Leah Woods – A Professor on Sabbatical
If I were responsible for casting the role of Peter Pan, I would look no farther than Leah Woods. She is petite in stature, has short-cropped red hair, an infectious smile, twinkling eyes, and seems to be balancing on her toes as if about to fly – especially when she is talking about her work and her plans for the months ahead. But do not be fooled by this description; this is a woman who can weald a mean chainsaw and has command of a wide range of power tools.
Leah is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Hampshire where she teaches woodworking and furniture design. In December, I casually asked when and if school would resume, only to learn that she was just beginning her sabbatical from teaching. When I asked how she would be spending this planned time away from the university, I was so impressed with her answer, I decided to highlight her in this newsletter.
Image: Leah showing me a model of a bench she is submitting for a competition
Her Journey to Woodworking
Leah grew up in a military family and lived in over 19 different cities and states before going to college. In 1995 she attended the SOFA (Sculpture,Objects, Functional Art and Design) Expo in Chicago where she was “blown away” by the work of Wendell Castle, the renowned American furniture designer and craftsman who challenged the traditional boundaries of functional design.
“I had taken some woodworking classes at a local lumber yard and had hung out at community woodshops run by the Park Service, but I now knew there was so much more to learn and try.” With the encouragement of her family, she earned her master’s degree in Woodworking and Furniture Design in 2000 from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
She began by designing and building one-of-a-kind furniture before transitioning to conceptual and sculptural forms. She has built several bodies of work including: A Personal Wardrobe – Cabinets investigating clothing and the female form, Footloose – A series of cabinets for high-heeled shoes, Structure – An investigation of mannequins and dress forms, and most recently, Navigation – An exploration of autobiographical maps. leahkwoods.com
Tools to build self-confidence
A sabbatical is a gift of time that many artists will use as uninterrupted studio time, a time for reflection, a time to travel, to write and to create new work. Leah has chosen to use this time to continue to teach, something she is extremely passionate about. Instead of teaching university students, she is designing a program for women in the New Hampshire prison system.
As a member of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters, Leah was aware of their Prison Outreach Program (P.O.P.), established over 20 years ago, that teaches woodworking skills to men in the New Hampshire prison system. She first asked back in 2009 if a similar program could be designed for women. Outreach programs for women did exist but didn’t have the vigor that a program in woodworking could provide. “Learning how to use a new tool, build things for herself is incredibly empowering for a woman,” she explains. Many of the women who are incarcerated have children at home. “To begin, we will do simple projects like chip-carving name placques, spoons and toys and then build woodworking and design skills.”
Finally in early 2020 plans were underway to build a dedicated woodworking shop for a new women’s prison in Concord. Leah was planning to teach her first class on March 18 and make it the focus of her sabbatical. Then the pandemic hit and everything was put on hold.
Since in-person classes were not possible, Leah made her first instructional DVD to get the program started. She can’t wait to teach her first class at the facility. The recent issue of Fine Woodworking Magazine has an excellent article about the program and concludes with this statement from Leah.
“The best contribution you can make to society is to do something you enjoy and that you are good at,” she said. “Learning a craft fosters community, gets you out of your own head, and teaches you to focus, And that’s invaluable for a person who is incarcerated, but also for when they eventually rejoin the outside world.” Read the full article here
Leah is a first-time home-owner, and has purchased a duplex in Dover, New Hampshire. She is very excited about the two-bay garage which she plans to renovate as her own woodworking shop.
At the moment, it is bare bones, no heat, no electricity. But as she enthusiastically described her plans for the space, I had no doubt, that with her energy and can-do attitude, it will be another accomplishment during her sabbatical.
On the Rocks – Recommendations for outdoor adventures
What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.John Steinbeck “Travels with Charley”
I know many people don’t care for the winter months but they have always been my favorite time of the year. Perhaps it is because things slow down a bit and expectations are lowered.
With fewer museums, galleries and other venues open, I have been spending a lot of time out-of-doors. While most vegetation is dormant and buried under the snow, rocks and cliffs stand out like sculpture in the winter landscape. Two local walks with interesting rock features are Orris Falls Conservation Area and the Kenyon Hills Preserve, both properties of the Great Works Land Trust in South Berwick
The terrain in the Kenyon Hills is indeed hilly. The one-mile loop takes you through dense forest, past wetlands, and a side trail will take you to the headwaters of the Ogunquit River. Children of all ages will want to scamper around and climb the many enormous granite boulders. More information on the Kenyon Hills.
The Orris Falls Conservation area is a lovely walk anytime of the year. Waterfalls are always an attraction, but it is the Balancing Rock that is most impressive. The area is full of history, beaver dams and other signs of wildlife. Before you go, I recommend that you read Dianne Fallon’s post called Travels on the White Rose Trail to Orris Falls. You might also consider reading the literary sketch The White Rose Road by Sarah Orne Jewett. And if you prefer to visit virtually, watch this “Windows to the Wild” PBS video hosted by outdoor enthusiast Willem Lange.
Image of Balancing Rock by Dianne Fallon
If I’ve piqued your interest about rocks, here is one more to put on your list. The Madison Boulder in Madison,New Hampshire is the largest known glacial erratic in North America, and among the largest in the world.
Whenever I am in the Conway area, I take a little detour over to Madison and pay my respects to this Natural National Landmark. Here is a link to the brochure.