John Alexander/Jennie Alexander (1930-2018)

PF JA Theo

I’ve thought about this day for many, many years; and now it’s here. I got word tonight that Jennie Alexander passed away. Just today I was preparing for a presentation on “green woodworking” and as I have many times in recent years, I was planning on focusing the talk on the people who got me here. And nobody got me here more than Jennie.

I’ve written this blog now for 10 years. I write it for many reasons – self-promotion, a work journal, sharing what I have learned, and most importantly for lots of that time – as a way to keep connected with Alexander. As her health failed over the years, she was able to do less and less in the shop, but kept on working on the 3rd edition of Make a Chair from a Tree, and talking to various chairmaking friends on the phone. Many of the calls I got in the past few months were exactly the same, but they were always fun & pleasant. JA told me many times when I asked about her health, “Oh, my health is shit, but my spirits are the best they have ever been!”

I joked that JA & I taught each other joinery without either of us knowing how to do it. And our process was amazingly clunky by modern standards. I would go to the MFA in Boston and photograph joined furniture; 35mm slides. Those would get sent out for developing, so I’d wait to see what I shot. Then, I’d pick out the good ones, have them duplicated, write keyed notes to the slides, and make a copy of those notes. Then send that off to Baltimore in the US mail. And the reverse would happen from Jennie’s end, only substitute Winterthur Museum for the MFA.

JA at Colonial Williamsburg, 2007

Just recently arrangements were made, and the transaction too, for her notes/papers on chairmaking and joinery to go to the library at Winterthur. Whew, nick of time.

completely staged bullshit photograph of me & JA looking at an English chest

I keep harping about Jennie being the one to coin the term “green woodworking” – in the 1978 book Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood – I re-read much of it tonight, and the phrase isn’t in there! This is how myths get started…

I’ll write more about Jennie in the coming weeks I’m sure.

Meanwhile, a poem, Buffalo Bill’s by e.e. cummings

Buffalo Bill ’s
defunct
               who used to
               ride a watersmooth-silver
                                                                  stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
                                                                                                     Jesus
he was a handsome man
                                                  and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death
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44 thoughts on “John Alexander/Jennie Alexander (1930-2018)

  1. Our deepest condolences. It’s difficult to put in words how JA has influenced and inspired generations of greenwood workers.

  2. Jenny’s video Chair From a Tree was the first green wood source I picked up. I’m sorry that you and all green woodworkers have lost another inspiration. Thanks to you and Plimouth Craft, Jenny’s legacy can continue.

  3. Hello, in the 1987 edition of Green Woodworking: Handcrafting Wood from Log to Finished Product, by Drew Langsner, he mentions a reader of his book Country Woodcraft wrote to him essentially that the term country was excluding city woodworker like her, and insisted on the use of the term green woodworking, which prompted the title. That reader of course is identified and it is JA.

  4. I bought the book Make a Chair from a Tree, and I sent an email to Jennie with some questions about my local choices of woods (I am in Thailand). I really did not expect a response. But quite the opposite I received a very nice response with both some advice and encouragement. I have never pushed to make the chair but certainly will some day.

  5. What a wonderful, rich life and what a special — distinct— irreplaceable friendship you shared. That’s the real inspiration. And it goes on and on. Thanks for sharing a few stories and sympathies on the passing of a one-of-a-kind teacher, mentor and traveling companion.

  6. So sorry to hear this. I have always admired the correspondence relationship the2of you shared over the years. What a wonderful friendship.
    I was lucky enough to get one of her hand planes when you were helping sell them for her. Think I’ll put it to use this weekend and think of her using it.
    RIP

  7. Dear Peter,
    My deepest condolences. I know how much JA meant to you. I also revered her from your stories you have told at Greenwood Fest. Every time you tell them you give us all some of the best pieces of her. Thank you for our opportunity to “meet” her.
    Karla

  8. Dear Peter,
    I’m sorry to hear about Jennie and sorry for your loss. My favorite memory from the 2007 conference is John standing there with walking stick in hand telling a story while you try to work on the lathe. But the story has you laughing too hard. It is a friendship and respect we all admired. Thank you for introducing me to Jennie, her knowledge, and through her books she will never be forgotten.

  9. I spoke with her 6 weeks ago…sounded well, so glad I called. Enjoyed my classes on light street…drove 100 miles each way, every day!

  10. Very sad news Peter, however what an impact she had on so many lives and on the craft of “Green Woodworking.” Her knowledge and influence will live on!

  11. JA inspired me to build my first shave horse. I still have it as well as some of the pages I printed out about riving and using a drawknife.

    I am sorry the world has lost such a treasure.

  12. All the Sawyers are sad. And grateful to’ve had such a good friend,
    in so many ways. Rest in peace, dear Jennie. No one like you ever.
    Thanks, Peter, for this post.

  13. Very sad to hear this news. We stand on the shoulders of giants, benefiting from the hard work and guidance of people like Alexander. My deepest condolences, Peter.

  14. Peter,
    So sorry to hear of the loss off your friend and mentor. I know she had a great impact on your life. So glad the stories you have of her will continue on in the greenwood community.

  15. Peter – We are so very sorry to hear of your friend’s passing. I know how much she meant to you, and always will, I suspect. Losing a friend is tough – please know you are in our prayers. Love, Susan and Tim

  16. So sorry for your great loss Peter.
    We are all a bit lesser for his passing. I will miss the phone calls.

    No man is an island,
    Entire of itself.
    Each is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.
    If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    Europe is the less.
    As well as if a promontory were.
    As well as if a manor of thine own
    Or of thine friend’s were.
    Each man’s death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee.

  17. First Wille, now Jennie: a sad summer. To think of all the inspiration these brave souls sowed–inspirational. I am sorry for your loss Peter.

  18. The first time I read Make a Chair from a Tree was from a poorly printed Xerox copy but it was enough to make me feel as if I had found a great secret. I never had the chance to take a class but I sincerely wanted to see a master work with the tools I find myself often fumbling with.

  19. Peter,

    So sorry for the loss of your devoted friend.

    By all accounts Jennie was a great musician, lawyer, woodworker, teacher, mentor, and friend. I will miss her even though I never met her. One of my woodworking goals is to “Make a Chair from a Tree” to honor her and do my part to keep her legacy alive.

    I trust that you, the Greenwoodworking community, Lost Art Press and others that I am not aware of will keep her legacy alive and pass on her contributions to humanity.

    Peace be with you all!

    TonyC

  20. July 16, 2016
    Dear Peter: I made the mistake of trying to express my condolences via your message and it was rejected. John/Jennie was a long-time loved friend of my wife and I. I first met him re EAIA annual meetings, acting as his chauffeur. He/she would drive to our home and we’d leave from there, He was a great fisherman, thinker, questioner,fact checker, sharer of knowledge, and a generous human being. From recent , frequent telephone conversations, i knew that his health was failing, but never from his own admission. I’m thankful for his introducing you to me and that you can carry on much of his ideas and work.We are glad that the Winterhur Archives has his records and notes for any reseacher to use now and in the future. With sadness and warmest regards, Charlie.

  21. Peter, when I met Jenny at Williamsburg, I was amazed. I remember her saying “Green woodworking saved my life”. What a joy she was.

  22. Took a class from Brian Boggs in1992 and made five chairs and a rocker. Using her book and Brian”s class it was the highlite of my woodworking hobby. If I could obtain a green wood oak log I would make more. They are so relaxing to make.

  23. Peter, I found your remembrance today as I had just learned of John/Jeannie’s passing. I grew up in Bolton Hill and was often in the Alexander home. I was friends with his daughter Rachel. Alexander was unlike anyone I knew: funny, irreverent, a true and great friend to children because he knew and asked about important things. He composed a wonderful song about Harper and grape bubblegum—procured at the corner grocery and penny candy store. I think his woodworking began with inkle looms that he made for Rachel, Joyce, and a neighbor. I remember when “Making a Chair from a Tree” was first published—no surprise; he was a person of many parts. But I can imagine it saved his life. His law practice seemed very stressful—he was a renowned and feared divorce attorney. It must have taken toll on his spirit. Oh, but he was a lovely man. I sorry I did not come to know Jeannie. Thank you for letting me share some of my fond memories with you. Peace, blessings, and a bit of shenanigans. Anne

  24. I talked to Jennie Alexander on the phone a year or two ago, cold called her out of the blue and had a good conversation. She told me about the woodworking in Estonia book and to get with it as the new publication was coming out. I guess I knew she was getting up there a bit in age but did not realize her health was poor then. From one jazz musician and woodworker to another she was a real treasure. I am sorry to hear of her passing and always a little bit “green” I never got to take a class or study with her, she certainly changed my life from a brave chance encounter. PF … our thoughts are with you!

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