrived at West Dean. “I did not feel like I was allowed to be in that building,” he says of the school’s august history and surroundings. “I felt very uncomfortable there for about a week, but the students are all amazing.” He showed up “reluctantly” to the welcoming party but started talking shop immediately and soon felt right at home. “Edward James, the founder of the school, was friends with Salvador Dali and had a surrealist history; it stopped feeling intimidating very quickly. The school has very high standards. I loved it.”
He relished his time in a workshop where he worked alongside others who were equally interested in learning – not just developing new woodworking and finishing techniques, but cultivating such important skills as how to judge the age of an object, which entails understanding how finishes and other materials change over time. In Sydney, he’d become obsessed with furniture conservation but “didn’t know anyone else who was as interested as I was.”
At West Dean, he continues, “We got to work on actual objects. We went to Vienna and got to go behind the scenes at a couple of museums to their workshops, [as well as to see a couple of schools]. We went into the conservation labs of the MAK, where we saw a guy working on a Roentgen cabinet.” The conservator who was working on it was “super excited”; he showed them everything. “It was a very cool trip. Coming from America and going to Australia” – both of which he recognizes as “young [countries] in terms of furniture work as I know it – i.e. with respect to European tastes and woodworking,” despite their ancient indigenous cultures – “going to work on stuff in England and going across Europe to see the variety of high-end pieces really was mind blowing. But also weird, because I knew that I was probably going to come back to Sydney and work at my environmental charity.”
Shane was at West Dean for one year, as that was all he could afford. Echoing others who have had formal training, he adds, “As much as you put in, you’d get out of it.”
Another benefit of his time at West Dean is that he met fellow student Harry T. Morris, who was in the furniture making program. More on that later.
In 2019, Shane returned to Sydney. He picked up some work at the charity – “a very strange experience,” he notes, especially after his time at West Dean. He also started to work with a restorer who had studied at West Dean 40 years before. Shane tried to start his own business, but as has been the case for many of us, that didn’t work out.
Intent on further expanding his skills, as well as his appreciation for aspects of craft besides making things, he contacted International Conservation Services, Australia’s largest team of private conservators. The organization’s CEO had also been trained at West Dean. Shane visited the organization’s workshop; they had one furniture conservator, Oliver Hull, who is English and had worked there alone for the four years prior. They asked Shane if he’d like to join Oliver, and he started doing three or four days a week in the furniture conservation department. Since then he has added work for conservator John Gubbings, in addition to continuing his part-time work for what is now known as The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre, the nonprofit devoted to reducing waste. He worked there for 1-1/2 years and is looking into possibilities to help them further.
The Bigger Picture
As students at West Dean, Shane and Harry “clicked early on,” even though Harry is 12 years younger. They’d discuss their respective projects and soon found themselves “on the same wavelength about so many things.” Many nights they talked until 2 a.m., “often while playing cribbage.” Harry found a lot of value in the conversations and wanted to keep them up after graduation. Hence the idea of the podcast, “This Crafted World”. They have also kept up their friendship – in 2019 they traveled to Japan, where they took a course in Japanese carpentry that Shane considers foundational to his current outlook and practice. The course began with an entire week of sharpening. To make the trip affordable, the two shared a living space. “I was sleeping on the floor,” says Shane, “because it’s Japan, and it’s expensive there.”
Their podcasts vary broadly, depending on who’s involved. While topics range from how the two of them work in their own daily lives and what craft means to them, they also explore larger dimensions of making, such as how to deal with “making for making’s sake.” As Shane puts it, “There’s already too much stuff!” – a view too rarely heard amid the current celebration of all things making. In their podcast, they leave discussion of nuts and bolts to others and focus on ideas. “We thought if there was anything we could add to the conversation, it would be the thoughts we both had about the world. As we grow and develop, anything that pops into our heads we turn into a subject and make a podcast.” It may sound random, but it’s not; I was blown away by the caliber of questions they asked in the podcast we did together, weirdly and serendipitously based on Shane’s discovery of “Historic Preservation in Indiana: Essays from the Field,” a book I’d put together and edited for the Indiana University Press about a decade ago.
Intent on expanding and refining his skills, as well as his exposure to other cultures and their methods of making and restoring, Shane is working on a “journeyman trip” of his own design, “provided that the world opens up.” Once again, he has given a generous seven months’ notice to his present employers. “There’s so much I don’t know how to do. Because I’ve found this [work] so late, I feel I need to rapidly catch up.” Next year he hopes to spend three months in the eastern United States, then spend some time in Europe, working in conservation and craft workshops for a minimum of two weeks each. So far, he has arrangements with shops in Virginia, New York and Boston, and is trying to arrange for a month in Netherlands, then France and the United Kingdom, in addition to Italy (and ideally also elsewhere). Again, to make this investment in his education more affordable – especially as he’s aware that he may not be able to get paid for his work in other countries due to the financial constraints at many shops, not to mention certain countries’ prohibition against non-citizens being paid for work – he is planning the trip around friends and craftspeople who can put him up in their homes.
“The journeyman thing doesn’t exist in this field,” he notes, adding that he applied for a George Alexander Fellowship through the International Specialist Skills Institute, which he just learned he has been granted. “In Australia we get a lot of stuff from different places,” he said, referring especially to antiques for restoration. The journeyman trip will help familiarize him with international differences, as well as subtleties in period and style, and so help him become a better restorer. He’s also keen to see how different people work. Beyond his interest in building his own skills, he would like to help others. “Every little thing I pick up, or every little thing I get better at, is something I can share with others. If I get better at that work, it informs another engagement with the world, whether teaching or writing or an Instagram post or the podcast. That makes everything feel so much more worth it.”
You can find the podcast we did together, “Not Capital-I Important,” here.
Several weeks ago, John Scott, a woodworker friend and real-life brain surgeon, suggested that Betty Scarpino would make a good profile for this series. “Don’t know if you know Betty,” he wrote, “but I’ll place her for nomination in your series! She’s a fantastic woodturner in Indianapolis, with pieces in museums all over the country.”
As it happened, I did know of Betty; she’d been in my sights since the early ’90s, though we hadn’t met or even corresponded. Every so often I came across her name as a woodturner.
“Betty is super!” John wrote back, adding, “Susan and I have a couple of her pieces that we purchased from her when she had a small showing in her house many years ago, before she was represented in galleries. I almost choke when I see what her pieces sell for now!”
I was interested in Betty not only as a highly skilled woodworker, but also as a woman who has been practicing her craft for decades while raising two sons, for some of that time as a single mother. But what really got me hooked was her surprising statement that while she’s best known for turning, her great love is carving.
We spoke on a Saturday morning in March. Betty was in her garden in Indianapolis with Diesel, her son Dan’s chocolate Labrador, who’s under her care while Dan hikes the Arizona National Scenic Trail. With springtime birdsong in the background, she told me she was getting ready to deliver a work titled Gentle Impressions to the Indiana Artists Club exhibition at Newfields (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art) later in the day. The juried show had serious spatial limitations, which made it a challenge to decide which piece to submit. Betty’s small sculpture was awarded second place by the jury.
Betty has shown her work in many galleries around the country. A quick look at her website reveals an eye-popping list of museums that hold her work in their permanent collections, among them the Renwick Gallery, the Yale University Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Art Museum, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Peabody Essex Museum and Philadelphia’s Center for Art in Wood – an impressive achievement for an artist. No wonder her work is valued more highly today than it was early in her career. Until the last 10 years, Betty was far better known at the national level than in her adopted state of Indiana.
The second of four sisters, Betty was born in Wenatchee, Wash., in 1949. Her mother worked at home full-time; her father was an entrepreneur who ran a pawn brokerage and sold sporting goods through stores in southern Idaho and Kalispell, Mont. Because her family moved often, she describes where she grew up as no single location, but “all over the Pacific Northwest.” She attended five different schools in third grade alone; by the time her parents celebrated the 25th anniversary of their marriage, they had moved their family 25 times.
Betty married Phil Scarpino in 1971. Having spent two years in the army during the 1970s, Phil jumped at the opportunity to attend graduate school. They were living in Columbia, Missouri, where Betty worked full-time as a computer operator and was also training to program computers.
Phil’s evenings were always busy with school, so Betty decided to enroll in a night class. The only one available was woodworking; she signed up. Soon, she was so taken with the work that she quit her job to attend classes full-time. She graduated in 1982 with a degree in industrial arts, the curriculum for which included training in furniture making and the use of woodworking machinery. She had basic instruction on the lathe, turning a bowl and the pedestal for a table, but after that, she learned by doing.
During her time in college, Betty also took classes in the art department. She wanted to carve wood sculptures. After graduation, she considered renting a shop where she could build furniture, but soon discovered that renting a workspace would not be practical, especially after she had her first son, Sam, at the age of 34. So instead of investing in a shop, she bought a lathe. The American Association of Woodturners had started up in 1986, “a vibrant, active, inclusive organization that it was really easy to plug into,” she says. Betty edited their journal from 1990-1993, then started to make more of her own pieces, and quickly became known in the turning field.
Phil is a faculty member at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in American history and historic preservation. His job brought them to Indianapolis in 1986; their second son, Dan, was born there.
After Betty and Phil divorced in 2000, Betty continued to piece together an income from a variety of sources. She sold her turnings; she wrote a regular column about turning for Woodworker’s Journal for three years; for six years she was editor of theAmerican Woodturner Journal. She also made money – good money – from turning demonstrations and teaching, and has taught at Arrowmont and Anderson Ranch, to name just a couple well-regarded schools.
What Does ‘Round’ Mean?
“I just made regular bowls to start with, like everybody else,” Betty says. But before long, she began to adorn her bowls with carving. Her sculpting instructor at the University of Missouri had had a lathe in the back room of the art department; she talked with him about using the lathe to make sculpture. “I was 25 when I first went to an art museum!” she says. “I knew nothing.” Her instructor had always said, “’Round objects turned on a lathe are not interesting,’” so in her curious, boundary-pushing way, Betty decided to explore “the vast potential of what resides within ‘round’ objects,” in part by “deconstructing lathe-turned objects.” She’d turn a disc, cut it apart, do a bit of carving and explore what lay beneath the surface. She also appreciates the metaphorical dimensions of this technique, comparing the process of exploration and refinement to that of what some might call soul work. “We’re always working on ourselves, our lives,” she says. “My sculpture’s like that. I turn a disc, then cut it apart, then reconstruct that in a way that’s lifelike and energizing and satisfying.”
Making a Living as an Artist
Collectors of art in wood were key to Betty’s livelihood and creative development in the 1990s and aughts. “As soon as I made something, it sold,” she says. Betty increasingly worked on sculptures that had nothing to do with turning. “That’s really where my interest has been all along,” she points out. “Until then, I never had the opportunity to explore that kind of work fully. When you have 20 people buying things because they’re turned… I just plugged into that and made money. I enjoyed it. That’s why I ended up becoming known as a woodturner when really that’s not my main interest.”
Considering that her main interest is carving, it comes as a surprise to hear she didn’t study it at university. Her knowledge about the field was far more basic: “I knew that you used a gouge and a mallet.” Betty leapt right in, learning along the way. Today she carves primarily with power tools and generally prefers reciprocating tools to rotary carvers, “because I can find the line better,” she says. Her favorite is an Automach reciprocating carver; she also uses Arbortech tools.
Betty has been through some real twists and turns as she has worked to support herself as a woodturner and sculptor. “Galleries used to exist,” she says bluntly, alluding to the devastating effects on brick-and-mortar-based businesses due to the Great Recession, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. She used to be associated with several galleries that sold artists’ work around the country, but many have closed. Today, exhibits such as the one at Newfields provide visibility. She uses her website to sell existing works and garner new commissions. She also appreciates the value of plain old word-of-mouth. “Along the way, I have had two very generous women patrons who have helped me,” she says. The broader woodworking field has benefited from the Windgate Foundation, which supports the teaching of craft and art in many ways, such as donations to the Center for Art in Wood, a new dorm at Arrowmont School for Arts and Crafts and support of woodturning at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.
Although Betty’s work is held by prestigious museums, many sculptures spend much of their time in storage and are only brought out for exhibit in the occasional show. Betty’s work is labor-intensive, so her limited output constrains marketing through galleries.
“If you’re a craftsperson you can market your work in a craft store or sell it online. There are also craft fairs, etsy, etc. But my work doesn’t sell well in those venues,” says Betty. Today, her work ranges in price from $3,000 to $12,000 – art-world prices that demand a specific marketing niche or connecting with just the right buyer.
Retirement is not on Betty’s radar. She intends to be carving a sculpture on the day she dies. Now that she has the time and resources to devote to carving, without having to worry about sales, she is excited to see her work evolving to in-the-round sculpture. Betty has come full circle to her first love: carving wood.