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Members, Interview

Deirdre Visser in conversation with Kristina Madsen

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Deirdre Visser sat down with Kristina Madsen to talk about her life, her career as a maker, and why she loves to carve.

Visser is currently co-author­ing with Laura Mays a history titled, Making a Seat at the Table: Women Trans­form Wood­work­ing, which will be published by Rout­ledge in 2021. This essay draws on the lengthy inter­view Visser did with Kristina Madsen in January 2020, research for the larger book project. 

In fall of 2019, Mays and Visser co-curated an exhi­bi­tion by the same title, Making a Seat at the Table, that opened at The Center for Art in Wood in Philadel­phia; the exhibit featured the work of 43 women and gender non-conforming makers.

Below is a version of this interview.

I carve because I love it. I’m quite consumed by it; I love pattern making.” ‑Kristina Madsen

Kristina Madsen, sample carving done in Fiji, 1991

Through­out time and across cultures humans have deco­rated surfaces. We have a natural, innate desire for deco­ra­tion. My work is one link in this ever-length­en­ing chain of tradition. 

In mid-January 2020 I sat down with Kristina Madsen in Western Mass­a­chu­setts in the kitchen of the house in which she grew up. An uncom­monly warm winter, there had finally been some snow the night before, and a few inches of fresh powder artic­u­lated the bare branches of the decid­u­ous trees lining rural roads as I drove west in my very red rental car. Folks were out shov­el­ing their walk­ways and drive­ways, occa­sion­ally waving to a neigh­bor. It was crisp but not too cold, the long rays of winter light throw­ing shadows on the picturesque New England house when I pulled into the drive. 

Twenty-eight years ago, Madsen moved back to this home to care for her parents. After her father died, her mother needed more care, so she settled in and built a shop for herself about thirty paces from the home where she and her mom lived. Madsen’s parents, both of whom had grown up in the Southamp­ton area in fami­lies involved in agri­cul­ture, tended the land around their home and sustained a large garden, putting up food each fall for the family to get through the winter, a tradi­tion she main­tains today. She is the steward of her family’s acreage, and she and her sister are in the midst of creat­ing a conser­va­tion ease­ment for land that feels sacred to her.

Childhood/​Family life

Neither parent was a wood­worker, but the women on Madsen’s mother’s side were dexter­ous, skilled craftswomen in various kinds of needle­work and textiles. In addi­tion to a gifted and mentor­ing grand­mother, Madsen had three great-aunts — also on her mother’s side— who were models of inde­pen­dence, pursu­ing educa­tion and profes­sional careers, and trav­el­ing around the world. Aunt Erna, in partic­u­lar — who attended Colum­bia Univer­sity — was an advo­cate for her grand-nieces’ educa­tion and an influential role-model.

My mother was a needle­worker of the highest order,” Madsen recalled. She did exquis­ite work, and she set me to stitch­ing when I was a little girl. I was using all the needles, sewing needles, knit­ting needles and the like, so I’ve always been inclined toward hand­work and precision.

Fabric is as much of an inter­est to me as wood is,” Madsen says of her even­tual mate­r­ial devel­op­ment. The wood has come to domi­nate, but they’re very inter­re­lated. And the carving is now quite similar to some of the more rhyth­mic stitches, like the knit­ting or crochet­ing. It’s very repet­i­tive and quite medi­ta­tive. You just get into the flow of it.”

In high school Madsen became very involved in the art and theatre programs. When the time came to do her senior inde­pen­dent study, though she’d never taken carpen­try or wood­shop, she initially sought a wood­worker with whom to study, but couldn’t find one. When I asked her what her impulse towards wood­work­ing had been, she replied, I have no idea! It was just a hunch….I was 17. There’s no account­ing for it….I had no famil­iar­ity what­so­ever with fine furniture building.

Then the year after high school I met (master wood­worker) David Powell in a bar,” she contin­ued. A mutual friend actu­ally talked him into taking me on. He was a little timid about it to begin with; he was afraid of the liabil­ity, someone working on machines… When he asked me what I wanted to build, I told him a wheel­bar­row and a ladder. Go figure.” With one semes­ter of univer­sity educa­tion under her belt, Madsen was hooked. Once she started, there was no going back. Powell, who had trained with Edward Barns­ley, had a small shop in an old potato barn in Hatfield, Mass­a­chu­setts, outfit­ted with hand tools, a work bench, and a table saw. For the first two years, I just used hand tools because that’s what he was trained on,” Madsen recalls. Barns­ley’s shop just had a treadle circu­lar saw, and every­thing else was hand tools. You can see in his tool chest all of that lineage.”

In her first appren­tice year, Madsen was making pieces Powell had designed. From a hand-sawn octag­o­nal cutting board she moved to a book­case and then a coffee table before finally making a chest. I was hugely fortu­nate to have studied with David,” she says. He was very demand­ing. I think one reason he gave so much to me was because he could see that I had the incli­na­tion for preci­sion and that I was focused and persis­tent.” In the second year Madsen completed a type case of her own design for a bookbinder.

After the second year of taking on appren­tices, Powell (now Powell and [John] Tierney Wood­work­ers) formal­ized the train­ing program as Leeds Design Work­shops. Madsen spent two more years working under Powell’s guid­ance before she started in a teach­ing capac­ity herself. With twenty students at a time, Madsen remem­bers that there were never more than two or three women in a class. Though today one is an archi­tect, Madsen isn’t aware of any that are still working in wood. Reflect­ing on the educa­tional expe­ri­ence at Leeds, Madsen suspects that the women in the program likely had the same expe­ri­ence of their reserved and unap­proach­able yet stun­ningly skilled” instruc­tor that their male peers had.

Madsen emerged as a maker into the world that was rich with oppor­tu­ni­ties. The studio furni­ture move­ment was blos­som­ing: Galleries along the eastern seaboard were mount­ing exhi­bi­tions, and the market­place offered oppor­tu­ni­ties for commis­sion, repre­sen­ta­tion, and collec­tion. Except for one summer in her early twen­ties when she worked as a seam­stress, Madsen has made her living as a furni­ture maker. Although she’ll tell you that it’s a good thing she didn’t need much, it’s never­the­less an extra­or­di­nary and rare accomplishment.

I had oppor­tu­ni­ties — I think we all had oppor­tu­ni­ties — that people getting into the field today don’t have. Museums and newly-opened galleries were mount­ing exhi­bi­tions that included the work of young makers. There was a great sense of cama­raderie through­out the growing field, espe­cially amongst the small group of women makers. For instance, one year, 83, Wendy [Maruyama] and Rosanne [Somer­son] and I all were resi­dents at Art Park in New York. We were there as friends and cowork­ers during that time. It was really lovely to be part of that small group. When I think back to those oppor­tu­ni­ties we had as young makers in a devel­op­ing field, I don’t believe young people today have the same oppor­tu­ni­ties to launch their careers.”

Learn­ing Fijian Carving

Makiti Koto, Kini Kini (paddle club), 1988

At 20 or 21 years old, living in a Northamp­ton apart­ment, Madsen was lent a catalog that would shape the rest of her life as a wood­worker. It was large, a coffee table-sized book of the Oceanic Collec­tion at Chicago’s Field Museum. This was her first expo­sure to the exquis­ite carving of the Pacific island region north­east of Australia. I would pore through that borrowed book,” she recalls. I even­tu­ally found a copy for myself…and then, when I was invited to the Univer­sity of Tasma­nia, I [went] to New Zealand on my way over and Fiji on my way back: 10 days in New Zealand, a week in Fiji. That was an extra­or­di­nary oppor­tu­nity,” she says. I was satu­rated with that work and really pursued it.” In Fiji Madsen was intro­duced to a carver named Makiti Koto and arranged to spend a day with him in his village. When Madsen returned to the States shortly there­after, a friend encour­aged her to apply for a Fulbright Grant. Without a college degree, she applied in the at-large” cate­gory, which recog­nized makers or schol­ars with ten or more years of expe­ri­ence in their field of prac­tice. She received the award and went back to Fiji in 1991 to work with Makiti for nine months. 

In the complex inter­sec­tion of personal rela­tion­ships in a global and colo­nial polit­i­cal and economic land­scape, an American’s pres­ence afforded some economic and social capital to Makiti’s family. In his forties and with a young family, Makiti spoke English fluently, had trav­eled to New Zealand and the West Coast of the US, and was willing to take on a young and enthu­si­as­tic Amer­i­can. Madsen spent five months with him on the main island of Viti Levu, and another three in his home village on Fulaga, one of only two Fijian islands where carving is done. 

We worked in the shade under his house [built on pilings]. Often, there were one or two other carvers working with us. Makiti was a great story­teller and as we carved, he schooled me in nai vakarau vakav­iti (the Fijian way). On Fulaga, where tradi­tional mores were still intact, I could­n’t carve with the men, so I sat and carved next to Maki­ti’s mother. I was quite a curios­ity to all of the villagers, who were patient with me as I made plenty of blun­ders navi­gat­ing village life.”

In addi­tion to study­ing the language, Madsen was doing as much reading in the library as she could take in, and absorb­ing Makiti’s conscious efforts to help her under­stand Fijian culture and history. She returned from her Fulbright expe­ri­ence in Febru­ary 1992, build­ing a new body of work, all carved. The rela­tion­ship formed that Fulbright year changed both of their lives creatively and person­ally. It’s clear that she’s as enlivened today by the possi­bil­i­ties of carving as she was when she first fell in love with that catalog of Oceanic carving.

Pattern­ing and Process

With her history of stitch­ing and needle­work, it’s no surprise that when Madsen started to make furni­ture with carved surfaces, textiles served as her primary pattern refer­ence. Nowa­days, botany is also a major design source. Pattern work is ancient; it’s every­where in nature, compli­cated, beau­ti­ful patterns. We’re surrounded by them,” she says. While in Fiji, Madsen met a profes­sor at the Univer­sity of the South Pacific who intro­duced her to the book Symme­tries of Culture which, she says, became one of my primary sources of pattern research. It’s a math­e­mat­i­cal analy­sis of plane pattern; all symme­tries have a formula that can be applied to them. I could­n’t read the book because it was pure math­e­mat­i­cal analy­sis of pattern, but it’s rich in imagery. Many of the early patterns on my post-Fiji work were influ­enced by Oceanic patterns, tapa cloth in particular.” 

Completely inter­twined and designed simul­ta­ne­ously, Madsen’s furni­ture design and fabri­ca­tion — in phys­i­cal demand and quality of time — are distinct from the energy and focus required for the carving. While she uses the furni­ture form on which to carry out the carving, she also loves the furni­ture aspect — build­ing and problem solving. Some­times the idea of the pattern comes first, and some­times it’s the furni­ture piece that first takes shape in Madsen’s imag­i­na­tion. Never easy, Madsen describes it as brain strain. I have to work really hard to get a project going. The build­ing is active, upright. I’m moving around all the time. And then, when I get to the carving stage, I’m sitting for weeks or months at a time, and it’s very focused and more tiring,” she explains. Little of the carved pattern is drawn onto the completed furni­ture form; in fact, often she draws only the layout in broad strokes, later doing the thought-inten­sive work of refin­ing it. The final effect of light reflect­ing off of the carved facets is never completely appar­ent until the last coat of finish is on it. There’s always some surprise. Always.” The recently completed Poppy Cabinet beau­ti­fully demon­strates the way she works to combine the furni­ture form with the carved pattern.

Kristina Madsen, Poppy Cabinet, 2019 (r. drawer front for the cabinet base)

Forty years into her career, Madsen is making work that is more ambi­tious than ever. They’re large pieces, complex in struc­ture and extra­or­di­nar­ily intri­cate in detail. And, while remain­ing passion­ately engaged in the shop, in the last couple years other oppor­tu­ni­ties have been entic­ing. When Pritam and Eames — the gallery that had repre­sented Madsen for 25 years — closed its phys­i­cal space in 2017 and moved entirely online, an anchor for studio furni­ture was lost. The closing propelled Madsen to consider new paths. She contem­plated return­ing to school to pursue the degree she’d left behind years ago. Yet after explor­ing various options, she real­ized there is still too much she wants to do in the wood­shop. She set her sights on an exhi­bi­tion that will combine completed pieces held by private collec­tors, and a series of new works. I have a limited amount of time to pull this off; it’s now or never. I’m excited. We’ll see where I can take it.”

Deirdre Visser Headshot

Deirdre Visser is Curator of The Arts at CIIS in San Fran­cisco and publisher of CHROMA books. As curator, educa­tor, and publisher she strives to promote plural­ism in the arts, to support artists in the creation of new work, and to foster dynamic and crit­i­cal dialogues within and across commu­ni­ties that propose inte­gra­tive approaches to the urgent ques­tions we collec­tively face. Visser’s work aims to connect history to the present, ethi­cally and strate­gi­cally, to look for common themes and deepen our under­stand­ing of both past and present as we move into the future.

I am indebted to Kristina Madsen for spend­ing a wonder­ful long after­noon with me last January, sharing count­less stories as well as the warmth of her kitchen and home cooking. That unfor­get­table expe­ri­ence provided an anchor for this writing and for the shared editing process.
I am also grate­ful to my co-author, Laura Mays, and to Carla Williams, our astute and exacting editor.”