Women’s Woodshop

Sculptor Jess Hirsch started her own woodshop classes to welcome women into the craft

Jess Hirsch shaving wood.
Jess Hirsch

photo by david Ellis

When sculptor Jess Hirsch moved into woodworking from the fine arts world, she noticed a lack of female students, instructors, and practitioners of the craft. So, this past spring, she opened Women’s Woodshop in south Minneapolis with a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board as well as money raised online. While some classes are coed, all are taught by, and geared toward, women and gender non-conforming makers of everything from Japanese tea trays to wooden bowls and shelves.

“I didn’t grow up with role models that invited me into their shop necessarily. A lot of women, or a handful of women woodworkers I know—they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I hung out at my dad’s shop and I learned all my things from him.’ My dad is terrifying with any saw ever. It’s the worst thing to see. He’s great with people but so bad with power tools. So I really had to figure it out on my own and not really through this generational education thing that so many people have access to.”

“I had shop class in the seventh grade, but that was not my original inspiration for starting the Woodshop. It was the first of many experiences in woodshops where I was not excited to be a woodworker.”

“And even in grad school, I was asked, you know, sitting among two other women in the sculpture department, ‘Why are women making sculpture now?’ It still comes up where it’s like, ‘You’re not supposed to be here; why are you interested?’ It’s not like, ‘You can’t be here,’ it’s like, ‘Why?’ And I think that constant questioning is why I started Women’s Woodshop, so it was a safe space where you could figure it out and not encounter what feels like little jabs at your confidence. Sometimes you just want to get your work done.”

“I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a lumberyard and I hear, ‘Is your boyfriend helping out with that?’”

“I did have an Aha! moment to start this space, while I was teaching a young girl who was living at a shelter for domestic abuse survivors, and getting her comfortable with all of these tools over a month-long installation of a sculpture. Through educating her, and seeing her confidence grow, I was like, ‘Yes!’ Educating young girls with woodworking skills is a way to change lives. You do really feel self-sufficient, and I think in some ways we’re still taught, well, Oh, you need a man to do that for you.”

“I’d been teaching spoon carving around the city for a year prior, renting spaces at galleries to host workshops, and my classes always filled up.”

“I hear from so many women saying, ‘I always wanted to do this,’ or, ‘I wasn’t allowed in the shop,’ or, ‘I just didn’t think I could.’ There’s just a variety of things that hold us back from it, and some of them are totally practical, like it’s really expensive to purchase all of these tools, or there’s a space restriction. But a lot of times, it’s just like, ‘I didn’t feel comfortable working in these other spaces.’ And there are community ed classes, but there’s not too many just for women, and often those classes are taught by men. So trying to change who is in the leadership role while teaching these classes is really important to me.”

“I think that making a space where there isn’t a competition has freed me. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove now, with this shop. All I have to do is support people and encourage them to explore things that are calling them to woodworking.”

“I sort of feel like I built a rocket ship and now I’m really trying to figure out how to be an astronaut.”