You’ve heard me say it before: I love my job. I get to meet the coolest, most creative people. I get to hang out with folks like Kate Wolf (tool maven, educator, jeweler). And hanging out with such a fun-loving, talented and hilarious force as Kate, who is always thinking about new tools to make for jewelers, is invigorating; hearing about her thoughts on teaching, what it means to teach, what it means to be a student, desperately make me wish she could clone herself, throw those clones in a time machine and send them back to the 70s to teach every class I took in elementary school.
Today (literally as I type), Kate is downstairs in one of our classrooms teaching “Wax Carving: Rings, Rings, Rings” to a packed house. Students are lucky enough to have her here for two two-day sessions on wax carving, her beloved technique that she rocks at doing and rocks at teaching.
I got to chat with Kate for a bit. She gave me the beautiful musings below (in exchange for one of my haikus)…I think I (and now you) got the sweet end of the lollipop on the deal.
Shelby Chant: What do you love about teaching?
Kate Wolf: When I see anyone who’s struggling, and then a light bulb goes on. It can be intimidating for students to walk into a classroom—they’re not in their own space, and they think everyone’s going to be better than they are. So I’ll do a demo, then circle the room and just watch how they hold their tools, and patiently and quietly work with them. That moment when they get it, and they get excited…you see their shoulders go down and their faces light up…it just doesn’t get any better than that when you’re teaching.
SC: If you had to choose…designing or teaching?
KW: [no pause] Teaching.
SC: How come?
KW: You know, I’ve been at the bench for 34 years now. I feel I can do what I set out to do…if I get something in my mind’s eye, I now know how to make it. But when I see someone who really wants to learn this, and they don’t know how to use the tools, or haven’t given themselves the gift of time, to show them and have opportunities open up for them, that’s amazing to me. If I ever have a bad day (and I don’t have many bad days), I go to the post office, and almost always there will be a letter or postcard, a gift, or even better, pictures of the work someone’s doing who took a class decades ago, and they’ll say, “You have no idea how much the things I learned changed my life.” It certainly gets me out of my bad mood in a hurry!
SC: What makes you a good teacher?
KW: I don’t think it’s hard to be a good teacher (Editor’s Note: Kate is being incredibly humble here, and I beg to differ). It’s paying attention to people’s body language. You can see they’re confused. Being patient and explaining things in different ways so they can get where they need to be.
SC: Tell me about your studio in Maine.
KW: I’m two blocks from the harbor, I’ve got a studio with 12 benches and 1,300 square feet of classroom. When I set up my classroom I thought, “How can I do this so people don’t feel intimidated? So they can walk in and feel relaxed?” I purposely set it up for creativity, so there are a lot of playful colors and funky paintings up and interesting little things to look at. So you get distracted by some cool stuff and it sets you at ease. I set a tone of playfulness…we may even go for a walk on the beach. There have been lifelong friendships started in my classes.
SC: What would you say to someone who wants to start learning wax-carving?
KW: I would say get the carvers and the booklet and do the projects. Give yourself the gift of time. Make a date with yourself to get lost in the process, make mistakes, get in the play mode. And don’t get attached to the results. Instead of trying to make one piece that’s perfect, say, “I’m gonna sit down and carve six things. And if I get stuck on one, I’ll put it aside and work on another one.” Don’t worry about making something you can wear or sell right now. Focus on learning the technique.
Our time is so precious and we tend to think there aren’t enough hours in the day, and I disagree with that. I think there are exactly enough minutes in every day; and instead of focusing on how short life is, we need to focus on how wide it is…that every second of every day we have an infinite number of directions we can go in. So I think getting focused and getting lost can take us to great places. Getting lost on purpose takes you to the place where magic happens.
On Writing (not to be confused with Stephen King’s On Writing, which Kate and I both agree is fabulous.)
SC: I hear you’re writing a novel!
KW: Writing is the biggest surprise of my life. I had a relaxing three days while Fred Woell was using my space to teach a class. I came home at 6-o’clock and popped open a beer intending to take a walk on the beach…I don’t remember sitting down, I don’t remember opening up the computer, but I started writing at six-o’clock, and when I looked up, it was midnight. I’d had a third of my beer, I missed dinner, missed my walk and I had 18 pages in front of me on my computer. I just went into this trance. I couldn’t get over it. It’s a totally different way of being creative. [Kate’s now completed 400 pages and even sent a couple to Stephen King himself…and got an outrageous and encouraging response! Her plan is to be complete in March.]
On Everything Else
KW: It’s a Maine-ism. It’s never just “Wicked,” it’s “Wicked Smart” or “Wicked Funny.” Never just “Wicked.” When they were developing my wax, they took me into the warehouse and let me look at all the wax products they used for different industries. I opened up this box and asked, “What is this? This is wicked sticky!” …and I thought right away about five different things I could do with it. So when we started marketing it for jewelers, we needed to decide what to call it. “Wicked-Sticky Wax!”
SC: What’s your favorite of all the tools you’ve created?
KW: My carvers. When I was at the Franklin Mint as a model maker, I had the amazing fortune to work with Russian model maker Lazar Portnoy. He was working with materials he scavenged off the street and he was making his own tools. He worked with another model maker in the United States and they were making carvers out of bike spokes. Lazar showed me how to make a couple of shapes of tools. With his permission, I made a whole lot of other shapes and sizes and marketed them.
Then, I decided that I would give the best product support the jewelry industry has seen, so [the carvers] have a color booklet and the tools are color-coded and numbered, and it shows you how to use every tool.
SC: What do you listen to while working?
KW: My husband (Timothy Nelson). He’s a musician and film composer. If I put his music on I get zapped into the creative process. Without even thinking I open up my computer and start writing or working at the bench.
A Final Thought from Kate…
“I love what I’m doing. I feel beyond blessed. I’m around people who like to learn and that’s as good as it gets.”
Right back at ya, Miss Kate!