Krenov School Woodworking Retrospective

  • Post published:April 3, 2024

Story by Zida Borcich | All Photos provided by Krenov School and Krenov Archive Websites

‘In this work, in these details, in these elements, something of a person is included. Their fingerprints or their sense of proportion, line, and detail are there; and what you’re experiencing is something very personal from each of these people: something that they’ve put their heart and soul into.’ —James Krenov

 

 

A Legacy of Making
A fine woodworking school, tucked into an out-of-the-way niche in Fort Bragg, has been a keystone institution on the coast for over four decades, quietly attracting students from around the globe to its courses in the highest echelon of hand furniture making. It is emblematic of what a few motivated people can accomplish when passion and ingenuity are set in motion at the right time and in the right place.
The Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah is hosting a retrospective show of the school’s work and history, called “Deep Roots, Spreading Branches: Fine Woodworking of the Krenov School.” The exhibit showcases furniture, cabinets, chairs, boxes, tables, and ephemera created by more than forty students and graduates from the span of its long tenure and explores the philosophy and practices that made James Krenov a revered woodworker, writer, and teacher. Examples of Krenov’s exquisite work, as well as dozens of images of the school and other students’ work, some interactive components, and oral histories expand and complete the remarkable presentation assembled by Alyssa Boge, the museum’s Curator of Education & Exhibits.
Ms. Boge explained the process of curating the exhibit: “The exhibition project began with discussions about celebrating the school’s over forty-year history, followed by the formation of a committee.” As part of the research-gathering phase, the committee identified individuals from throughout the school’s history to provide oral chronicles and decided on the main ideas of the exhibition before requesting submissions for work that would be displayed. “The committee reviewed submissions and brainstormed possible interactive components and exhibition programs, reviewed label copy, and helped gather resources and materials, among other things,” Ms. Boge explained. The show is up from March 30 through August 18, with an opening reception to be held on Friday, April 5

Schuler Madrone Wall Cabinet

The Beginning: Brian Lee and Gary Church Start Something Big
Unless they’ve been napping under a rock, approximately everybody is either aware of, or actually lived through, the migrations to the Mendocino coast of artists, in the 1950s, and hippies, in the 1960s and seventies. The influx at the vanguard of the Mendocino-as-Art-Colony and the Back-to-the-Land movements changed the composition of the coast’s population—and its vibe—forever. This place and its iconoclastic ambiance continue to attract every kind of artist and craftsperson, communard farmer, free spirit, and seeker of a less-frenetic life who followed those first counter-culturists. Over those decades, an inordinate number of experiments and enterprises were being cooked up in this corner of the world by an inordinate number of brave and wildly creative souls. Many of those enterprises plumbed the depths of an incontestable yearning to make, regardless of personal sacrifice or financial reward. The “making” was the reward.
I remember those decades. I was here, in the middle of it. As a letterpress printer, I was making, too. But I certainly wasn’t aware at that time of the scale of ambition, direction, dreaming, inventing, and just plain doing that was going on all around me. (At the moment, this magazine is having a hard time fitting into our press schedule all the thirty-year and forty-year and fifty-year anniversary stories being pitched to it.)
But doing was occurring at an astonishing pace, and one of the most remarkable, and long-lasting doings of that time began when two fellows who were infatuated with the craft of woodworking had the audacity to invite a world-famous woodworking writer/teacher to come here to give a lecture to members of the nascent woodworking community. Brian Lee and Gary Church, who founded the Mendocino Woodworkers Guild and Association, had no idea they were starting something this big. Nonetheless, in 1978, James Krenov came to Fort Bragg from Sweden to give the lecture, and liked it here (and was liked), and came back the following two summers to lead workshops.

Muscat Cherry Wall Cabinet

1980—The College Proposal
It turned out that James Krenov had been searching for a place where he would have the freedom to teach his ideas about woodworking. The time, the mood, and the place were ripe for his concepts: The local woodworking scene was thriving, and local galleries were selling hand-crafted furniture to a well-heeled market of collectors; added to that, the California community college system was experiencing a sort of heyday, all of which delivered the perfect environment to make a home for a woodworking school. Members of the Mendocino Guild and community members met with the College of the Redwoods to discuss the creation of a woodworking program with James Krenov at the helm. The zeitgeist of the Mendocino coast and the particular cultural moment allowed the rather radical plan to be approved by the college (it’s questionable any such thing could happen today), and between 1980 and 1981 the school set to work constructing a large building in a quiet corner of town, just east of the Fort Bragg Middle School, to Jim’s specifications and design.
A timeline from the exhibition relates that, “Creighton Hoke, who had moved across the country to study with Krenov, took on a part-time position with the school. He oversaw making Krenov’s ideas for the school a reality, crafting curriculum and overseeing the construction and outfitting of the new building in consultation with Krenov.” In the fall of 1981, Krenov, with his wife Britta Lindgren, moved from Sweden to Fort Bragg. He began teaching the curriculum that students are still studying today, in the same building that was built for him, forty-three years on.
It was a brilliant move. Not only did the school become a wood-cult destination and put Fort Bragg on the international fine wood crafting map, but by pulling the school under the umbrella of California’s community college system, tuition fees were kept to an affordable level for students.

Hoke and Krenov

James Krenov, The Redoubtable Craftsman and Teacher
James Krenov was born in a Siberian village and lived a peripatetic life, bounding from Shanghai to Alaska to Seattle to Sweden, working on yachts and in Swedish factories. He developed a lifelong love of boats, first building model boats and later sailboats, and sailing in his free time. He was a writer, too, mostly of travelogues at first, which were published in newspapers, but one, The Italian Trip, was published as a book.
Jim moved to Sweden and on a trip to Paris in 1949, met the love of his life, Britta Lindgren. The seeds were planted for a lifelong romance; they married and started to build a family. Britta fully understood how unhappy Jim was with factory work and paved the way for his woodworking pursuits by providing financial stability with her own work. During that time, Krenov attended the famed Malmsten woodworking school near Stockholm for a couple of years but developed his own philosophy around woodworking and struck out on his own, working out of his home’s basement workshop. There, his work gained recognition and he received commissions for work, one of which was from King Gustav VI of Sweden.
Krenov deeply revered the cabinetmaking training he got at Malmsten where traditional Scandinavian aesthetics were emphasized. The curriculum was concentrated on time-tried skills, a sensitive relationship to wood and tools, and a response to refined lines and well-balanced proportions but Jim felt that it left little room for originality. In the foreword of his book (the title of which tells a lot about the Krenov philosophy), The Impractical Cabinetmaker, Krenov wrote, “Function, we were taught, is a responsibility. Furniture should feel good to use, and to live with, give pleasure to both hand and eye. Beauty, when it emerges, is a quiet accompaniment to these fundamentals of the fine cabinetmaking.” What Krenov then brought to his own teaching was that the traditional techniques, the deep understanding of tools and fundamentals of structure, line, balance are the foundation on which the craft person’s individuality and creative soul can reveal its true voice. He said, “Perhaps…originality finds its home within the boundaries of grace.”
After the initial acceptance and success he received, he returned to writing. His first book, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, quickly found resonance with many woodworkers, and he continued to write and publish five more books over the years. Krenov continues in his foreword, referring to what he’d learned at Malmsten, “During years of working alone, I learned more about the flexibility of such durable knowledge. And I became certain of this: Knowledge like this is no one’s property: it abhors ego. We learn, we share, someone else carries these things on, and on. Their meaning only seems to change and be warped by fashions and whims.” As his desire to pass on the legacy of his great store of knowledge grew, fortune smiled on him (and us) when the Fort Bragg opportunity showed up.
His daughter Tina said that teaching at the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program was, in many ways, the culmination of his life’s work. “He felt like a kid not wanting to leave the playground, he was having so much fun woodworking and teaching,” she said.
Many students came expecting a guru, and to some extent they found one. Jim was incredibly knowledgeable and generous with his time and teaching but could also be temperamental and harsh as he sought to help students get to their best work. As one student who came from New Zealand said, “He could be difficult, but it was worth it.” After Jim retired, students continued to visit him, and he continued to craft fine furniture.
James Krenov died in 2009. He taught and inspired countless woodworkers throughout his career. The people he taught and influenced carry on his legacy today, in the knowledge they continue to pass to new students and in the beautiful woodcraft they have created and continue to create.

What Happens at the Krenov School?
Except during Covid, twenty-three students have been accepted to the program each year. That is the number of benches the school has to accommodate the learners who come here from around the world. There are a couple of one- to three-week workshops during the summer that allow potential students an opportunity to preview the course and see if it and the town really are right for them, and those precursor weeks are actually a prerequisite for the longer course. Doing the course is a significant time commitment, as people up-end their lives to come to the remote north coast, often to live in a rented room in someone’s private house. They must have the means to stay alive as they live, sleep, eat, and breathe woodworking in the full-immersion program, six days a week, for nine months. As Krenov graduate Crescent Tarbell, who took the course alongside his mom, Judy, admonishes, the deep state of concentration needed to do this kind of work is not for everyone. He’s been in classes with people for whom the intensity of the course was pure torture, and of course with others who existed in a state of ecstasy to be living their dream.
There are a few hurdles that students must jump to get admitted—a bit of experience with wood crafts doesn’t hurt, and photos of work that’s already been done can be submitted. But as Krenov says in his book With Wakened Hands, “Students come to our school with different levels of skills and abilities,” and the school makes it a priority to work with every one of them from the level they are starting. The class has filled completely every year and carries a waiting list.

Changes
In 2013, a group of friends of the school decided to form a foundation to support the woodworking program in case of a financial emergency and since then, The Krenov Foundation has further expanded its scope: “The mission of The Krenov Foundation is to promote and encourage excellence in woodworking, as exemplified by the work and writings of James Krenov. Through programs such as The Krenov Archive, scholarships for The Krenov School, and support for exhibitions, we seek to share Jim’s vision and to nurture a diverse, inclusive, and thriving community of craftspeople.”
To that end, it provides scholarships for students attending the school and supports exhibitions, such as the yearly Highlight Gallery shows and this Grace Hudson Museum show. The Krenov Archive stores more information about Jim and his work, drawings, and lectures and will also store all of the oral histories compiled for this exhibition project.
Then, in 2017, the College of the Redwoods transferred its programs to the Mendocino College system and the woodworking program changed its name, fittingly, to honor Jim: from College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program to The Krenov School of Fine Woodworking.

James Krenov, Michael Burns, Laura Mays
After eight years of heading the program and teaching at the school, Jim decided to reduce his hours, and in 1989 Michael Burns took the reins of the fine woodworking school. As director, Michael took care of administrative duties, leaving Krenov time to focus on teaching. Burns introduced taking students on field trips to see the work of other fine woodworkers and was revered for his own skill and artistry as a craftsman. Then, in 2002, when Krenov retired from teaching altogether, Michael brought in two graduates of the course as faculty members, Greg Smith and Ejler Hjorth-Westh, who are still on staff.
Though the rate of attrition among the school’s faculty and staff is astonishingly small—for instance Jim Budlong has been on the staff for thirty-five years—as the song goes, everything must change. After thirty years as shop manager and ad hoc instructor with the school, David Welter retired in 2016 and former student, Todd Sorenson, took over his position.
Laura Mays was hired as the new director of the school when Michael Burns retired in 2011. A student at the Krenov School ten years prior, Laura made the epic move, at the age of forty-three, to Fort Bragg from Ireland to take the job and has sought to retain its fundamental teachings, while, as she puts it, “maintaining tradition and changing it at the same time.” Mays says that curriculum has not changed much since the school’s inception, though she has brought more attention to design and drawing and an openness to new ideas and has aimed to increase the diversity of the school. When asked how it was to move to this out-of-the-way, foreign place, she says it wasn’t such a big disruption for her. She had been living and teaching in Connemara, Ireland, in a village even smaller and more isolated than this and she feels very much at home here, “Basically, it’s the best job in the world. I exist in a kind of ‘wonderful wood bubble.’”
Sadly, Michael Burns died on February 14 of this year. His wife, Julie Burns, a talented quilter, confirmed his vaunted work ethic: “He worked at his bench until he could no longer stand. His work brought him endless pleasure, and his advice to his students was always: “Be happy in your work!”

The Experience
How does it feel to be in the Krenov course, really? When standing in the midst of a show of work produced at the Krenov School, there is a feeling of being among almost sacred objects. The soulfulness stored in the dovetails and miters, in the perfectly balanced curves, the color, texture, and grain of the wood, the impeccable finishing, all reach out and touch the viewer powerfully. I asked several past and current students to describe what it’s like to experience the deep concentration, the altered state known as “flow” that this caliber of work requires, and what they came away with for their lives, how the course influenced their trajectories and careers. Here are a few of their replies:
Les Cizek: I did Tools and Techniques in 1989, thinking I could only spare three weeks of my life improving my woodworking skills. I was so blown away by what the school did for me that I enrolled in the full year course and then got a second year. That was 1991 and 1992. Two years at The Krenov School changed my life. It changed my interest in woodworking from a pastime to an essential, from a hobby to the reason to live. I am now ninety-five and I go to my shop every day and work on my current project.
Monroe Robinson: A few things particularly stand out from attending The Krenov School during its third and fourth year. Complete confidence in sharpening and using hand planes and scrapers. If I wanted even a large surface perfectly flat and smooth, planes and scrapers could accomplish it flawlessly. Being by Jim Krenov’s side as he rummaged through a warehouse of hardwoods…I absorbed his ability to know if a particular timber in a large unit of timber interested me by just looking at the end grain…at least enough to know if I wanted to dig into the pile to examine the timber in its entirety. Looking for timbers and imagining furniture parts became creative beyond even making a piece of furniture. Maybe most profound was finally being able to look at some aspect of the piece I was working on and make judgments when something didn’t look just right…visualize why…and know what I needed to do to make it more appealing. Concentrating comes naturally for me, being absorbed in what I am doing…attending Krenov’s School was permission to be who I am and love every second. Today, I wake from dreams of still being a student.
Paul Reiber: I was in the first class at CR. Krenov was an inspiring speaker and his work was inspiring, but he was difficult to get along with. Plus, twenty-two students, one nine-month program, six days a week—I have years of graduate study and this course was way harder and much more intense. Full-time, all in one room, with twenty-two people…You could hear all the conversations. It was competitive, deadline driven, but supportive. And as to making woodworking a career, well, the joke is, if you want to make a million dollars as a woodworker, start with two million dollars. Still, when I talk to graduates, they talk about having learned an attitude toward work, no matter what they are doing, an attitude that aims at perfection. That’s part of the appeal, to be very focused on this one thing and to do it as perfectly as can be done.
Jay Montepare (current student): When I’m in a flow state, time disappears. There is nothing but the wood, my tool, my senses, and intuition. I am truly in the present moment and all other thoughts, cares, and concerns vanish…
Julienne Dawidoff (current student): I am going to take my education and continue on my path to becoming a furniture conservator. Combining this fine furniture training with my previous education in art history and organic chemistry, I will be able to go to graduate school to ultimately be entrusted with preserving material culture that is irreplaceable. One of the most inspiring things I have learned here is how to read wood. Understanding wood grain and being able to predict the results of a curved cut feels like a magic trick.
Eriq Wities (current student): Taking raw materials to completion is one of the most empowering experiences. Woodworking feels like designing a puzzle, then solving that puzzle. To do this with one’s own hands is very special.
Stefan von Hallberg (current student): My education has shaped my daily work habits. I reflect on the lessons learned here in moments of uncertainty and find confidence. I hope to share these lessons and impart this confidence to others. I am inspired by the intimacy of woodworking—the study of boards and careful dissection of them into parts. It is a collaboration of material, idea, and hands. It is a joy and honor to carefully shape these wondrous woods into precious objects, distinct and separate from the disposable consumer culture.
Tessa Petrich (current student): How does it feel to be in “the Flow” when you are working on a piece? —Time slips away, hands move without (over)thinking, you as the maker feel open and receptive to making without worrying about the outcome.
What do you think you will do with this education after you finish the course? — Lessons in care, intention, patience, and commitment reach far beyond woodworking alone—the lessons of The Krenov School are closely linked to values I hope to weave into all aspects of my life.
What about wood/woodworking inspires you most?—I love learning the language of wood storytelling—wood as the medium, carries its own story: it bends, it dents, it cracks. Sometimes it breaks, but it has the ability to share the life it has lived, both alive as a tree and as a wooden object used to enhance human life. What an amazing opportunity to—as the woodworker—be a part of its story (as it becomes a part of ours too).
Matt Garcia (current student): After my time learning everything that I can at The Krenov School, I plan on continuing my furniture making journey by working for a couple shops while at the same time honing my skills and style on the way to opening my own woodshop. Every day I realize how I can take what I’ve learned at The Krenov School and apply my new skills to my future endeavors in sawdust and wood shavings.
Sharon Peterson (owner of The Highlight Gallery, Mendocino): The long-standing connection between Highlight and woodworkers is notable. We have hosted the school’s graduation show almost every year in May, since it began. Knowing the fine quality and creativity of the pieces that will be coming our way is always an exciting event we look forward to. A space in the gallery is given exclusively to them: Their fine furniture is treated like pieces of artwork, which is what they are. There are no distractions of other artwork in the show area. We appreciate that there is a reverence from viewers, too, and from the students themselves toward the creativity with which the pieces are imbued. It is apparent when students start talking about each piece—we can sense the pure joy when students come to the gallery on Sundays, their one day off, when they share what a special experience it is to be at the school. If we haven’t talked with them, they may be the ones crawling under a piece of furniture to see how it is made.

A Group Effort
Alyssa Boge worked closely in partnership with a team to make “Deep Roots, Spreading Branches: Fine Woodworking of the Krenov School” as comprehensive as it is: “The committee that collaborated with the museum to create this show included current Krenov School Program Director, Laura Mays; former student and retired thirty-year staff member, David Welter; former student and Krenov Foundation board member, Kerry Marshall; and Tina Krenov, daughter of the master wood craftsman. Brendan Gaffney, author of James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints has also been an incredibly helpful consultant on this project, along with all those who have shared their oral histories or submitted their work. Additionally, museum staff, preparator Denver Tuttle, volunteers, and others have and will contribute as well to completing the exhibition. Every exhibition is a group effort and would not be possible without those who’ve contributed.”

Seeing Is Believing
With the museum’s focus on Grace Hudson’s art, history, and anthropology, the exhibitions and public programs at the Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House are thematically shaped by and linked to its collections. The museum is a gem of Mendocino County.
From its website: “Since its inauguration in 1986, the Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House has become an increasingly important cultural and educational resource for Northern California. The Museum’s collections consist of more than thirty thousand interrelated objects, with significant holdings of Pomo Indian artifacts (particularly basketry) ethnographic field notes, unpublished manuscripts, historic photographs, and the world’s largest collection of Grace Hudson paintings.”
The museum welcomes all admirers of woodcraft, artistry, and the magic of being in the flow to this important, remarkable exhibition.

Open Wednesday to Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on Sundays, 12:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
First Friday evenings, 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.—admission is free on First Fridays!
Closed Monday and Tuesday.
More information at:
www.gracehudsonmuseum.org; www.thekrenovschool.org; www.thekrenovfoundation.org