Our shop: Woodberry facility carves out a space for women in the traditionally male-dominated field of woodworking

For years, furniture maker and woodworker Sarah Marriage talked with female counterparts about how great it would be if there were woodworking spaces created specifically for women. Many of her peers had been working in wood shops where they were often the only women in large groups of men.

At times, said Marriage, men questioned her expertise and authority when she was teaching classes.

“Historically, the wood shop has been a male-dominated space and male-only. … That not just affects [women], but our entire lives growing up. Boys are living in a world where people are teaching them how to use screwdrivers and nails and saws ... but the general culture of us growing up is that this is something that boys do, and that it's not something for girls,” said the 37-year-old Remington resident.

In 2015, Marriage set out to change all that.

She applied for the John D. Mineck Furniture Fellowship, administered through the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston, and was awarded $25,000 to help fund her idea — a woodworking space for women and people who do not identify with a specific gender.

Marriage leased an old 6,400-square-foot brick mill building in Woodberry in September last year, and in April, she officially opened A Workshop of Our Own, known as WOO, inviting women from Baltimore and beyond to learn woodworking fundamentals and to engage in the craft in a supportive atmosphere among other women.

Housed on Union Avenue and decorated with vibrant murals, the creative haven is filled with a range of tools, including a variety of saws, hand tools, sanders, a jointer, a planer, a router table, a drill press, and a variety of wood.

Classes, ranging from $15 to $600, provide beginning to experienced woodworkers with guidance from instructors in the creation of wooden objects and furniture, Marriage said.

Amber Johnson, a middle-school teacher in East Baltimore, signed up for WOO’s six-week immersive furniture-making course in July after deciding that she wanted to spend her summer doing something with her hands.

“This gave me an opportunity to work alongside other women and do something creative,” said Johnson, 29, who along with six girls learned to make coffee tables or benches.

In the process, Johnson learned the basics, such as how to use a variety of saws and how to work with different types of wood, including reclaimed poplar. She was pleased by the support and encouragement she received from Marriage, who regularly opened the shop and offered assistance outside of class hours, she said.

“As a teacher, I value that,” Johnson said, adding, “Being in a space where you're working alongside other women is always empowering.”

But Johnson said that isn’t overemphasized in workshops.

WOO is “just a space to come and be, and I think it’s important. Sometimes you don’t have to speak about it.”

Paige Ashton, 31, who also took Marriage’s course, said “places like [WOO] are few and far between.”

Despite taking a handful of classes at Station North Tool Library in Station North, she said she found that woodworking spaces can still be intimidating.

In a space dominated by men, it’s easy to think, “Oh, they’re gonna know more than me,” Ashton said.

“Building and making are often catered toward men, it just seems like,” she said, calling it “the Home Depot stereotype.” “Something that … I can do, too — it’s nice to have that in the city.”

And, she said, “The more classes I can take, the better. … I want to get to point where I can start to do on my own.”

The workshop has seen support from across the country, according to Marriage, who launched an $100,000 Indiegogo campaign in May to raise funds with the aim of eventually buying it. WOO received more than 1,000 online donations and has raised more than $62,000 — not enough to purchase the building, but enabling the group to invest in new tools and equipment for the shop.

“The project attracts women who have worked in the field for a while and love the concept of helping other women or just having a place where they can go and be in a safe space, but also it attracts quite a lot of women who have said to me that they probably wouldn't take this class if it weren't all women,” she said.

Similar woodworking spaces, including Lower 48, a nonprofit woodshop and school in Oakland, Calif., and Women's Woodshop in Minneapolis, have sprouted up in the last few years with the objective of empowering women and others who traditionally have not been involved in woodworking.

Jolie Karno, founder of Lower 48, has been teaching woodwork for around seven years. She opened her facility a little more than a year ago after becoming dismayed over rising racial and political tensions throughout country and lack of diversity in woodworking.

“I had been teaching for a long time, but I noticed the people I had been teaching were mostly the same kind of people — tech bros, mostly white, with a lot of money. … I noticed I was one of very few women,” said Karno, 46. Like Marriage, she wanted to make a change.

“I have zero effect on Washington politics, and I can’t control the actions of angry fearmongers. … The real thing I can do is help alleviate that fear, fear of the unknown, and for the women, I can help to give them the kind of experience that I’ve had,” Karno said, adding that learning woodworking helped improve her self-esteem.

Sculptor Jess Hirsch opened Women's Woodshop in Minneapolis in March.

“It’s what I feel like I can offer to the world during a time like this, and it seems like more and more of these spaces are popping up,” said Hirsch, 32. “Woodworking is very challenging. … Being a female in an all-male class, you’re often being watched while you’re making things because there’s often an imbalance.”

It’s common for women working with wood to be asked questions like “Do you know what you’re doing?” or for men to question their authority, she said. But woodworking spaces for women “offer a supportive space to tackle the technical hurdles first and then go out into the world and feel confident.”

While both Karno and Hirsch offer coed classes, “ultimately it’s about inclusion and supporting” women, Hirsch said.

Marriage said she has plans to expand WOO by offering classes in varying skill levels along with residencies, apprenticeships and artist talks.

“We want to continue to bring in women who have worked in woodworking or furniture-making to talk about their experiences,” she said.

After all, as Hirsch said, quoting Marriage, the movement “is not about the absence of men. It’s about the presence of women.”

bbritto@baltsun.com

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