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).
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