Tea with James Krenov
I’d been stumbling my way through art school when I landed in a furnituremaking class. Suddenly all of the terminology that had been thrown at me-line, form, texture, flow, proportion- started to make sense. Part of that epiphany was the writings of James Krenov. His approach to wood, to craft, to life provided inspiration that still resonates today.
Fourteen long and winding years later I found myself as the associate art director at Fine Woodworking. One of my early assignments was to travel to Fort Bragg to direct a photo shoot with Krenov. While packing for the trip, I slid my copies of his books into my suitcase wondering if I would have the nerve to ask him to sign them.
The magazine was running an article on making a Krenov-style handplane (issue no. 126) by David Welter, an instructor at the College of the Redwoods. An essay by Krenov was to accompany the article. In preparation for the cover shot, I was arranging a collection of his planes on a workbench. I handled each one as if it were a small masterpiece and I was careful to place a scrap of wood under the toe of each plane to keep the blades from contacting the bench. When Krenov came over to the bench for the photo he picked up one of the planes and was a bit surprised and perplexed to find a scrap of wood under it. He put it aside thinking nothing more of it until he picked up another plane only to find another scrap under it. After that it was as if he were on an Easter egg hunt, picking up planes and collecting the scraps under each. I finally admitted to my role in the mystery at which point he gave me a look of patience and sympathy.
I badgered him with questions through out the shoot and when we were through he asked if I might share a cup of tea with him. As keen as I was to wring as much information from him as my short stay would allow, I found myself talking as much as I listened.
Finally, I sheepishly pulled out my dog-eared books and asked if he might sign them. He told me to leave them on the table and go help the photographer finish packing his gear. As I was getting ready to leave, he handed back not only the two books I had left with him, but a third as well saying “I noticed you were missing a book and I happened to have an extra copy.”
Later, I opened the books expecting to find a simple signature. Instead, there was a unique inscription in each copy. Each of his notes revealed insights from our conversations earlier in the day.
My favorite inscription, I realize now, was not meant for just me but for all of us that struggle with this craft-
“A few of these things can add to the intimacy of one’s work. Closeness, warmth- enjoyment. I know you understand. -Jim”
An assignment to direct a photo shoot led to my only meeting with James Krenov. The final result ended up on the cover of issue 126.
Keepsakes from the past. Polaroid proofs from the cover shoot sit in my desk drawer. If you're wondering what directing a photo shoot entails, it basically means standing in for the author while the photographer sets up the lights.