Vanessa Walton, Fireweed instructor and board co-chair, works on her table project at a class there on Wednesday, September 21, in the woodshop's new Prospect Park space. Credit: Nicole Neri | MPR News

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The pandemic shuttered countless community spaces for the arts and creativity. In Minneapolis, Jess Hirsch’s DIY woodworking shop for women and nonbinary people wasn’t spared.

Women’s Woodshop, as it was called then, went from teaching nearly 1,000 students how to use power tools per year at its small location in the Standish neighborhood to doing its best to bring woodworking classes to Zoom. After closing during the lockdowns, they left their Standish location in April 2020.

Now, Hirsch and a team of others are rebuilding what may be the Twin Cities’ only place to learn woodworking that’s dedicated to marginalized genders—this time at a location three times as large in Prospect Park and with a new name.

Table making at Fireweed Community Woodshop

Fireweed Community Woodshop’s “shop warming” party was held on Saturday, September 24. Its mission remains the same: Teach the art of woodworking to those who aren’t usually brought into the male-oriented trade, no skills necessary. The shop offers classes on a sliding scale and most have two reserved seats saved for people of color to attend for free.

“It’s sort of a homecoming,” Hirsch says about the grand reopening. The free event included games, a pop-up store, and a tour of the new space. Fireweed is named for the flowering plant that blooms after forest fires, a metaphor for the space’s long-awaited return.

Classes teach making, carving, and woodblock printmaking, and more

Seven Fireweed students worked on milling the wood they’ll use to build tables at a Wednesday, September 21 evening table making class. To mill is to process wood into flat, straight, square, and parallel lumber for woodworking. It was the third of six class sessions of table making. The smell of sawdust and sound of power tools whirring filled the space.

Students took turns confidently using saws and jointers to perfect their materials. During an instructional break, the small group gathered around instructor Stephanie Lunieski, a local furniture maker, to learn next steps. They took notes and bounced ideas and questions off one another.

Instructor Stephanie Lunieski demonstrates a wood cutting technique during class. Credit: Nicole Neri | MPR News

“It’s a judgment-free space. I think that all the teachers and students are all on the same team,” said Gabi O’Connor, a current student in the table making class—her second at Fireweed. She’s making a side table for her living room. “It feels like you can fail and learn and it’s a safe space.”

In November, students will learn spoon carving and woodblock printmaking; make wooden picture frames, xylophones, bowls, baskets, and rolling pins; and learn home improvement skills like installing trim. Dozens of instructors, mostly women and nonbinary woodworkers, teach at Fireweed, including Hirsch, who has 19 years of experience woodworking and a background in sculpture.

An alternative for people judged or harassed elsewhere

Hirsch and others say Fireweed offers women and nonbinary people what other woodworking spaces haven’t–a supportive and nurturing environment for new learners and experienced crafters alike.

“I have been in coed spaces and have had tools taken out of my hands,” Hirsch says. “I’ve been watched, been judged, harassed–not by instructors, but just by fellow students. And I think that people that have this interest, or even just want to have an empowering experience, are really drawn to this space.”

Many Fireweed students have similar backstories, Hirsch says. Sometimes it’s friends taking classes together, or those looking to get into the trades and seeking experience. And a lot of times, students find the shop after feeling rejected from woodworking in the past.

“I’ve had a lot of folks that have attempted to take woodworking classes in high school and have been pushed out by not feeling welcome–especially older generations,” she says. “We also have a lot of people that are like, ‘My dad’s a woodworker, and he’s a horrible teacher.’ They have access to all these tools and want to learn from someone who will teach them safety.”

Some classes are open to anyone of any gender, based on the instructor’s preference. The key is maintaining Fireweed’s atmosphere and teaching style.

The shop uses what’s called non-hierarchical learning, which means everyone’s voices and opinions matter, regardless of experience. Teaching is geared toward new woodworkers but can accommodate all levels of skill, Hirsch says. A given class might have a professional carpenter sitting next to someone who’s never touched a tool.

“You aren’t going to be bored if you have skills, and if you’re new, you’re not going to feel unwelcome,” they said.

‘A place that didn’t feel so hypermasculine’

Hirsch wasn’t initially sure what level of interest women and nonbinary people in Minneapolis would have in a community woodshop. She spent two years renting a gallery space to teach woodcarving classes. Classes sold out within 48 hours.

“Not only did I want to do this, but the world wants to do this. Minneapolis wants to do this,” they realized. By 2017 she turned her Standish studio into a storefront woodshop and hosted nearly 100 classes a year until lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

Vanessa Walton came across Fireweed when she Googled “women” and “woodshop.” She’d finished a Master’s program in historic preservation where she’d met a lot of people in construction and the trades and wanted to learn the tools herself.

Vanessa Walton, instructor and co-chair of Fireweed’s board, measures planks during class on Wednesday, September 21. Credit: Nicole Neri | MPR News

“I was like, ‘It’d be cool to learn some of this from a woman, or just a place that didn’t feel so hypermasculine,’” she said. Walton started taking classes and four years later serves on Fireweed’s board and teaches spoon carving for people of color.

“We create spaces that are specifically for BIPOC folks so that they can learn from instructors who represent their communities,” Walton says.

For many students, learning woodworking at Fireweed is just the beginning. Hirsch says the basic tool function and problem-solving skills learned there can translate to other trades and beyond.

“People can start to do other things that have been exclusionary to them in the past. It’s an entry point to a lot of things.”

Fireweed Community Woodshop’s classes are held at 14 27th Ave. SE in Minneapolis.

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