Next semester’s art studio curriculum is chock full of drawing, architecture, sculpture, printmaking, and photography classes, but you won’t find any woodworking or furniture-making courses listed in the course catalog. Still, those eager to hone Ron Swanson-worthy technical skills need not feel disappointed. The visual arts classes offered present students with plenty of opportunities (and often even require them) to become closely acquainted with the cutting-edge tools housed in the Wesleyan Woodshop.
Tucked away in the center of the CFA at 105 Art Studio South, the shop stores top-grade appliances including band saws, machines that cut wood into straight and circular pieces; a drill press, a tool bolted to the ground that is used for drilling holes; and an air compressor, a device used to power a nail gun.
Assignments for a variety of art studio courses entail the use of tools in the woodshop. Painting II students, for example, saw wood to build stretchers for their canvases. Students taking a class called “Alternative Printmaking: Beginning Japanese Woodblock Technique” must carve blocks to create woodcuts with which they later create ink prints. Architecture students frequently use the laser cutter, a machine that carves into materials like wood, paper, and Plexiglas, to create models.
Seniors working on art studio theses might use several tools in the shop for their projects, which vary widely. It is not unusual for students to stay at the shop as late as midnight.
It can be easy to get caught up in the excitement of working with fancy gadgets, but at the woodshop, safety comes first. Kate Ten Eyck, who has served as Art Studio Technician since October 2000, trains art students in shop safety rules before allowing them to use the tools. During training sessions, she reviews the proper use of each tool and stresses the importance of wearing protective gear like goggles.
Ten Eyck, who also oversees the sculpture studio, printmaking, and photography equipment, as well as general health and safety issues in the art department, supervises the shop four hours a day from her office. She relies on student monitors, who are art studio majors with expert knowledge of fire safety and woodworking tools, to keep tabs on students working in the shop.
Virgil Taylor ’15 works as a student monitor during the Sunday night shift, one of the busiest times at the shop. His main responsibilities include reiterating safety rules, reminding students to clean up after themselves, and familiarizing students new to the shop with the equipment.
“Basically, in order for the woodshop to be open at night, someone has to be there to make sure no one kills themselves,” Taylor said. “So we’re there to make sure that everyone is wearing safety goggles and being careful with the different saws and drills and also assisting people if they are doing something that they’re worried about in terms of helping them with ideas for how to construct something. It’s not a high-skill job, but it’s a necessary one.”
Generally, Ten Eyck and the student monitors intervene quickly enough when they encounter safety hazards that prevent students from injuring themselves and those around them. However, last month, the woodshop saw its first major injury in several years when, according to Student Monitor Nathaniel Elmer ’14, a fatigued student hurt herself badly by misusing a tool.
“She was tired and she was on the band saw and she just moved her hand a little too close and wasn’t paying attention and cut it,” Elmer said. “She had to go to the hospital.”
Still, the woodshop has become an increasingly safer space since its relocation in 1999. The shop’s current location used to be used for ceramics, a craft no longer taught at Wesleyan. At that time, the woodworking tools were stored in the sculpture studio, a hazardous arrangement not only because of crowdedness but also because supplies for the two activities are not designed to be stored together. Ten Eyck is surprised, for instance, that the plaster from the sculpture shop did not rust the woodworking tools.
Since its occupation of the former ceramics shop, the woodshop has acquired tools that emphasize safety. A spray booth, a power-ventilated hood, prevents paint fumes from contaminating the air. A SawStop table saw uses electrical current-based technology to sense when a finger is touching the blade. If a person comes into contact with the blade while it is in motion, a brake pushes the blade away.
The only downside to this technology is that it renders the blade unusable once the brake is employed. Replacing the blade costs over $100. But for Ten Eyck, whose father, a carpenter, recently lost part of his finger to a saw blade, the guarantee of protection is worth the cost.
“That’s better than the trauma of someone getting a serious injury or the cost of reattaching a finger,” she said. “So I sleep better at night since we got this, because it is very real. It’s when you’re pushing into a blade that bad things happen.”
Ten Eyck began her woodworking career as a child, when she learned to use tools like band saws from her father. She received a BFA in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design and, later, an MFA in printmaking from Hartford Art School. This semester, she taught printmaking in the place of Professor David Schorr, who is on sabbatical. Next semester, she will teach Drawing I.
Because space in the woodshop is restricted, Ten Eyck has no plans to add new tools to the space. However, students should expect to see new signs next semester reiterating safety rules. Ten Eyck also hopes to better publicize the wood storage cage located in the shop, which has a sign that reads, “Take what you want, drop what you don’t need,” and contains free cycle art supplies. On Tuesday, its contents ranged from a partially used gallon of glue to a small mirror.
Supplies are certainly not all that is shared at the woodshop. Since the space is one of the only locations in the art department not designated to a particular concentration of the art studio major, the woodshop serves as a center of creativity manifested in different forms of artwork.
“The woodshop is kind of this interesting place where painting students will come and build structures, architecture students will come and use the cutter, sculpture students will come and build structures for their projects,” Taylor said. “It’s interesting because you see a lot of different things happening inside the woodshop and then, of course, all the thesis students are doing all their separate things.”
Since students are working on vastly different projects at any given time, the woodshop has become a hub, or as Elmer calls it, “a hothouse,” for creativity. Art students seek not only inspiration but also artistic guidance from peers working at the shop.
“People bring in things, and you get to see the process, and that’s really great, especially for thesis kids,” he said. “We have all our own studios, our own space to work, but we all converge there with tools. That’s our center, our node of interaction amongst each other, and that’s totally valuable, because you get critique on your work.”