Craig Vandall Stevens

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Article in Woodwork magazine about Craig Vandall Stevens, a woodworker who lives in Sunbury, Ohio and who was one of my teachers at a two-week program in Maine.


With my camera hung from my neck, my tape recorder in one hand, I walked to the front door of Craig Steven's log home and knocked. There was no answer. I looked through the glass and recognized inside the pear cabinet that had recently appeared in Woodwork's gallery section. This had to be the right place. I knocked again. The interior of the house was dim, lit only by the diffuse morning sun. I looked from side to side, straining against the glass. I didn't see anyone moving toward the door. I left the porch and walked to the west side of the house. A fence. I walked to the east side. More fence but there was a gate. Maybe I had the wrong day. Did I want to skulk around someone's house on the wrong day? I listened for the sound of woodworking machinery. Nothing. I knocked again. If I'd had a watch, I would have looked at it, but I knew the time, having just checked it in the van. 9:30. Which I thought was our appointment time. I decided to try the gate. I returned to the east side of the house, walked up to the gate, and opened it just as if I'd been invited.


And then, from the back of the house, climbing up the grade that led from the house's lower level, Craig stepped out to meet me. He was younger than l' d expected. And he was wearing shorts. We shook hands, made small talk, and moved through a sliding glass door into his first floor shop. His voice was slow, unhurried. Hushed. Shorts? A woodworker wearing shorts? And I noticed a gold ring encircling his right ear lobe. Shorts and an earring? And a fashionable shirt? I'm from the Midwest. The woodworkers I know wear blue jeans with their rolled up cuffs tumbling over with shavings. They wear t-shirts that have been washed too often. And work boots. Fashion is something they see on TV. I note this without rancor since this description applies to me. We toured Craig's shop. His equipment-table saw, mortising machine, jointer-planerwas all of the highest quality, but he points most proudly to his band saw, an aging but recently restored 36inch Crescent.


We walked up the stairs and Craig showed me examples of his work, the pear cabinet first. I looked it over carefully, and the craftsmanship was as good as it had appeared to be in the gallery photo. Everything was tight and true, deftly executed. In the next room, he showed me his Chickadee Walkabout cabinet. This piece, which Id seen pictured a couple of years earlier in the Columbus Dispatch, was smaller than Id imagined, but again the workmanship did not disappoint.


Downstairs in the shop, we settled in at his workbench. I loaded a tape into the recorder, and we began to talk. "1 always felt that I wanted to be, in some way, involved in art, although when I was younger, I didn't imagine that I would turn out to be a woodworker:' Often, the men and women who excel in woodworking were first lawyer's or accountants or salesmen, becoming craftsmen only after experiencing other careers. Craig, too, followed a circuitous route into the woodworking field, initially, in his case, focusing on more mainstream art. Ive drawn for as long as I can remember, and when I was very young, that's what I thought about most of the time." As a result of this interest, after graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, majoring in art. At Ohio State, I took graphic arts, painting, and drawing. I then transferred to the Columbus College of Art and Design."


Although he might not have then seen woodworking as a career possibility, an incident occurred when he was just twelve years old that served as an initiation into the discipline, and his pleasure at that initiation still resonates in his voice when he tells the story. I attended an arts and crafts show with my mom. I came across a fellow there who was doing some carving. Craig opened a drawer in his workbench and removed a small, wooden-handled knife with a hooked blade. He handed it to me. I stat and watched him while my mom shopped elsewhere. I was really interested in what he was doing, so when he was done, he gave me the knife. It was such a kind gesture:' Craig took the knife from my hands and turned it in the light. "There. His name is on the knife." I looked closely and saw inscribed on the handle the name J. Eliopulos. Craig continued. "I still use it occasionally, but mostly I keep it as a treasure:'


Shortly after he began his studies at CCAD, Craig's life took another direction when he and his family-his wife Caroline, her sister, and Craig's mother-started a log-home company. Craig then left school to devote himself to the demands of the business. "That was more than just a full-time job, primarily because it was our own company. We built a lot of log homes. Oftentimes they were just log shells. Then, during the last few years, we did turn-key projects for which we served as the general contractor. "What I found during those last few years with our log home company is that my interest was in those jobs that took more skill, like the finish work. Toward the end, I found that I really wanted to get back to art in some form. And with a few years of heavy woodworking behind me, fine woodworking seemed like a natural progression. "In 1988 our business began to wind down, mostly for economic reasons. And when I saw that that was happening, I was excited. It was very heavy work. And I had had my fill of it. I was ready for something else:' After the demise of the family's log-home business, Craig developed an interest in wood carving, piqued by some engraved carving he saw running down the legs of an antique table. "I went to the library and found some books and began teaching myself how to carve. At that time, my interest in carving was an evening thing. I was still doing carpentry on my own such as decks and things like that. "But in the evenings I taught myself chip carving. I was spending a lot of time at it so the learning curve was pretty fast.


I entered into a juried arts and crafts show sponsored by the Ohio Designer Craftsmen and my work was accepted." Then, gradually, over a period of months, Craig moved from being a fulltime carpenter to being a full-time carver. My wife, Caroline, had no hesitations about what I'd chosen to do. She wanted me to pursue my interest in art, or maybe I should say my desire to be artistic. I was more hesitant than Caroline. You know: 'Can this work? How can this work?' "There's a lot to learn about arts and crafts shows. Early on you recognize that you have to get comfortable talking about what you do. You have to learn how to explain it, simply, to somebody who doesn't understand how the work was done. "I did arts and crafts shows, both outdoor shows and indoor shows, like Winterfair here in Columbus, for almost two years. I didn't' make much money, but I was learning a lot. In fact, I think that process was more education than business. I learned not only the carving but also how to present my work to an audience. Too, I think good presentation helps educate the audience. Maybe they've never seen this kind of work. "I think the folks who make the arts and crafts shows work are those who go at it 100 percent, but I wasn't so much interested in the shows as I was in doing the work."


"I made a plant stand for Caroline. It was my first piece of furniture, and I realized that I had a lot to learn about woodworking." After experimenting with the arts and crafts show circuit, two things happened that propelled Craig forward in his woodworking. The first was a weekend he spent with Wayne Barton, a chip carver from Chicago, who's written several books and sells his own line of chip-carving tools. "Wayne was giving a workshop in York, Pennsylvania, so I signed up, even though I'd had quite lot of experience by then. It was good to go to that workshop with a year-and-a-half of chip carving experience.




For Craig, the most difficult part of the school experience was the lengthy separation from his wife, Caroline, although now Craig says: "Looking back, it was good that I was out there by myself-although I missed Caroline-because that allowed me to be entirely focused on woodworking. "And that first session was nine months of intense woodworking. You do nothing but woodworking. The town is very small, very isolated. It's easy to stay focused. "You put in at least fifty hours a week, although most folks put in more. Maybe three times a week there was a lecture, and the rest of the time was in the shop." Craig sees his participation in the woodworking program at the College of the Redwoods as the defining period of his artistic life. It was there that he learned the technical skills that today make it possible for him to build the pieces he imagines. Further, the experience of working there with other similarly committed woodworkers sharpened his aesthetic sensibilities.


And he also had the good sense to select a bench close to Krenov's own. This enabled Craig to watch Krenov as he worked his own way through the processes of design and execution. This observation of Krenov's working methods gave Craig insights into the management of his own bench affairs. "It was expensive, but at the same time, it was easy to justify that cost because this was an opportunity to learn things that it would be difficult to learn on your own." The relationship between teacher and student can be a troubling one, often involving generous measures of both emulation and rebellion, but Craig's relationship with Krenov has remained free of such complications. When Craig speaks of his teacher, it is with great respect, not only for Krenov's expertise in the shop but also for his modest, unassuming manner. Perhaps not surprisingly then, Craig's work is not unlike Krenov's, sharing a similar vocabulary of shapes, textures, and proportions. This is a likeness that troubles Craig very little. "I think that's great. I complete1y admire and respect Jim's sense of proportions and his craftsmanship and his passion for what he does. I hope that's what people see in my work that reminds them of Krenov." Although he sees himself exploring different design vocabularies as his own work evolves, he doesn't intend to force this process. "'Im not going to say to myself that I don't want this piece to look too much like I studied with him. That's not very important to me. "I see a lot of furniture made with the intention of it being original, as if the maker said: 'I want this to be unlike anything else.' And maybe overlooked is the fact that the piece should be beautiful or even functional." Craig attributes much of his success to his wife who has supported him at every turn. "When I was at school, she took a second job, in addition to the deli she owns. This extra income helped pay my tuition and living expenses in California. And knowing that there was that kind of dedication here in Ohio, I felt like I had to produce out there in California. Although she would never have said it, it was in my mind that a lot of work was being done here to make it possible for me out there.


"I really feel fortunate to have the support I get from Caroline. It's hard to put into words how important that is. She's worked steadily through all this-before my schooling, during my schooling and still-to provide the income that keeps everything going." Craig recognizes that without his wife's support, his woodworking career would have taken a very different course, one not involving his two years at the College of the Redwoods. "1 don't think I would have accepted not doing this on a professional level, but my furniture wouldn't have been nearly as refined. 1 wouldn't have had what Jim always calls the alphabet, the basics. I wouldn't have been able to work as efficiently, as accurately. I wouldn't have been able to produce furniture at this level. And it certainly wouldn't have been as enjoyable."


He also counts on Caroline's help in the processes that go on in his shop. On the most obvious level this might be nothing more than an extra pair of hands during complicated glue-ups, but more significantly, she is someone whose aesthetic sensibilities Craig values. "Sometimes when 1 get stuck on something, she'll come down and look at a piece or a mock-up and offer her reactions. And I trust her judgment." I don't think of my work as sculpture. It has function as well as what I hope is a high degree of artistic presence."


Craig's designs begin with sketches. "They're often very simple. 1 have a number of sketchbooks and spend a lot of time just drawing. Usually, the ideas will come off the page as I'm doodling. At other times, I've already got an idea, and I'm sketching just to narrow it down.


"Sometimes though, I don't begin with a sketch. Sometimes a plank of wood will suggest something. While sorting through the planks, maybe I'll find something with an interesting curve or an interesting texture. And that will spark something. This is something that Jim Krenov is really good at. I think the shapes of some of his pieces are a result of particular planks of wood. "It's also nice sometimes to not have it completely in your mind when you start. Even in this stage;' he pointed to a cardboard and scrap wood mock-up, "there are some things that can happen;' The mock-up represented a commissioned piece, but Craig was quick to point out that there hadn't been a lot of input from the client about the specific shapes and textures that might find their way into the final piece. "She brought me some very basic things. Then in several conversations, she would offer up ideas, and 1 would offer up ideas. 1 then did some sketches. Then the mock-up. It was changed a few times. And the mock-up has been at her house for several weeks. This allowed her to come home from work, open up the door, and get a first impression:' Craig sometimes works with a very lengthy time frame. For example, the piece then standing as a mock-up in his shop might ultimately require a year and-a-half from the time of the first client contact until the delivery of the finished piece. "That's not necessarily because of how long it takes. This summer I did all the architectural carvings for the renovation of the Statehouse in Columbus, and everybody got pushed back. Usually, there is less time involved. In the ideal situation, the sketches and the mock-ups will take place while something else is being built. "Typical1y, there's two or three months of talking it through, of me coming up with ideas, and me presenting those ideas to the client, of conversations back and forth." This planning process is also tied to the financial nuts and bolts of shop operation. "Folks usually give me a third or a half up front. This allows me to purchase materials, and it commits the customer to the project. It also helps me to locate the project in time. And it spreads out my income a little more evenly:'


In spite of the fact that he's only three years out of the College of the Redwoods, in spite of the fact that he's done little in the way of self-promotion, Craig's business is already well established. "I haven't advertised. I've just stayed very busy. I've made a lot of pieces, and I've really, actively looked for galleries and exhibitions to include these works. Now I have almost a year-and-a-half of commissions ahead of me." 


"There was a little bit of culture shock coming back here from California. Out there in California, besides Krenov's students, there's just a lot of woodworking activity going on-to the point where it's probably very competitive." In contrast, Craig hasn't felt a very strong connection to the woodworkers in Central Ohio. 'Ive not gotten very involved with the woodworking community here. I do know some of the local woodworkers, but it's not quite the same as it is to call up somebody I went to school with. I'm sure the East Coast is similar with all the good woodworking programs they have out there, where you're all speaking the same language. I enjoyed having that kind of close camaraderie. Now it's sort of an adjustment. "It feels neat to be one of the few in a given area who does this kind of work, but I find that I'm doing a lot of educating, teaching people that all cabinets don't need to be nine feet high, that there's another world out there. I feel that I'm giving a little bit back of what a special thing I got to experience, of what neat work and people I was around out there." In that vein, Craig has been teaching a number of woodworking classes in Central Ohio. "This fall and winter I'm teaching classes in chip carving at the Delaware County Cultural Arts Center, at Paxton's Beautiful Woods, at the Hardwood Store in Hilliard. And I've done classes at the Woodworker's Store for several years. "I'm also doing some classes on how to make hand planes, how to cut dovetails, and how to do marquetry. These are classes I teach right here in my shop, classes I set up myself. They came about as a result of folks who, after taking an evening workshop at someplace like the Woodworker's Store, expressed interest in doing a little more. "It's fun to teach workshops. I don't want to be the only one who knows how to do this work:'


"I can't believe this is what I get to do for a living:' Woodworking isn't just one thing. It isn't just making chairs, and it isn't just making casework. The river is wide enough to include the man who spends his life in the basement carving jewelry boxes from bits of root and burl. It's deep enough to include the woman who turns fragile, thin-walled vessels from exotically figured woods. It includes makers of high-style Eighteenth Century reproductions. Makers of sleekly designed contemporary furniture. Makers of twig chairs. The river is wide enough and deep enough to include everyone who puts hands to wood impelled by the need to create something identifiably their own from this, most beautiful of materials. It also includes, in its deepest reaches, where the ancient currents are strongest, those craftsmen who approach their material with studied contemplation, with unhurried execution, with grace.


End of article. The article was written by Kerry Pierce, a contributing editor to Woodwork magazine.