Chris Schwarz's Blog

Make a Revolution from a Tree

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Last year while working in Maryland, I took a day to travel to Light Street in Baltimore to meet Jennie Alexander, author of the book “Make a Chair from a Tree.”

Alexander is an iconic figure in woodworking and chairmaking, a term she would reject (or at least roll her eyes to when hearing). She calls herself an “informed amateur,” but has spent her entire life exploring how wooden parts can be put together to create something beautiful, permanent and incredibly comfortable.

I spent the day interviewing her for a six-page profile in the April 2015 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine, and it was an article I thought would never see the light of day.

Whether you know it or not, Jennie Alexander used to go by John Alexander, a change in gender she made in 2007. The reasons why are unimportant to her woodworking – she is just as much involved in the craft today as she’s always been.

But the gender change made for a difficult article in the usually simplistic world of woodworking journalism. Most craftsmen have beards. A few do not. Almost none of them have the interesting and complex life story of Jennie Alexander. Or perhaps they do and are just not saying.

But after I walked away from my day-long interview with Jennie, my conclusion was this: No one would publish this story. Not because it’s salacious. But because it makes this tale so ordinary in some ways (the gender thing, yawn) and so extraordinary in others (her undeniable influence over generations of woodworkers).

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I sat on the story for a few months before I could even talk to editor Megan Fitzpatrick about it. I resolved to buy the story back from the magazine and publish it on my blog.

Megan would not have it. She agreed to publish the story without trying to twist the tale into something it was not. And she did. Check out page 50 of the April 2015 issue.

So before you shake your head and fire off a blistering anonymous comment, consider this test. If what you do doesn’t hurt anyone, then who cares if you live as a man, woman, lizard or lesser panda? For me, that’s the test. After that, all I care about is what you have done for the craft.

And during the last 100 years, few people have done as much as Jennie Alexander.

— Christopher Schwarz

35 thoughts on “Make a Revolution from a Tree

  1. BobVjr

    As a heterosexual male, I see no logic to such a sex change….BUT, it doesn’t have to be logical to me. It only has to be logical, and right, for the person involved. And no one else can say for a person what is right for them. As one who actually bought the book c. 1982… but who never got around to making the chair, I’m very glad you wrote the article. It got me to go back and re-read the book, and now that I’m retired, and own some land with lots of trees… I see a chair (or more) in my future 🙂 Thanks Chris, and Jennie!

  2. Rick_S

    Chris,

    I have to agree with you: gender, like skin color, ethnicity, politics or religion, makes no difference in our craft. What matters is what is contributed to our craft by each and everyone of us each in his or her own way.

    And thank you for your countless contributions!

    Rick

  3. dbarbee

    From a woodworking perspective I don’t think anyone questions the craftsmanship. From the perspective of the backstory of gender, well….it creeps me out. To me this would be like finding out your grandfather is wearing a skirt and want to be called grandma. I would want to have him checked for a stroke. That being said, this has nothing to do with the woodworking legacy of this person. The way I feel about this issue my problem not theirs. I have a great deal of sympathy because I’m sure this has been a life long plight. Would I take a class from them, no. The gender issues would be to much of a distraction. It would most assuredly be my loss. Perhaps in time I will be able to wrap my head around this.

    1. REFFI

      I’d be more interested in a discussion as to why most craftsman have beards. Isn’t that just one more place from which you have to remove sawdust and swarf? Doesn’t a beard prevent having an adequate seal when using a mask for finishing projects with (potentially) toxic fumes? (Most chemical plants and refineries prohibit beards for just that reason.) Who cares about gender? When I was a kid, just after WW II, one of the workers on a railroad section gang (not a job for people of dainty dispositions and limited strength) was a woman. I’d say discuss the craft and/or artistry regardless of gender.

  4. TJH

    I purchased the April 2015 issue digital download right after reading this post the other night but all I get is the cover page! I’ve sent several requests to customer service but get auto-replies with instructions on how to download PDFs – something I’ve done many times before without trouble. Can you help?

    1. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick

      First, I’ll ask our circulation team to look into the problem — and I’m sorry the online request wasn’t helpful (I’ll ask them to look into that, too). Second, I’m sending the issue to you in just a few from my ereader, to the address you registered here.

        1. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick

          Oh dear. Coming your way in 3…2… (and I neglected to put a note in the email; it’s from my personal account and the attachment is DSMPW – don’t let it scare you into thinking it’s spam!)

  5. rmertens

    It was a terrific article about a fascinating–and highly skilled–woodworker. There’s no question that PW should have published it. And I think Chris was brave but also brilliant to open the article the way he did. By starting with the gender change, he gets it out of the way. It doesn’t hang in the background, leaving us to wonder. It’s just a fact, and let’s get on with woodworking. The humor helps, too. Congratulations to Chris, Megan–and most of all to Jennie Alexander.

  6. matt1979

    While they don’t make tools like they used to, I feel fortunate to live in a time when people like Jennie can live in a manner that suits them.

  7. larry7293

    Chris
    In the article you mentioned that LAP would be publishing a new revised edition of “Make a Chair from a Tree”. Any time frame as to when it will be released?

  8. AJ SIkes

    Ripping good article, Chris, and kudos for taking the approach you did in not addressing Jennie’s transition from John – the more we normalize what has previously been considered ‘deviant’ or just plain ‘different’ the sooner we’ll see a world of equality. How sad to think that a brilliant chairmaker like her might have been lost to world of woodworking simply because a majority found her life choices uncomfortable or too strange to accept.

    A little ditty by the good professor on that subject: ‘All in Together’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFL5GTKwonQ

  9. Bill Lattanzio

    I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this article, so much so that I looked into purchasing the book immediately after reading it. I can honestly say that the gender of Jennie didn’t even cross my mind as I was reading. Of course, I knew the story, but whatever makes Jennie happy is all that matters, as it is her life, not mine. People like Alexander and Follansbee probably would be considered unusual in my world, but maybe that is what makes them special and gives them the drive to do what they do. Whatever the case, I can respect it.

    1. tooljunkiebrian

      Living and woodworking my whole life in Baltimore, everybody who does any green working knows of Jennie. It has been many years since I have had any contact with her, but have been a constant follower thru Popular Woodworking as well as the book with Follansbee. It great to see a long over due article about Jennie who inspired so many of us fledgling green woodworkers to follow. Jennie(or John) has been a very colorful and interesting person thru the years and the bottom line is… Jennie has always been a great influence and teacher for so many and that’s what counts!

  10. don2laughs

    I, too, recently built a 2 slat ladder back chair in a class with Russ Filbeck who was inspired by the book “BUILD A CHAIR FROM A TREE” soon after it was published. There are many others like Russ who were inspired and continue to promote interest in green woodworking as a result of that same inspiration. There passion does not seem to have diminished nor been tarnished by any personal issues of the author of that book.
    I remember the subject of the gender issue being written about when it happened but, as a woodworker, it seemed a trivial tangent to the talent this author presents. It seems of interest to those who write about it more than those who read about it. I’m very surprised that gender was even mentioned in an interview with this great author….especially when the interview was performed by another author!!! Makes me wonder why you, Chris, are taking note of how many beards are in your audience!!

  11. kneelingyak

    Chris,
    Thank you for writing this article the way you did. You presented her gender change as a fact, nothing to argue or be concerned about. While it would be nice if some people could take it at face value that Jennie is a woman and admire her just for her contributions and work, that is not the world in which we currently live. I feel it is still important to have positive stories written about people of underrepresented gender identities. In my experience woodworkers have been some of the most accepting people I have met and it’s great to have such an article to illustrate that.

    Megan,
    Thank you for printing this article.

  12. kc0dxh

    In the print article there is a cross section of a leg joining two rungs where one rung locks into another, yet it seems from other pictures, that this doesn’t occur in the chair-from-a-tree. Can you explain where this joint is used and it’s orientation? It’s obvious the first rung is locked in by the second. What keeps the second rung from working loose?

    1. Steve_OH

      The side rungs are assembled first, then the mortises for the front and rear rungs are bored into the legs in a way that slightly overlaps the side rung tenons. So the front and rear rungs lock the side rungs in place. Friction holds the front and rear rungs in place. (The tenons are very dry and the legs are fairly wet at assembly time, so the mortises shrink and compress the tenons.)

      The reason for doing it this way rather than the opposite is that the side rungs bear the brunt of the force when someone leans back in the chair. The front and rear rungs are relatively lightly loaded.

  13. duckfarmer27

    Chris / Megan –
    I for one thought it was a good and interesting article – and I am very glad it was published. I read the magazine for the woodworking content – to learn and hopefully push myself to do better at this hobby of mine.

    Jennie is a very talented person with much to offer that many of us can learn from. And that is what it is all about. I can see how some things had to be explained so someone like me – who because I had never heard of her work before – would understand in context. Thought you did a good job of that.

    Keep up the good work.

    Dale

  14. toms

    Chris, I am afraid I have to take great exception to this blog post. Most woodworkers do NOT have beards.

  15. wesleyb

    I haven’t read the article, so unfortunately my perspective on this conversation is limited by that.

    This magazine is about woodworking, yes?

    For this magazine, the whole gender issue is as relevant as what religion a person is, whether they eat meat or not, or the color of their hair.

    Frankly, the risk that some contribution or insight into woodworking would *not* be shared due to something like this is depressing.

  16. apbeelen

    Its a real shame that in a hobby where so many of us go for a temporary reprieve from the mess in the world today, that now the mess in the world is wedged in. The problem with the common excuse of “I’m not hurting anyone else” is that those who use it don’t realize the ones enduring the most suffering are themselves.

    Chris, I really respect you as a woodworker, but you should have let this one sit.

    Andrew Beelen

    1. barone998

      Oh please, enough with the melodrama. No one is mashing the article in your face, if you wanna live in your hole of reprieve from things that are so stressful for you (like how other people want to live in their own day to day life), just don’t read it. I know I’m probably better off just not responding and leaving your single comment to stand alone, but it’s too ridiculous for you to be negative here on such a tame issue.

    2. tothemoonn

      Poor Andrew hiding away in his woodshop trying to protect his small world. Unfortunately he’s finding it is in fact 2015 after all. How dare a respected veteran chairmaker has a little bit of her story told in a woodworking magazine right? How dare anyone not make choices based in fear and religion? That mentality has really done wonders for human rights in the last 200 years.

      Get real. Knowing that suicide is the leading cause of death among young homosexuals, and that a full 30 percent of young gay people attempt to kill themselves at only 15 years old…do you really think it’s the homosexuality causing suffering, or all the dummies like you reacting to it? You’re like the bully grabbing a kids arm and pulling the old “stop hitting yourself” routine. Dont pretend to care about someone’s suffering when your the one causing it.

    3. apbeelen

      I should make clear that I haven’t read the article, since I’m not a subscriber. However, I’m sure it is a well written article with much good woodworking content, and that’s what I look forward to reading more of from Chris and his fellow woodworkers. I also don’t know about this chair-maker, but I assume that since Chris has chosen to write about their work, this is a talented person with much to offer fellow woodworkers on the craft.

  17. Jim Dee

    I hope this article signals the beginning of Jennie’s return to teaching! Her first book was a huge inspiration, and having built a ladderback chair at Country Workshops I can honestly say I am a direct beneficiary of her work.

    Thank you for (and congratulations on) being the writer to break the ice.

  18. Milford

    What an interesting story about a person who became accomplished in so many different things. What many readers probably don’t know is that the more direct route to a law career would have started with attendance at the Baltimore high school known as City College, instead of the advanced curriculum at Poly. Some of us, however, take a while to find out where we really want to be.. As Jenny, she could not have become a Poly student until 1974, when someone finally realized that there are girls both interested and competent in the sciences and engineering, and made the school coed. As we see in the Alexander example, talent is not gender-specific.

  19. Prometheus451

    You know, part of me wants to stand up and applaud her for her struggle and ultimate acceptance of who she is and the other half wants not to even mention it because it’s not the important story, her influence on the craft certainly is. By not drawing attention to her gender, we let it slip into every day normalcy, where it belongs. My thanks to Chris, Megan Fitzpatrick, and Pop Wood for publishing it for all the above reasons.

  20. Christopher Hawkins

    Chris: This is a fantastic piece of writing that matter-of-factly addresses the gender issue thus allowing the brilliance of her work to shine. I am inspired to take a class to make one of these chairs. They are treasures.

  21. DaveO

    Chris,
    The red,yellow, and blue chair is interesting and not what I think of when I think of her work. Is there more information on this design?

    1. john.jenkins4@gmail.com

      Dave,
      The red, yellow and blue chair recalls Rietveld. A google search will yield a great deal of info.
      John

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