Saturday night woodies

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The Berkeley wood shop seems like another world, hidden away. Blocks and slabs of wood, half-made stools and tables, and an assortment of power tools frame the small, enclosed room in the basement of Berkeley College. Mark Messier, professional cabinetmaker and leader of the Berkeley wood shop, calmly motions to one of the students in the shop to slow down before he chops another slab of wood. This student, he explains, is making a standing desk for his dorm room. Nearby, a student at the School of Forestry is making a stool, and an undergraduate is constructing a bookshelf.

The Berkeley wood shop first opened in 1992 in a tiny 12 by 40 foot room. When Berkeley went through renovations in 1998, the Head of College at the time, Harry S. Stout, reached out to Messier, who had designed furniture for him before, to help open the larger remodeled shop. Messier, who lives an hour away from campus, agreed, although he was initially a bit nervous at the prospect of having to generate a woodworking curriculum. It quickly became clear, however, that the shop would not be a place of stressful, rigorous instruction. The wood shop turned into more than an extracurricular location; it became a second home of sorts, where Messier and his students could make things with their hands.

Messier traces his love of woodworking to his childhood and the influence of his father. An insurance executive, his father always had a passion for woodworking; Messier recalls watching his dad construct their house at the age of five. Observing his father at work catalyzed Messier’s interest in the art. “I was always down in my dad’s wood shop, so I made a bunch of things when I was a kid,” Messier said. “I’d make go-carts and tree forts; I’d make anything.”

Messier has brought his childhood woodworking experiences to the Berkeley wood shop. He hopes his students can learn from him in the way he learned from his father. Messier does not explicitly teach his students how to woodwork, but lets them learn for themselves, giving them direction when needed. “I might tell them not to use a certain tool, but otherwise I let them make whatever they want,” he said. Messier emphasized that he allows his students to make mistakes and create what they want. In general, the only warning he gives students is that a project may take semesters—or even years—to complete. Messier himself is a self-taught cabinet maker, so he doesn’t believe in traditional classroom-style teaching.

So far, this approach has been very successful in facilitating students’ creativity. In the past, people have made cutting boards, shelves, coffee tables, signs for the Yale Pistol Club, and even stilts. “It’s all project-based, so it depends on the students, and what they want to make,” Messier said.

Woodworking is a highly intricate and time-consuming process, and takes more effort than most people would think, according to Messier. To him, woodworking comes naturally, almost as effortless as walking or eating, but for most it’s less intuitive. “It takes a different way of thinking,” he said; it requires something different from academic or professional intelligence. While Messier said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a new face on any given Saturday, there is a steady group of students who come to the wood shop every week. He thinks woodworking demands prolonged effort. “You have to really have the desire to do it.”

Messier speaks about his students fondly; he knows their projects well and understands each student not only in the context of the wood shop, but also in their personal and academic lives. He points to one of the students in the wood shop—John Lee, BK ’18—saying that he has been coming into the wood shop since his freshman year, and has developed from a shy freshman to a more confident woodworker and person in that time. Messier also noted that Lee is majoring in biomedical engineering, and has a very mathematical mind, which makes him a precise and careful woodworker.

Lee, who has spent a considerable amount of time in the Berkeley wood shop and knows its ins and outs, says that woodworking has been a creative outlet for him. “I like using my hands and problem-solving,” he said. He is currently making a bench, for which he received a CPA grant from Berkeley. “Mark teaches us to have an appreciation for wood, for its aesthetic qualities but also for how it speaks to the life of a tree,” Lee said. “You can really see this with natural edge work, where you work on a piece of furniture and order it in terms of right angles and flat surfaces. Natural edge work reminds you of where the world comes from.” When Lee comes into the wood shop, he feels he is able to step away from the fast-paced world and consider its origins. Lee has so enjoyed the process of woodworking and working with Messier that he has stayed in his house—which is about an hour away from campus—for the past few summers to further his skills.

For Messier and Lee alike, woodworking has been a necessary creative release, and the Berkeley wood shop has tied his childhood passion for woodworking to his more developed woodworking career. “Coming here has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said. “It’s an outlet; you can come in and get into it right away, and you start wood turning.”


Other residential colleges have comparable arts facilities, like the JE Printing Press. At one point, eleven out of the twelve residential colleges had printing presses. Now, there are only three that remain—Davenport-Pierson, Branford, and JE. Rose said the reduction in printing presses is most likely a response to “the flatness of the digital age.” Messier relates a similar qualm, saying that he wishes that people still took woodshop classes, as woodworking is a valuable and worthwhile skill.

Although there are now fewer printing presses at Yale, there is still considerable interest in the activity. Rose explains that printing is an acquired taste, and different presses interest different people for varying reasons. Antique presses, he said, might be interesting to engineering students from an engineering standpoint, but students interested in writing and design might also gravitate toward them. Davenport-Pierson regularly holds workshops in the evenings, and two student printers recently orchestrated spring workshops in JE for Valentine’s Day to make small boxes for chocolate, cards, and small books of poems.

The Morse Fabric Arts Studio is also popular with students in both Morse and Stiles. Each semester, Alexa Martindale, Operations Manager, explained, the studio is filled with students who want to weave. “We stack them in there like sardines,” she said. “Weaving is a very complicated art form. Barbara Hurley [master weaver] really gets the students’ creativity going with her teaching.” Hurley worked with looms before coming to the Fabric Arts Studio, and she initiated the teaching segment in the studio, where she works with students for four hours a week on their weaving skills. Students’ projects aren’t limited to the four hours they spend with Hurley, Martindale explained. They often send pictures of their progress on a particular project to her throughout the week.

All of these arts facilities, tucked away in the residential colleges, reflect the desire for a creative outlet on campus. The arts facilities are places where students of different interests can come together and create. Perhaps these facilities—hidden from the everyday shuffle of Yale life, and somewhat archaic—stop the clock for a while, forcing students to pause and listen to the chopping of wood or the needle weaving through thread, a singular rhythm behind it all.

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