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Woodshop empowers women to do what they’ve been told they can’t

Posted on 21 November 2017 by calvin

Women’s Woodshop focuses on community building by offering variety of classes for women, non-binaries, and men

Women’s Woodshop owner Jessica Hirsch believes there is nothing more empowering than being told you can’t, and then going ahead and doing it anyway.

In 2014, she built a sculpture at a shelter for domestic abuse survivors. As she worked, a 12-year-old girl became one of her assistants, and she watched the girl’s confidence grow. The girl was building her own parts to add to the sculpture by the end of the month-long install.

“She went from using cordless drills, to miter saws, and jigsaws. When we completed the sculpture, she was glowing with pride,” recalled Hirsch. “It was witnessing that transformation that birthed Women’s Woodshop.”

Photo right: When Women’s Woodshop owner Jessica Hirsch was an undergraduate college student who was falling in love with sculpture, her instructor told her, “Sculpture makes you feel like a superhero. These skills you learn here can apply to all realms of life.” Hirsch agrees. “Someone can learn how to make a cutting board, and apply those skills to fixing up their house,” she pointed out. (Photo by Studio Zu)

She began planning to open a woodshop, but it was the 2016 election that really pushed her to take the risk.

“I think its imperative right now to hold physical spaces for positivity and community building at the ground level,” explained Hirsch. “I launched my website on the day of the inauguration as a personal protest.” A fundraiser to buy a safer table saw followed, and she began accruing more equipment.

“I am learning as I go, and I know it’s worth it when my student’s say ‘thank you for starting this space,’” said Hirsch.

Teaching from their skill sets
Women’s Woodshop offers three to four different classes per month. In all, the shop has offered 11 classes varying from birch bark weaving to power tools 101. There will be four new courses coming up this winter: Black Ash Basket Weaving, Custom Canvas Stretcher Bars, Patterned Cutting Boards, and a Shaker Stool Class.

While some classes are limited to women/non-binary folks, others are co-ed. “It’s about inclusion and changing the dynamics of the woodshop,” said Hirsch.

She offers men tips on how to be an ally on her website. Women and non-binary or gender non-conforming folks have various levels of experience with wood. When they ask a question, give them the answer they are looking for without additional information.

She also points out that women and non-binary crafters need space to learn. “I have witnessed many women being watched by male students when they are working. I think the intention is so that the man can step in if they need help. But actually, we need to do things ourselves to learn. We will ask you for help if we need it,” Hirsch stated.

Photo left: Kingfield resident Jenna Rice Rahaim took a wall shelf class using Japanese joinery techniques, and the finished piece is now hanging on her wall. “I’ve long admired joinery: constructing a functional and beautiful object without using glue or screws is like magic. Instead, the shelf has a single walnut wood peg, which keeps the entire shelf together,” said Rice Rahaim. (Photo submitted)

Instructors at the woodshop rotate based on availability, each teaching from their own skill sets.

TiAnna DeGarmo’s Wall Shelf class teaches students how to make a through tenon joint using hand tools. Teresa Audet teaches a butterfly (bow-tie) joint class with hand tools; she studies in Japan and also does residencies across the country. Hirsch is the only consistent instructor offering spoon carving, power tools 101, and bowl turning each month.

Beginners from the neighborhood
Since its opening on March 25, 2016, at least 200 students have walked through the doors.
Many of them are from the neighborhood, such as Standish-Ericsson resident Nicole Stroot. So far, Stroot has taken the Spreader and Spoon classes and is looking forward to the Women of Color Power Tools 101 class in December. Stroot discovered the woodshop driving by one day on her way to get groceries.

“I think having a maker space and working with something that comes from the land gives people more respect for the Earth,” remarked Stroot. “Jess has been my teacher for both classes. It’s her shop and she makes it feel like you belong there. I love her calm courage and grace.”

Stroot describes herself as an enthusiastic beginner. “I had taken wood shop 1 and 2 in high school, but I graduated a long time ago. Without tools of my own, you kind of lose the skills,” she observed.

“I love the idea of hand-carving, which I’ve never done before, because it’s so mobile and affordable.”

Stroot recalls being the only female student in those high school shop classes, and feeling intimidated at times. She has found the atmosphere at the Women’s Woodshop to be very different. “Being encouraged to work with our hands and being able to ask as many questions as we have without feeling like it’ll make us appear less intelligent is important. I also think it’s empowering to see other people that look like you doing things you’re interested in, knowing you’re not alone,” said Stroot.

Kingfield resident Jenna Rice Rahaim learned about the woodshop when a friend brought her to a spoon carving class for her birthday.

“I made a birch spoon that was perfect for sauces and stirring, and have been hooked ever since,” said Rice Rahaim, who later arranged for a private co-ed class for her dad’s 70th birthday.

Before that first class, Rice Rahaim was a complete novice, and six months ago she would have never guessed that she would be spending as much time in the studio and carving at home as possible.

“I had never used a power tool other than a drill and an electric sander,” she stated. “I had never worked with wood independently. On the spectrum of woodworkers, I’m still a relative beginner. But I’m very happy with what I’ve been making, both at Women’s Woodshop and at home, and find the process incredibly satisfying.”

She loves that the emphasis of the shop is on women and non-binary woodworkers. She appreciates that the woodshop is rooted in Scandinavian traditions, which are such an important part of Minnesota’s history. “And I’m grateful for the community that takes shape through this solidarity,” said Rice Rahaim.

“It’s empowering to learn to work with my hands in new ways and also learn safe techniques for using power tools. There’s also something incredibly grounding about learning about wood and tools in such an intimate way,” remarked Rice Rahaim. “We learn how to care for our tools and sharpen them and appreciate the craftsmanship with which they were created.

“We also come to feel connected to the wood we’re working with… aware of the differences between birch, cherry, or boxelder. Walks in the woods will never be the same after relating to the wood in such an intimate way.”

A ‘starter home’
Hirsch considers the location at 2237 E. 38th St. to be a “starter home” as it is a cozy operation. Almost everything is on wheels so the two classrooms can be re-arranged for each class.

Before this location, she had rented a studio in St. Paul but wanted to be closer to her home in Central, near Powderhorn Park. She called the storefront listing on a whim thinking they would never let her have a woodshop in an office/retail space. “Luckily my landlord is a spoon carver and encourages me to chainsaw in the back parking lot,” remarked Hirsch.

When she was starting out, Hirsch rented galleries to teach spoon carving, and it was a great way to test the waters without jumping into expensive overhead. “Now I offer my space for educators in the same way,” she pointed out. “We have a Writing as Healing workshop going on right now, taught by Glenda Reed, and a Turn of the Century Shoe Making Class taught by Martha Brummitt.”

Complimentary layer of sawdust
Community members are encouraged to drop by for a sale on Dec. 3, 11am-6pm. It will showcase women and non-binary makers ranging from ceramicists to weavers.

Additionally, the shop is normally open 10am-4pm, Tues.-Fri., with classes on the weekends. “If the lights are on, come on in!” encouraged Hirsch. The front window is packed with goods for sale made by instructors and awesome makers. Please note that most objects come with a complimentary layer of sawdust.

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