Past, present, future

January 10, 2011

This past week two separate events came together to remind me, yet again, not only of the importance of mentoring, but how one chooses whom to mentor.

Thirty two years ago in 1979, Bill Brown, the director of North Carolina’s Penland School of Crafts, told me that I could become the school’s woodworker-in-residence; a position I held for 6 years (or more honestly, a position I took advantage of for 6 years).

What made his selection of me unique, and some would have argued setting a dangerous precedent, was that I didn’t have a shred of evidence of an artistic portfolio. Unlike today, where to even apply to Penland for a residency one needs, first and foremost, not only a slide portfolio of work, but a Master of Fine Arts degree, I had nothing but stories about being a carpenter apprentice in Alaska after graduating with a history degree from Harvard. And, oh. I also had a burning desire to learn.

It was the passion I was exuding that Bill’s radar picked up on that helped him to decide who would be an appropriate candidate for the residency.

Fast forward to this week when Becca came for a day to learn a little carving. She had no previous experience, so when she expressed an interest in me teaching her a little about chisels and gouges, I made half of my decision the way Bill Brown did: on what her heart was saying, rather than a business oriented, money directed, calculated, rationalized decision of career options.

As for the other half of my decision, I also allowed her to spend the day with me in my studio simply because she was female.

Now, this statement needs clarification.

Flashback to 1959 and I am a 13 year old boy listening to my mother tell the story of how, when she was younger, she spent several years working on a Master’s Degree in Musicology. Upon completion of her thesis at Wayne State University, she handed it in to her supervisor who took it away to read and review. Being in the 1930’s and before photocopiers, this was the only copy.

My mother’s supervisor died and her thesis was lost somewhere in all his belongings. When she went to the dean of the university to ask for assistance in salvaging some sort of credit for all the work she had done, the dean denied her any help because, as he told her matter-of-factly and with all seriousness: “You are just a woman. And whether or not you have a master’s degree is of no significance. Spend your time at home like any good mother would.” This killed my mother’s enthusiasm for further research.

I have never forgotten it. This story of what it is like to be a woman in a man’s world slapped my young mind and heart which such a force that it hardwired within me a constant obligation to help women surmount the cultural obstacles of a patriarchal society. And sadly, a hierarchy still in power today. So, yes, I have a soft spot for females striving to better themselves.

Now, back to 1979, where, in my first year as a resident at Penland, I designed and constructed two wave coffee tables. One of them was purchased by Philip Hanes, and this week, on the Thursday Becca was carving away diligently in my studio, I was notified that it was to be auctioned off on Saturday.

Memories of my years at Penland flooded back. Memories, also, of how I got to be at Penland. In no small way I am here at today at Windgrove because of Bill Brown’s initial act of generosity to someone who just walked onto his school grounds with nothing more than a burning desire.

On Saturday, Bill’s son Bill, Jr., drove through a snow storm to be at the auction to make a bid for me. It was surpassed within seconds. Hopefully, the new owner will get as much satisfaction from it as Phil Hanes and his family did for over 30 years in their use of this coffee table.

Even though I was unsuccessful in my auction bid, I welcome the opportunity to re-visit the satisfaction I got in the original making of this wave table and how I came to be at Penland. I, also, will cherish the recent new memories of my reciprocating the past by mentoring someone whose future might include memories of her first day carving when she looks back to the year 2011 and is talking to her daughter about her start as a wood sculptor.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Di June 17, 2011 at 11:58 pm

A beautiful story for lots of reasons! And that is THE most beautiful table I have ever seen. Di

Dorothy January 10, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Hi Peter,
The pictures are great … reflecting a very happy day and a happy daughter. Thank you for the record of the motivation and your own story. Also love the coffee table you told us of … a wee bit sad it didn’t come home to you, but am glad someone really wanted it: its magnificent, the more so for having heard you speak of its making. The knife shop reopened today, so finally we were able to get some chisels … no doubt Becca will be in touch.
And, as always, our love to the special place that is Windgrove.
Cheers, Dorothy

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