Profiles: Beth Ireland

A turner turns to teaching

Boston, 2007. Beth Ireland was at the top of her game. As a successful architectural woodworker specializing in woodturning, she was nearing the age when many people consider retirement. Instead, she went back to school to study sculpture. “Why not?” she says, “There were so many other things I wanted to learn.” But the program took her in a direction she didn’t anticipate. “I went to gain skills: metalworking, mold making. But it blew up into much more—philosophy, anthropology, community art, and an idea called relational aesthetics. It’s about taking your studio out into the world.” After completing the program, she did just that, outfitting a van as a mobile woodshop/apartment and teaching lathe work across the country in an odyssey, she called “Turning Around America.” These days, she continues the quest at craft schools and guilds across the country although it is not about teaching woodworking per se. It’s about empowering people to shape their world. “I have always loved making things for a living, and like to teach people that their own hands can support them both emotionally and fiscally.” While the current pandemic has curtailed her workshop schedule, it hasn’t stopped her from thinking up new ways to reach people through art and craft.

—Ken Burton

WM: Where do the topics for your workshops come from?

BI: They all stem from the same question: how do you put yourself into your work? But then it depends on the audience. When I was teaching turning to young folks, I tried hard to come up with projects they could relate to, things they immediately knew how to use. Classic simple turnings like honey dippers don’t cut it. But pens and whistles? They’re like magic.

WM: Why do you think that is?

BI: I got into this in an anthropology class. It has to do with the way we’re wired. Things that deal with writing, music, and tools make your brain go crazy with endorphins. It gets into the way society perpetuates itself. Your primitive brain says, “Yes, yes, good, good, this will keep us going.”

WM: You must go through a lot of pen kits.

BI: That would get expensive in a hurry, so I have to be creative about it. I use the guts out of cheap Bic pens and can have a class writing about their experience within the hour.

WM: Do you teach classes that are more advanced?

BI: If I’m talking to furniture students—those who want to make a living from the craft—I get into product development. So many of them want to make $12,000 desks, which just isn’t realistic in today’s economy. Instead, I talk about what can you do for under $100 that’s still interesting to make and something nearly anyone can buy. That’s where craftspeople and artists are finding success these days.

WM: You mentioned tools earlier. Obviously woodworking involves tool use, but you take it further than that, don’t you?

BI: I do. I don’t just teach people how to use tools, but how to make their own. Especially in poorer places that don’t have a lot of their own tools. I start with large hex wrenches. They’re cheap and the steel is okay for making cutting tools. I’ll have each kid grind a spindle gouge and a carving tool, or maybe a different lathe chisel. Then we use those tools to make a product. It’s very empowering.

WM: It seems like a stretch to go from grinding hex wrenches to making guitars. How did that happen?

BI: I was doing a workshop centered on band saw boxes with a high school class. About half the class was into it, while the other half…not that much. So, how to reach that group? Tools? Writing? Music? It occurred to me that maybe I could use a band saw box to make a version of a cigar box guitar. So I started to experiment. My third prototype began to work.

WM: And the rest is history?

BI: There’s a little more to it than that. I wasn’t really a musician, nor an instrument maker. But I wanted an instrument that kids could make, AND it had to look and sound good. After studying folk instruments, and experimenting with recycled materials, I still wasn’t happy. If I’m going to make instruments, they have to be amazing. So that’s when I decided I had to become a luthier.

BI: About that time, I joined up with Keun Ho Peter Park, a woodworker who is also a great musician. We put together a class to teach instrument making (and woodworking) based on bandsaw boxes. The instrument we make is a guitar-dulcimer hybrid. It is really accommodating and allows for a lot of personal expression. The dulcimer is awesome because anyone can play one. And, as it turns out, band saw boxes transmit sound really well through the end grain. They make it possible for folks with limited woodworking experience to build an amazing instrument in a five-day workshop.

WM: What’s next?

BI: Until I can get back to teaching, I’m home in Florida spending time in the shop making crossbows.

WM: Crossbows?

BI: Yup. Probably not something I’ll be sharing with my high school students. 

On Teaching Design and Craft by Beth Ireland

Creativity comes naturally to most young children; the key is to foster it so it survives the journey into adulthood. Here are some of the key points I try to incorporate when I’m teaching children:

  • Start with products your students can relate to. If they don’t understand an object’s function, how can they make it better?
  • Kitchen items are a good place to start because they are easily understood.
  • Don’t be afraid of wacky combinations. Who says a spatula doesn’t 
  • need a whistle on the end to call people when the pancakes are ready? 
  • Repetition isn’t a bad thing. It takes making something several times to cement the processes in your head.
  • Sneak in the basics of design—form, texture, pattern—as you’re talking about function.
  • Encourage students that college isn’t the “be-all and end-all.” You can make a good living by working with your hands. 
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