Building on a Foundation
CategoriesAlumni, Cabinet & Furniture Making
For Beth Ann (BA) Harrington CF ’95, carpentry was the family business. But while being the daughter, granddaughter, and sister of carpenters would seem to have been good preparation for the Cabinet & Furniture Making program at North Bennet Street School, it wasn’t that simple.
“It’s funny because, as a woman, I wasn’t involved in the business. My grandfather, my dad, and three brothers were all taught to be carpenters,” recalls BA. “I would help my father out from time to time once my brothers were gone, but it was never about him teaching me a skill.”
Instead, BA learned by observing her father, homebuilder Edwin Harrington. “My dad built eight different houses I lived in growing up, all in the same neighborhood in Holland, Michigan. He was a master at his craft and as a good man, too. The work he did on our various homes was very creative. His office was filled with drawings, and pencils he sharpened with a knife,” she says.
Edwin, who passed away in April 2018 at age 87, left his daughter with many wonderful memories. To follow in his footsteps, however, she had to acquire her own skill set. “My dad didn’t teach me woodworking skills. I went to NBSS for those,” says BA, who studied archeology, art history, and education at Wheaton College.
While her husband was in graduate school at Harvard, BA taught art in a Boston elementary school. “I always wanted to work with my hands, though, so after an epiphany moment, I decided to go to NBSS. My decision to work in wood was an homage to my father and my family. My dad was happy, and a little surprised, when I decided to study at NBSS. He was also fully supportive,” she recalls.
BA enrolled in one of the School’s first summer workshops, a two-week program on the Queen Anne footstool taught by now-former instructor Will Neptune CF ’81. “There were 11 guys, all with some experience, and me. And I’d never even been taught how to use a table saw correctly,” says BA.
Fortunately for BA, her instructor saw her potential. “I think Will said, ‘Oh my gosh, you don’t know any of this stuff.’ Then he realized it was a gift, because it made me more teachable. Even though I was terrified, because it was the most intense thing I’d ever done, I was already starting to understand that this is who I am.
Foundationally, everything I do in my practice and my teaching comes from NBSS. That’s why I believe it is so important to give back. It’s not so much about how much alumni give, but that they give. Alumni giving is a very important measure of a place.
“I was sold the first day when Will talked about sharpening tools. Sharpening is bedrock, and he made sure we had a thorough understanding of why it matters. When Will started to teach the geometry of a cabriole leg, I devoured it. My mind just lit up,” she says.
It took her a couple of months to finish the footstool, but from there she was able to enroll in the Cabinet & Furniture Making program, continuing to learn from not only Will but also Lance Patterson CF ’79, Alex Krutsky CF ’81, and Brian Kelly CF ’84.
After graduation, BA spent a decade as an independent custom-furniture maker before going to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she earned her MFA in 2007 and a master’s degree in art history with a certificate in material culture in 2010.
“My current practice is conceptual,” says the artisan. “I make sculptural work that references historical furniture forms made specifically for women, such as the Hadley Chest, a dowry chest from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. My work uses the new forms I build to think about the past, present, and future of womanhood.”
Now an associate professor in the College of Fine Arts at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, BA teaches advanced and beginning woodworking. She credits her current success to lessons learned early on. “Each of my NBSS instructors taught me something distinctive. I carry those things with me every day as a maker and educator,” she says. “I still hear Will’s voice in my head every time I take an intro class through the milling process.”
While her life and career have taken her in many directions, for BA – a longtime Annual Fund donor and 2018 supporter of the Lives & Livelihoods Scholarship Campaign – NBSS remains a constant.
“I’ve been to many schools, but North Bennet Street School will always have that sense of alma mater and hallowed halls for me. Foundationally, everything I do in my practice and my teaching comes from NBSS. That’s why I believe it is so important to give back.
“It’s not so much about how much alumni give, but that they give. Alumni giving is a very important measure of a place. I’ve also continued taking workshops at NBSS, because I love being there and learning new things,” says the proud alumna.
North Bennet Street School has personal as well as professional resonance for BA. “The first time I hand-planed something as a student there, I saved the shavings and mailed them to my dad. So it was cathartic to return after his passing and be absorbed in what he represented. We did end up swinging hammers together, too, on a house remodel in Ithaca, New York, and that’s when I realized my being a woodworker was tied to my dad,” says the proud daughter. “The sound of my father swinging a hammer is one of the most familiar, soothing sounds I have ever heard.”
This story is part of the Summer 2019 issue of Benchmarks magazine. See more Benchmarks stories, or download a pdf of the entire issue.