This blog post is not what it started out to be…but it’s related. So for now, a bit about how & why I try to document the work I do.
Writing this blog is an extension of work I did with Jennie Alexander way back when. We first explored the world of 17th-c joinery together starting in the late 1980s. I lived at the time in Hingham Massachusetts, and Alexander was then, and is still, in Baltimore MD. So we were 500 miles apart; both had day jobs, and so were only together about two weeks out of the year, sometimes a little more…but not much.
Our method developed as we went. We’d try to spend time in museum collections; I did the bulk of my studies up here at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Alexander often down at Winterthur Museum near Wilmington DE. Other collections were fit in as the opportunities arose. We would photograph as much as we could, then copy the slides, mail them off to each other, and write our notes about each object we studied. So a range of stops along the way; photography place for film & developing, then it was off to the photocopier for the notes, and the post office to shuffle the whole thing up & down the Atlantic seaboard. Then wait for the other end to receive the stuff, digest it, and reply, as time permitted. As we got more involved, it also entailed lengthy phone calls each week. And notes from them…& searching reading materials, etc. All of that seems arcane now; and that aspect of our story is not unique – all researchers have experienced a huge change in methods since the digital age has overcome us.
In our studies we were fortunate to have great curatorial assistance most anywhere we went at the time. Nowadays, curators are more restricted in how much time they have for visiting “scholars” – I think we’d be hard pressed to get such free access to period objects if we were starting out today.
I am not a photographer, I learned much of what I know from Alexander. We shot slides because Alexander had been asked to speak from time to time to woodworking groups, furniture history students, that sort of thing. So we wanted to have slides of the original artifacts, tool use in artwork, and experimentation in our shops. So we practiced shooting in our shops, with lights, tripods and cable-release fittings on our cameras. And threw out many slides along the way. And bundles of money too, in film & developing. (here’s a JA stool upholstered by our friend Bob Trent.)
In the beginning, there were many levels of learning going on, photos, woodworking, the history angle and the documentary research. In hindsight, being far apart really helped us. The process and setup really dictated that we needed to write our ideas down. That really meant we had to think things through, or we’d be sure to get a thorough trashing in the next go-round, as in “what on earth did you mean by….”
We had the chance to teach workshops, present lectures, etc from time to time. It was never boring – I’ll leave it at that! The last time was at Colonial Williamsburg in 2007:
Over the years, I have tried to keep up with documenting what I do, and how I arrived at doing it that way. Ironically, for many years museum work actually got in the way of this level of documentation. Working in front of the public limits how much time I can devote to the additional work of photography and writing. Sometimes the research/documentation aspect of things is for publication, like the American Furniture articles I have done; and more recently it has been for woodworking publications, primarily Popular Woodworking Magazine. Certainly things have changed over time. For me, the digital camera has made a huge difference – my shots in the shop are now much better than in the film/slides era.
I started the blog about 2 ½ years ago, and just like our earlier notes and photos, it centers on 17th-century joinery practices; but also includes related stuff with a focus on hand tools and green wood. And detours regularly abound. But for me, all along it has been in my mind that the blog is a way for me to keep Alexander connected to the woodworking/research and ideas. Time has done its thing, and Jennie’s shop time is mostly in the past now. We spoke just last night, and Alexander has no complaints – “life the past few months has been the best ever…” or words to that effect.
Alexander & I are pretty square on where we have stood all these years; but it’s worth saying publicly that I owe my livelihood to the nudge of (John) Jennie Alexander. Joinery is by no means lucrative, but I don’t measure work that way (thankfully) – for me work is best when it’s creative, challenging and growing. Joinery has done all that for me, and I see it continuing to do so for a long time. I like to joke that Alexander & I taught each other the craft of joinery, without either of us knowing how to do it. And so here it is, not a fettschrift, but just a thank you, JA.