In a world that seems to be growing increasingly unstable, Jess Hirsch sees Women’s Woodshop as a much-needed escape for the community. “I think that people need a break, and need to come together over something that’s outside of themselves—and working with wood, it’s such a warm material, it has all these smells that are super distinct, species to species,” she says. “I think that people are just craving it right now.”
Located in the “Witch District” of South Minneapolis’ Powderhorn neighborhood, Women’s Woodshop is tucked into a small storefront—a peek through the window shows off works for sale by the instructors, from carved bowls and spoons to wall shelves. In the far back room, a group of students are pounding away on what will soon be tables, taking advantage of what Jess calls “open shop.”
Women’s Woodshop teaches an expansive variety of classes, from table-making to bathroom repair to spoon carving. Jess started the shop in early 2017 to allow women and non-binary people an entry point into woodworking, a largely male-dominated trade. It’s since grown into a co-ed space simply centered on positivity and support.
Jess, an artist and maker herself, saw a dire need for such a space following the 2016 presidential election.
“I officially launched on the day of the inauguration, as my personal protest,” she says. “I wanted to make a space that fostered positivity and empowerment for women and gender nonconforming folks in a time that felt really dismal. But also I wanted to work in a space that was my realm: the woodworking world.” Women’s Woodshop is truly a passion project for Jess, who literally gave most everything she had to start the shop. “My art is typically rooted in woodworking, so most of the equipment here is from my home studio,” she says.
She’d been planning to open the shop for years prior with a collaborator, but the events following the election pushed Jess to make the leap on her own, risks be damned. “In 2017, it felt like a now-or-never moment where the risks of not starting the space seemed larger than starting it.”
While Jess herself teaches some classes, including Power Tools 101 and Bowl Turning, most instructors teach in their own unique specialties. Classes range from Japanese joinery with Teresa Audet to table building with EB Barnard to birch bark fanny packs with an instructor by the name of Birch Bark Beth.
Though she utilizes local newsletters and social media, Jess says she’s found that people are largely drawn to the space through good ol’ fashioned word-of-mouth. “It’s actually been really great, because people are so excited about the shop. They’ve kind of sought it out, so they’re really hungry for classes when they get here, which is cool,” she says, mentioning one eager individual planning to come up from Kansas City for an upcoming spoon-carving class. “It’s trickling out because there’s this need,” Jess says. “I think people have an itch to work with their hands right now. And I think that we also need community, too, coming together [and] learning a skill. I have so many people that just moved to town that connect with the space.”
People like Nia Zekan, who just graduated college and moved to Minneapolis from Virginia. Nia says her decision to move her life to Minneapolis, where she’d never been and knew no one, was based on research she’d done for a road trip. “Honestly I just thought it was cool,” she says. Having been in the Cities for no more than a week, Nia found Women’s Woodshop online and, on a whim, reached out to Jess. “She just took me in and is teaching me everything she knows,” she says.
Having just graduated and moved to a new city across the country, Nia suddenly found herself as a woodworking apprentice, a position she never guessed she’d be in. “I’m out of school, but I want to be learning something still and I wanted to do something working with my hands,” she says. “Particularly in this environment, I just thought it would be a cool place to get involved.” Would she ever have gotten involved in woodworking had a space like this not existed? “Probably not, no,” she admits.
Jess says the aim of Women’s Woodshop isn’t to broaden the professional woodworking scene as much as it is to simply give people the tools and skills they need to tackle their own projects with confidence. “The overall tone of the space is like, ‘hey, we just want you to be successful.’ That’s it. And it’s not about ‘I own all of these tools, what do you own?’ Like, people are talking about trees they grew up with, and it’s totally welcoming.” So far the message is resonating with people, who are coming to the shop excited to learn new skills, away from the competitive, masculine energy of other woodshops—an environment Jess knows well.
As a young artist and woodworker learning in, as she states it, “hyper-masculine woodshops,” Jess says she craved a place like Women’s Woodshop, where she didn’t have to be afraid to ask questions or make mistakes. Even now, as an accomplished artist and craftsperson, her knowledge is often challenged by some people she encounters.
“It’s not an issue about men,” she says. “Men have a good intention. I think it’s the masculinity of the shop that infringes on a learning space. So if you create a safe space that’s supportive and non-competitive, I think that’s more of the feminine. And I think there are a lot of men that crave that in woodworking.” The shop now offers co-ed classes, which Jess hopes to see grow in the future.
The mission of Women’s Workshop is to get the attention of other local woodworkers and artists who are jumping at the opportunity to get involved. Jess says that, aside from five instructors she’s contacted to teach classes, the rest have come to her, eager to work with females and non-binary people. “They were like, ‘Oh my god, I never got to take a class from a woman when I was studying this stuff,’ or ‘I’ve never had female or gender-nonconforming students. I want to give back,’” she says.
Unfortunately, Jess has gotten her fair share of online trolls coming after her for opening up a space they view as exclusive of men. “It’s really unfortunate [that] people feel threatened because they think that their power is being taken away,” she says. “Sarah Marriage started a space in Baltimore called A Workshop Of Our Own, and she says something that I love to repeat, which is: ‘It’s not about the exclusion of men; it’s about the inclusion of women.’ We’re not saying you’re not welcome anymore, we’re just trying to foster this new community, and support them in this process.”
And she says that some guys just learning woodworking could take a few notes from their female classmates.
“Women listen,” she simply says. But she argues that the issue goes both ways, with a lot of dudes feeling the weight of expectation when it comes to a traditionally “manly” craft like woodworking. “I think that there’s overly confident ego involved, and it’s totally unfair because there’s an expectation on men that you should know how to do it, so you should do it.”
But Jess says she can already see that the scene is moving away from its homogenous roots. “The playing field is totally getting levelled. And there are more and more spaces like this popping up around the country.”
Looking to the future, Jess is simply happy to let the community decide what Women’s Woodshop becomes. “I’m mostly hoping that people will come up with more projects, the more they realize what they’re capable of,” she says.
As she steps away to tend to some students from the table-building class working on their projects, Nia is squinting at a manual on her phone in hopes that it reveals the secrets to recalibrating a particularly stubborn miter saw on the counter. Though frustrated, she is steadfast in her determination to overcome this small obstacle in her pursuit of becoming a bona fide woodworker.
“I would love to be able to take what I learn and eventually give that back, and share that knowledge with people,” Nia says. “And that all starts with getting this thing off.”