From the bench: What is a mentor?
Sometimes, in teaching, you learn as much from your students as they learn from you. Michael Colca has learned this lesson more than once.
The more I think about mentoring, the more I realize what a reciprocal act it is. When I was starting out in the 1970s, Fine Woodworking introduced me to people I would come to consider my mentors: the advisers, friends, and teachers who, whether we meet them in person or not, shape us in every aspect of our lives. Art Espenet Carpenter, Sam Maloof, James Krenov, Tage Frid, and a host of others were people I worshiped and tried to emulate. I drank in their writing until it became a part of me. It pulled me through uncertainty, inexperience, and fear in those early years of forging a way “on my own.”
I did get to meet one of my mentors. In the early 1980s, with a group of fellow woodworkers, I helped found the Austin Woodworkers’ Guild. We produced shows and h0r roughed out, glued up, and ready for final shaping. Our jaws were on the floor.
Later that evening we were sharing beers in a friend’s backyard. I had been making Maloof rockers and was a bit nervous to bring up the subject of copying other people’s work. But I ventured to ask: “What do you think of us young guys building your designs?” He replied, “It doesn’t bother me, but if you want to help yourself you must do your own designs.” It was a turning point for me. I tried from then on to make things that were authentic and original. I’m still trying. His generosity and passion were contagious.
My mentoring story also includes the people who have worked with me. Mark Love came to me from the seminary with a degree in divinity in 1994. He wanted to do something tangible. He knew nothing of working wood but quickly proved to both of us his natural abilities for working with his hands, for design, and for organization. Over the next seven years Mark influenced and improved many projects that came out of the shop. He designed pieces that became a part of the shop’s repertoire. Now Mark runs his own shop close by and we continue to rely on each other.
In 2008 Philip Morley sought me out, saying he wanted to learn all about solid-wood construction and design, which had always been my focus. Growing up in London, Philip had earned an associate’s degree in carpentry and millwork, and later he worked in several shops, including two years in a high-end veneer shop in Florida. He soaked up all that I had to offer about constructing and designing in solid wood. I, in turn, learned about the use of hand tools and the fine art of veneering. The work that came out of the shop from that point on had the mark of Philip, and the skills I taught him were balanced by the many things I learned from him. He now runs his own shop close by in Wimberley, Texas.
In teaching, the teacher is taught. I am proud to have known and worked with Mark and Philip, and I am excited that both of them are passing on the craft and their passion to other people who will continue producing beautiful things and nourishing a beautiful sense of community.
Michael Colca designs and builds furniture in Driftwood, Texas.
Photos: Camelo Colca; Eric Morales
From Fine Woodworking #283