Craftsmanship’s Young Turks: Angela Robins, Bowl Turner, Boatbuilder

by NATALIE JONES

Angela Robins is halfway through a two-year fellowship at the North House Folk School, in the small, lakeshore town of Grand Marais, Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Angela Robins.

For an aspiring craftsperson, the best place in the country to live, based on the area’s support for the arts, would be Minnesota. Once Angela Robins figured that out, she starting putting down roots there—and then finding ways to make beautiful things out of the wood that grew from the roots that others had planted before her.

Angela was born in Japan but grew up all over—Indiana, Japan, and upstate New York. For many summers she taught carpentry, welding, sandblasting, and other skills at a girls’ empowerment camp in Vermont. One summer, someone there told her about North House Folk School, a small but unusually varied crafts school on the shores of Lake Superior, in Grand Marais, Minnesota. She applied for a ten-month residential internship, got it, and in 2013 moved there. And opportunities have abounded ever since.

THE VALUE OF TIME

Commitment to the arts and cultural heritage is strong among Minnesotans—in fact, the state funds the arts more generously than any other state in the union, by a large margin. (At about $7 per state resident, Minnesota’s arts funding is nearly twice the second ranked state, Hawaii, and more than three times a big money state like New York.) Much of this money comes from a state tax allocation, which in 2017 contributed approximately $15 million to the arts.

Aware of this heritage, in 2015 Angela applied for and received a state grant to study Scandinavian green wooden bowl turning with one of her mentors, Jim Sannerud. The funding was enough to cover equipment and studio space, though she still had to work a regular job most of the week, teaching boat building to teenagers. Fortunately for Angela, the job was a good fit — she considers herself as much an educator as a woodworker—and boatbuilding is one of her passions. But she has been able to move on to an opportunity that gives her more of what every artisan craves: time.

Angela is now a fellow in North House Folk School’s Artisan Development Program, where she will spend a total of two years (which she’s halfway through) focusing on her craft, woodturning; teaching other students; going to conferences, festivals, workshops, and learning how to develop as a professional; and traveling to Scandinavia to conduct research and study with masters of her craft.

Angela’s latest carved and painted birch bowl. The character on the inside reads “hito” and means person in Japanese. “Hopefully,” Angela says, “this bowl gets used for gatherings of lots of hito.” Photo courtesy of Angela Robins

CURVES

At the heart of it all, though, is the curves.

“The thing that keeps me focused on it is just chasing forms, specifically forms with really nice curves that speak to me,” she says. “I think what’s addicting is I’m always just like, ‘So close! Oh, that’s almost the perfect curve, but it’s not quite there! Or what about this curve?’ It’s almost like chasing some sort of shape that will bring you some sort of relief.”

Most of her work so far has been with green wood, making traditional Scandinavian bowls and drinking vessels. The technique presents unusual challenges. “Nature kind of has the final say in the shape of it,” she says, describing the warping process. “I really love that.”

Some of the forms she repeatedly returns to are traditional containers with handles, which indicate the way food or drink was passed around a group. She often decorates her bowls with her own brightly-painted designs. Her pieces also speak to another passion of hers: cooking and sharing food with others. At a place like North House, that community-mindedness is integral.

A TEACHER’S TOUCH

“She’s appropriately outgoing,” says Harley Refsal, a figure carver who teaches at North House. He says a lot is required of the fellows as members of the community, not just as crafters, and Angela’s warm personality makes her a good fit. “She has a memorably infectious laugh,” he says. “It’s like a big fingerprint that she leaves on all of us.”

Developing teaching skills is a core goal of North House’s fellowship program, and something to which Angela seems wholly committed. “She has a personality that makes her very comfortable in this type of craftsman situation,” says Carol Ann Colburn, who has taught Angela sewing at North House and observed her as a teacher. “You have to really find out who your students are and work with them on a close basis. Rather quickly you have to find out everybody’s strengths and encourage that. And that’s a skill.”

CRAFT AS POWER

“I’m very interested in not just the technical skills but how learning technical skills can really be an empowering experience,” Angela says. “That’s how it was for me growing up; I definitely gained a lot of self-confidence by learning these types of skills, and I learned to have a stronger sense of self-reliance as a kid.”

Angela says she finds it particularly rewarding to work with girls, women and femme-identified trans people, and has been teaching a women-only bowl turning class at North House. “If you’re brand new, diving into a traditionally male-dominated class can be intimidating without having familiarity and comfort with the lingo and the tools,” she says.

As far as her own work goes, Angela shows little sign of being intimidated, and has a long list of goals. Working with dried wood, making lidded boxes, and learning more about decorative carving are a few of the pursuits she wants to explore.

Her mentor, Jim Sannerud, thinks that’s only the beginning for Angela as she continues her studies and travels. “This time next year she’s going to be on something that’s very Angela,” he says. “You can see those glimmers of it right now.”

The North House Folk School, which sits on the north shore of Lake Superior (a lake so large it looks like the ocean) is a good place to develop a boat-building obsession. Which Angela Robins clearly has. “Japanese and Scandinavian crafts are my inspiration,” Angela says. “Bowls and boats are my jam.” Photo courtesy of Angela Robins.