As Douglas Stowe gives a tour of his brightly lit home workshop in Eureka Springs, he apologizes for its messiness. But "messiness" is the last word that comes to mind when looking around the space: The scraps and stores of wood and the aromatic sawdust are evidence of an explosion of creativity and creation. Stowe runs his hand over his latest work of art, a gorgeous, 8-foot long, 3-inch thick silver maple slab he has planed and sanded to the consistency of velvet. The feel of it is so sumptuous, it's difficult to pull one's hand away. It will eventually be a dining room table, the place a family from Little Rock will gather for family dinners and celebrations. Lucky family.
Stowe is a woodworker, obviously, and a craftsman, certainly, but he actually has a plethora of titles: He founded the Eureka Springs Guild of Artists and Craftspeople in 1977 and is one of three co-founders of the Eureka Springs School of the Arts, which has been educating a new generation of artists and craftspeople for nearly 20 years. He served as vice president for Save the Ozarks, an organization that was formed to (successfully) stop a 345 KV power line that SWEPCO planned on installing in the Eureka Springs community. He's authored 17 how-to guides, produced three DVDs and has written dozens of articles for prominent publications. He's also the creator of the Wisdom of the Hands Program at Eureka Springs' independent school, Clear Spring School. While developing this program, Stowe became an expert in "educational sloyd," a Finnish system that emphasizes education through handicrafts. The philosophy that developed through his research into this system is in bold type across his website: "I have found that nearly everything in human life is enriched if your hands are engaged in its exploration." His many accomplishments and stature -- both in Eureka Springs and nationally as his books and blog have become more and more popular over the years -- were recognized in 2009 when the Arkansas Arts Council named him an Arkansas Living Treasure.
Where to find more of Douglas Stowe
Wisdom of the Hands Blog
Eureka Springs School of the Arts
Clear Spring School
The Wisdom of the Hands Guide to Woodworking with Kids (Spring, 2020)
Creating Beautiful Boxes with Inlay Techniques
Simply Beautiful Boxes
Making Elegant Custom Tables
Rustic Furniture Basics
Building Small Cabinets
Making Classic Toys that Teach
Building Small Cabinets
Basic Box Making
Douglas Stowe’s articles can be found in a variety of publications including Woodcraft Magazine, Fine Woodworking, Wood Magazine, American Woodworker, British Woodworking, Make Magazine, Furniture Matters, Woodwork, Custom Woodworking Business, Woodcraft and Cabinet Maker.
He has accomplished a great deal in his life, to be sure, so it is somewhat surprising to find the man so approachable and accessible one warm summer day at his home. It is tucked back far enough in the woods to seem secluded from civilization yet is close enough to Eureka's main strip that, when enough are in the area, the rumble of motorcycles can be heard from the back deck. He lives with his wife, Jean Elderwind, who recently retired as administrator of the Carroll and Madison County Library System, and an 11-month old Golden Doodle named Rosie, whose personality is as large as her capacity for affection. The house is warm and comfortable, and Stowe's work spaces are full of both the evidence of his hard work ,as well as its results. His beautiful, trademark wooden boxes, in particular, have taken over his office, in various states of completion. Stowe admits with a wry smile that he is better at starting projects than finishing them.
Today, one box has taken on particular import: Stowe is working on an elegantly styled box that will hold the cremains of his sister, who passed away just a week before. She is the second sister, of three, that Stowe and his family has lost. It is a somber task that he has undertaken twice before, once for his mother, once for his father. It is also an enormously tender, sweetly loving last act of a brother for a beloved sister.
"Of course, those things cause you to try and attempt to put your own life in focus and try to figure out some sense of things," says Stowe soberly.
The law of creation
Over the course of the conversation, it becomes obvious that "figuring out some sense of things" is something that comes as naturally to Stowe as does sanding a piece of wood to a finish that feels like silk. When he was encouraged to study pre-law in college -- to follow in his grandfather's footsteps -- he figured out before he graduated that he was much more suited to working with his hands and adjusted his life's course accordingly. He had some inkling that this was the case early on in life when his father, who first worked for corporations and then owned and operated his own hardware store, introduced him to his first experience in woodworking.
"One of my earliest memories of him was of him teaching me how to hold a hammer and the nail without hitting my thumb," says Stowe. "Of course, that lesson didn't really get clear until I actually hit my thumb. But I remember him teaching me where to hold the hammer, not up at the head, but down with the handle."
It was when Stowe took on his biggest project to date -- rebuilding an old Model T Ford from the ground up -- that he had a revelation that would change the course of his life.
"I was home from college, mid-point in my senior year," he remembers. "I was feeling really frustrated with how abstract it all was. I was just disengaged from it. My friend who helped me with the antique Ford said, 'Doug, I don't know why you would be studying to be a lawyer. Your brains are in your hands.' And that was something that was utterly true, and no one had ever noticed that. And so I went back to school, and I changed my schedule around so I could take some pottery classes, and I found it so fulfilling. I could've spent the rest of my time in pottery classes. It was so concrete; it wasn't like sitting in a classroom listening to words and words."
After graduation, Stowe received his conscientious objector status due to his moral objection to the Vietnam War and moved to Memphis, Tenn., to fulfill his alternative service requirement at a children's home. He continued to study pottery through classes at Memphis State University and, when artist Jo Ann Kaminsky (then Jo Ann Burton) came to the university to visit with a former teacher, she encouraged him to move to Northwest Arkansas, where a pottery movement was flourishing. Ready for a change, Stowe took her advice and relocated to Eureka Springs in 1975.
"It was a place that was, much to the chagrin of some of the locals and to the satisfaction of others, kind of overrun with hippies," Stowe says of Eureka Springs during that period. The quaint town had experienced an artistic renaissance in the years immediately after the Depression, when artists, including Louis and Elsie Freund, flocked to the area to take advantage of the quiet environment to create their art. In the mid-1960s, as tourism picked up due to the completion of Beaver Dam and Lake, religious leader and conservative political figure Gerald Smith moved to Eureka Springs to build the towering 66-foot Christ of the Ozarks statue and the arena that would house the Great Passion Play, a draw for Christians from all over the country.
"There were a lot of people, long hairs, you know, and we recognized each other on the streets, hugged, and, some, of course, were raising and smoking marijuana. But there were places where we would go and hang out. Everybody was going to breakfast at the same places, and they'd all talk about whether they were writing or not. And there were people here that really encouraged us as young artists. Louis and Elsie Freund were senior artists that were just so welcoming. There were people here that had real credentials in the arts, like Louis and Elsie and Glenn Gant and some others who were extremely welcoming and encouraging of us. Even though we may not have had very much artistic talent at the time, that didn't deter their willingness to foster our growth. But, yes, we had a few people in town that were afraid that we're going to take over like a Rajneesh cult."
In love with wood
Stowe initially continued to create pottery when he first moved to town but quickly moved on to woodworking when he secured a position at Arkansas Primitives, where he created furniture made out of old barn wood. His passion for the work was so immediate, he left pottery in the past; he says he hasn't created anything in clay since making the transition. When the company went out of business, he took what savings he had and bought a few tools so that he could continue working on his own.
"There were shops downtown that needed display fixtures, front doors," he says. The downtown area was experiencing a resurgence at the time, and new businesses were frequently opening. "I did a long display cabinet for some of the merchants, started making furniture and started doing my inlaid boxes."
Throughout this period, Stowe was developing his philosophy for business.
"I think my biggest advantage was that I was always cognizant of the need to be a very nice person, to develop friendships," he says. "They always say, 'Don't mix business and pleasure.' But I think you always have to mix business and pleasure. You always want to do business with people you care about. And because you feel that way about people, then you suspend some of the concerns that you might have about whether they're paying enough, because you love them. It doesn't take many customers to make a life. Are you working for the money? Well, there are a lot of things you can make a lot more money doing. If I were working for money, I probably would have done better with my hand skills working somewhere else -- plumbing comes to mind. Or [as an] electrician. But I love wood. I love the creative aspect of it. I liked doing different things all the time."
He was already starting to publish articles in well-known periodicals by 1980, when he met his wife, Jean, at the public library, as he was doing research.
"I was working at the circulation desk, and this tall, good looking guy with really brown hair and a big beard came up to me and, in all seriousness, said, 'Do you have any books on the chemical reaction of urine and sawdust?'" Elderwind remembers. "That was his pickup line."
Both had post office boxes and, says Elderwind, when they realized they were both purposefully timing their mail pickup to run into each other, they arranged to have their first date. Five months later, they were married.
"I could clearly see who he was early on, and there were no pretenses," says Elderwind. "It was just one of those things -- our personalities synced."
Stowe was also fostering community, first with the Guild of Artists and Craftspeople in 1977 and then the Eureka Springs School of the Arts, which he started in 1988 with fellow artists Eleanor Lux and Mary Springer.
"It's where adults go to learn through play," says Stowe. "It's in its 20th year, and we have a wonderful campus out there with a wood shop and blacksmith and a pottery studio. It's become an important part of our community."
The school has expanded from one building on one acre of land to seven buildings and over 50 acres.
"He is an incredible teacher," says Kelly McDonough, executive director at ESSA. "He has a way of explaining things that not only gives the student practical information that they need to complete a project, but he also puts the work and the heart and the heart-hand-mind connection into a larger context. I've heard people call him the 'Yoda of woodworking.' He has a very calm and sort of profound way of explaining even the most simple processes that cause the students to think about larger issues."
Learning by hand
Stowe's impulse to expand opportunities to study the arts came from his own realization of the import and benefit of working with his hands -- something he had spent a lot of time thinking about, ever since his friend's revelation that his "brains were in his hands." He started publishing articles and even his own books by this point, and, in 1999, he started seriously thinking about teaching.
"I was thinking, 'If you don't use whatever success you have to leverage into something of greater value, then you're wasting it,'" he says. He had heard about the decline of wood shops in schools through friends on the internet, so when Clear Spring School decided to expand to the high school level, he suggested they open a wood shop. The director said sure -- if Stowe raised the funds. He did.
Stowe's daughter, Lucy, has been benefiting from Stowe's teaching ability since she was a child, hanging out in his wood shop and making tunnels for her gerbils with scrap wood. Today, she's a science teacher in a New York City public school where students are encouraged to learn by working with their hands.
"It's been so wonderful, seeing him developing his teaching philosophy," she says. "Getting to see how [the Clear Spring School] program flourished and how much of what he does is tied to what students are learning as part of the curriculum. It's incredible, the richness that this program adds. I'm super jealous. I wish it was in every school. Not only is having students have that joy of creation so incredibly powerful, but having those manual skills, being able to create something with your hands, means you're being able to create something in 3D space, which feels like is sorely lacking with our current modern educational system."
"When we started the wood shop at the high school level, it became very apparent to me that it needed to start in the younger grades," Stowe says. "So I made a trip to the East Coast, and there I found that woodworking was not a high school vocational thing. It's a formative thing. It's about forming the whole child. It's about the child discovering his or her creative potential. It's about being able to problem solve. And so I thought, 'Well, gee whiz, we have to bring everything down to the lower grades.' Then, I think, we found the real heart of it."
He started visiting other independent schools across the country, and what he found there confirmed his belief that most American schools were emphasizing the wrong things in the early grades -- learning through play was being de-emphasized, which, says Stowe, is a mistake.
"In Finland, they start reading at age 8, and we start pushing reading at age 5," he notes. "They far surpass American readers in 30% less time, which is staggering, and it has to do with the thing of whether or not you're willing to pay attention to the child. Are you going to pay attention to the agenda that you have for the child, or are you going to pay attention to the child?"
The schools he visited on the East Coast, including Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge, had embraced the concept of "educational sloyd" -- that we learn by doing.
"[The philosophy] is utterly profound -- it really lays out a lot of things about how we learn," says Stowe. "For me, having published my first book, I thought, 'Oh, I'm an author.' There's credibility that you're being able to communicate in that way. There's efficiency, apparent efficiency anyway, in terms of being able to learn something by reading. And I don't want to take away from that power that reading really has, and it's such an important skill. But there's a lot more that goes on... Try to tell somebody how to play the cello. It's not going to work. You have to put their fingers in the right place to get the note right.
"This friend of mine that was teaching at Buckingham Browne & Nichols said that parents ask him, 'What happens to your kids from wood shop?' He says, 'They become engineers and orthopedic surgeons' and all of these other careers that parents are not expecting."
These days, Stowe is finalizing the edit for a new book to be released in spring of 2020 called The Wisdom of the Hands Guide to Woodworking with Kids and conceptualizing his next book, which he hopes will be called The Wisdom of the Hands: Shaping Self, Family, Community and Human Culture. He's kept a robust blog on the subject for over a decade. In fact, the philosophy of woodworking has so thoroughly permeated his life that even when he's talking about his craft, he's giving life lessons.
"No craftsman can ever deliver something that he or she will regard as perfect, because there are always things that you've not done quite as well as you would have if you had more information or more experience or better judgment," he says when asked about the pressure of making something as large as the table sitting out in his workshop. "So there's always this balance between work and forgiveness. The idea that all of us are human in our understanding, which, you know, kind of flies in the face of the machine. The machines do quite well for a while and then get worse, and we do mediocre for a while and then get better. And I love that balance between work and forgiveness.
"Woodworkers always talk about a 'Plan B,' it becoming a design opportunity, you know? There's always this thing of either forgiving the wood or forgiving yourself for having done something stupid again. The sooner you push that aside and operate on your forgiveness mode, the faster you get back to work."
NAN Profiles on 08/11/2019
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