Carving out empowerment

Women’s woodworking classes instill self-confidence alongside practical skills

Hirsch holding two spoons and standing in front of woodworking tools.

Photo: Leslee Lane Hoyum
Currently Hirsch’s focus is on spoon carving and bowl turning. “I have been carving spoons for seven years and turning for two,” she said.

Leslee Lane Hoyum
Rockford, Minn.

If I could have followed my dream after high school, I would have headed directly to Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis. I wanted to be a carpenter. The feel and smell of wood enchanted me like nothing else. But it was 1967! What was I thinking? My school counselors gave me three options: become a social worker, nurse, or teacher. I fooled them all and entered public relations. But the fascination with wood still possessed me.

Fast forward to March 2017. Norway House in Minneapolis was sponsoring an evening with Jessica Hirsch, a young woman who was celebrating the completion of a one-year apprenticeship in “sloyd,” a Scandinavian handcraft tradition with a focus on wood begun in 1865 by Uno Cygnaeus in Finland. She studied alongside master artisan and woodworker Jim Sannerud and learned traditional design and technique and also modern approaches to sloyd, including using power equipment. I knew I had to meet this woman.

The evening was wonderful, and Hirsch exhibited many of the beautiful bowls and spoons she had created. But the best news was that she also taught woodworking at her Women’s Woodshop in south Minneapolis. It may be 50 years later, but I was ready to sign up—and I did.

Hirsch received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota in 2013 after earning her undergraduate degree at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. At first she concentrated on drawing but fell in love with sculpture her junior year. She discovered how to integrate woodworking into 3D drawings of family photographs. She was hooked on wood.

While assisting in a wood-fabrication course at the University of Minnesota, Hirsch learned that Jim Sannerud was teaching a spoon-carving class. “I also heard he turned bowls,” said Hirsch. “So after I graduated, I hit him up for a lesson and started hanging out at his shop. I was so inspired I applied for a Minnesota State Arts Board Folk and Traditional Art Grant to fund an apprenticeship with him beginning in 2016. We spent more than a year getting into the nitty gritty workings of sloyd.

“Wood has always been my favorite material,” said Hirsch. “It’s organic, moves with the seasons, reminds me of the landscape and the gift of trees. I actually started carving spoons on a whim when I heard my friend’s mom was doing it. Now, seven years later, I have started a whole business around woodcarving and teaching people how to work with this wonderful material. For me personally, woodcarving keeps me balanced as I work on my large-scale sculpture projects.”

Currently Hirsch’s focus is on spoon carving and bowl turning. “The apprenticeship was the most formal education in woodworking I have received. It’s hyper-technical. All of the knife holds I teach have been passed down from the woodworkers with whom Sannerud studied in Sweden and Norway. I feel confident in teaching these traditional techniques because they have such strong lineage.

“I have been dreaming about a women’s woodshop for the past five years,” she continued. “But I studied art, not business, so since my dad owns his own business and my mom worked in sales, they gave me tips about keeping the ship afloat. Right now, my goal is to empower women through woodworking, and I feel I am doing so after each class I teach.”

Several wooden spoons arranged in a circle.

Photo: Leslee Lane Hoyum
By the end of three hours, there were nine roughly carved spoons that students would take home and complete. Not bad for amateurs. The writer’s spoon is between 10 and 11 o’clock.

This is where I fit in—beginning spoon carving. My friend Cindy and I had an incredible afternoon starting with a roughly cut piece of wood that became an almost finished spoon. I sat with eight other women who calmly studied their wood, envisioned their spoons, learned knife holds, sharpened tools, and felt pride in the utensils they created. It was empowering, just as Hirsch said it would be. It became even more empowering when I sat on my deck finishing my personal work of art.

It’s been 50 years since I felt carpentry would not be open to me. Unfortunately, gender bias still exists. “The most frustrating thing about being a female in a male-dominated field,” said Hirsch, “is being closely watched and questioned by my fellow woodworkers. I can’t tell you how many times I get asked, ‘do you know what you are doing? Are you sure you know how to use that tool?’ I can’t wear my degree on my sleeve or have a picture of Jim Sannerud printed on my shirt saying, ‘Hey, I have put in my time to learn this stuff!’

“I have been wielding circular saws for 12 years, but men assume that I have no experience because I am a woman. It sometimes slows me down by having to explain that I know what I am doing, and sometimes it chips away at my confidence, which is such a bummer because in society a woman’s confidence is always under attack. That said, I know that men are just trying to help, make sure I am safe, and are just plain curious. Their attitudes aren’t really coming from a bad place. I just wish they would consider the difference between how they talk to men versus women and consider the impact.”

As for her future, Hirsch hopes within five years to have a warehouse space full of shop equipment and about four full-time instructors teaching more advanced woodworking courses. She also hopes to institute a training program for women who wish to become professional woodworkers.

“I also would love to have workshops for teenage girls,” concluded Hirsch. “One of my greatest inspirations for Women’s Woodshop was teaching a 12-year-old girl to use power tools while I was installing a sculpture at a shelter for domestic abuse survivors. I watched her confidence and pride grow during a very tough time for her and her family. I think if you can lift the self-esteem of teenage girls, they may not get trapped in abusive relationships. That’s empowerment.”

Although based in Minneapolis, Hirsch provides demonstrations and classes throughout the country and also teaches co-ed classes. For further information, contact her through her website at www.womenswoodshop.com.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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