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Interview with Laura Mays & Deirdre Visser

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Cura­tors of ground­break­ing exhi­bi­tion Making a Seat at the Table: Women Trans­form Wood­work­ing discuss their crite­ria, inspi­ra­tion, upcom­ing book, and the role of women in woodworking.

What’s it like to be a woman in the male-domi­nated field of wood­work­ing? Four years after Deirdre Visser posed that ques­tion to Laura Mays, the two teamed together to curate the ground­break­ing exhi­bi­tion, Making a Seat at the Table: Women Trans­form Wood­work­ing. The exhi­bi­tion at The Center for Art in Wood grew out of numer­ous conver­sa­tions, includ­ing one with the then-new Artis­tic Direc­tor of The Center, Navva Milliken, who was envi­sion­ing an exhi­bi­tion in conjunc­tion with the cente­nary of women’s suffrage in the US.

Here, Laura, Program Direc­tor and Lead Instruc­tor at The Krenov School, Mendo­cino College, and Deirdre, Curator of The Arts at Cali­for­nia Insti­tute of Inte­gral Studies, talk about the exhi­bi­tion process, cama­raderie, and how height makes a differ­ence in the work.

What crite­ria did you use to select the artists/​work as there are so many talented female-iden­ti­fy­ing wood­work­ers out there?
There are SO many! We were partic­u­larly inter­ested in the places and works in which women are pushing the bound­aries of what’s conven­tion­ally thought of as wood­work­ing, blur­ring it with other adja­cent fields of prac­tice. For example, some works bridge art and design, engage social justice and commu­nity partic­i­pa­tion, use digital tech­nolo­gies in inno­v­a­tive ways, or suggest new economic models. We invited 14 makers and — to expand our own knowl­edge of women-iden­ti­fied makers in North America — put out an open call for more. We had a jury/​advisory commit­tee to bounce ideas around with: Tom Loeser, Cheryl Riley, and Jennifer-Navva Milliken. We do not presume that this repre­sents a defin­i­tive map of who’s making; we know there are many talented and inter­est­ing makers out there. We were invested in repre­sent­ing the great diver­sity of approaches, concep­tual and mate­r­ial.

Has an exhi­bi­tion with a focus on women in wood­work­ing been done before in the US? What did you use to guide you?
There was a show at the Work­bench Gallery in New York in the 1980s with six women makers, and another enti­tled Furni­ture Divas’ at the Fuller Craft Museum in Mass­a­chu­setts in 2011, which was not specif­i­cally wood focused. As a guide to ques­tions and frame­works, we used the research we have been doing for the book project by the same name.

Congrat­u­la­tions on the book. Can you talk a little about it and how it relates to the exhibit.
We’re writing the book at the moment! It should be published in Spring 2021.

The exhi­bi­tion, by its nature, shows the work of women in its haptic, tangi­ble, mate­r­ial and phenom­e­no­log­i­cal form. The book on the other hand is a combi­na­tion of inter­views and theo­ret­i­cal or topic-based chap­ters. The inter­views go into depth discussing moti­va­tion and chal­lenges, makers’ journey to wood­work­ing, and the ways they orga­nize their lives around their prac­tice. The topics in the other chap­ters include a history of women in wood­work­ing, educa­tion, economic models, activism, and commu­nity.

This is pretty basic: how do you see the work of female-iden­ti­fy­ing makers differ­ent than that of male — in general?
It’s actu­ally a really compli­cated and inter­est­ing ques­tion! And clearly is not answer­able in quan­tifi­able terms, so some people may feel there is a differ­ence while others don’t perceive one. In untan­gling it, we think it is possi­ble that women approach wood­work­ing in a less tradi­tional way, bring­ing differ­ent refer­ences and resources to solving mate­r­ial and design ques­tions.

Women are also typi­cally smaller in stature, and are thus less likely to use brute force to make some­thing happen or to move mate­r­ial, again solving prob­lems differ­ently, whether through differ­ent tool use or working in collab­o­ra­tion with others. If we consider train­ing and educa­tion in wood, women tend to enter wood­work­ing through acad­e­mia — often through the sculp­ture depart­ments at art schools — and so bring a narra­tive and expres­sive process to their work. Having said that though, we are also wary of being essen­tial­ist, and stay away from declar­a­tive state­ments like, women make this kind of work.” The CAW exhi­bi­tion over­whelm­ingly demon­strates that women-iden­ti­fied wood­work­ers make all kinds of work.

The title of the exhibit uses the word trans­form.’ How do you see women have trans­formed this craft?
Women have been excluded from wood­shops for centuries, more than from other sites of produc­tion and craft-making, some­times by force of law (the Guilds of the Middle Ages in Europe). We think that a systemic change in who has access to wood­shops, and who makes work there, trans­forms the field.

There are a lot of chal­lenges to being a woman wood­worker in many areas still. What would you say to these women?
Seek out your mentors! Women benefit by support­ing each other and forming networks. The isola­tion that some women feel as the only woman in a shop situ­a­tion can be intense; knowing that there are others out there, and sharing strate­gies for coping or even handling heavy planks together can be really useful.

Anything that espe­cially surprised or excited you as you were working on this exhibit?
We were really moved by the outpour­ing of good­will and cama­raderie around the show. So many makers came to the opening and made it an oppor­tu­nity to form commu­nity with other women in the field. It’s very clear there was a real desire to connect. It’s excit­ing and promis­ing for the future.

-Inter­view by Mya Rea Nelson