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Maya Angelou, woodworking and life

What do woodworking and Maya Angelou have in common? Not much. But after seeing her speak a few days ago in Minneapolis, I have to jot down an impression or two.

Maya at her 82nd birthday party.

Maya at her 82nd birthday party.

The curtain opens and there sits 84-year-old Maya Angelou. Her 6-foot frame rests comfortably in the chair. She has no notes or prompts; just a head full of stories and a keenness of mind that makes one think old age must start at 85 or beyond. She begins by belting out a few lines from an old blues standard. The packed house is enthralled. People laugh, cry, clap, whistle and shout “amen.” And it only gets better.

Maya receiving the Presidential Award of Freedom from Barack Obama.

Maya receiving the Presidential Award of Freedom from Barack Obama.

One of the lines from the song exclaims, “When it looked like the sun wasn’t going to shine any more, God made a rainbow in the clouds.” And that was her theme for the night: A look at these rainbows that helped make her-and all of us-who we are; people who love, support, teach and guide us in, sometimes, unexpected ways even in the darkest, cloudiest of times.

Maya’s rainbows didn’t come easy. She was shuttled between parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles while growing up. At the age of 8 she was raped. She told her brother about it and her abuser was found dead a few days later. Convinced her voice had killed him, she went mute for 5 years. It was during those five years Maya developed her keen sense of observation and a love of writing and literature.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

She had a child at 17 and made ends meet working as a streetcar conductor, cook and prostitute. But the rainbows in her life-and an indomitable spirit-drove her upward. She became a dancer, singer, actress, author, playwright, teacher, poet and speaker. She challenged those in the audience to think about the rainbows in their lives and how they could become rainbows in the lives of others.

Her other theme was the need for courage-a trait Maya does not lack. Without courage, all other traits, strengths and aspirations lay dormant or, at best, underutilized.

The takeaway from the evening was clear: Think about and thank those who have been rainbows in your clouds. And use your courage and strengths-whether it’s woodworking, wisdom or time-to become a rainbow for others.

Windsor chairs and backwoods bodgers

I spent part of last weekend at a delightfully old house (Arcola Mills), watching a pair of delightful young-at-heart men (Jim and Mike) build the parts to a delightfully old piece of furniture (a Windsor chair) using delightfully old tools and techniques (riving tools, draw knives and shaving horses.)

mike windsor chair
The morning was full of one-line zingers that stuck in my brain. One was, “If you want to be a woodworker, you first have to be a metalworker,” referring to the notion that you need to have sharp plane blades, chisels and other tools to get any woodworking done.

jim
Another great line came after Jim and Mike used a riving tool and shaving horse to rough out a chair spindle. “Yep, after a day of doing that, people didn’t head to the gym.”

split with fro
Another interesting notion was proposed: When folks moved from the old country to the new country they were usually allowed one chest to bring on the boat. Given the sparseness of space, and the necessity of tools most people just brought the metal parts of their tools with them. The handles, plane bodies and other wooden parts were crafted upon arrival. The main thrust of the day was cranking out parts for a Windsor Chair. Spindles were crafted, legs were turned and hoop for chair backs bent. While turning legs Mike began musing about “bodgers.” There were a unique breed of men that turned chair legs for chair builders. Rather than hauling wood into a shop, then over to the chair makers, they found it more efficient to simply set up shop in the woods. They had their pole lathes, riving tools and planes in the great outdoors. It wasn’t unusual for a bodger to crank out a gross (144) parts in a day. No need for the gym indeed.

steam bend jig

Bending the hoop back was another highlight. Jim had a steamer concocted of PVC pipe, tubing, an old gas can and a propane burner.

bend start
After steaming the wood for 15 to 20 minutes, Mike and Jim bent the back over a form. I won’t way their motions were like those of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, but-given the 30 seconds they had to get the hoop out of the steamer and into the mold-moved in exact harmony to get the job done.

jim and mike bend
It was a thing of beauty-both in the making and in the final product.

bend complete

For more information about Mike’s woodworking school, visit schoolofwood.com. For more information about Arcola Mill, visit arcolamills.org.