Interview with Laura Mays & Deirdre Visser
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