Woodturner Jim Christiansen: One Good Turn Deserves Another

Woodturner Jim Christiansen: One Good Turn Deserves Another

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By CARRIE SCOZZARO

We’ve all had one: the teacher who yelled, ridiculed or seemingly took pleasure in our shortcomings. The teacher who turned kids off from learning. The teacher whom no educator, Jim Christiansen included, ever wants to be like.

For 78-year-old Christensen of Moscow, Idaho, that horrible teacher was during 5th grade, which he failed, although his mother made him redo all the work. By then, however, school was nearly a lost cause for him. 

Once in high school, athletics and shop class saved him, said Christensen, who graduated 66th out of 67 students. He won an award for a table he designed in shop class. 

“Things like that, a little bit of success, you can hang onto if it that’s all you had,” said Christiansen.

He credits his high school shop teacher, Daniel Shaw, for mentoring him, restoring his faith in the educational system enough to enter junior college. There he played football and earned a scholarship to continue both college and football. 

Christiansen opted instead for the Air Force, where he learned to repair electronics on B52 bombers and met Sergeant Benjamin Singleton, the second of a series of mentors whose positive influence would be the light that Christiansen needed to find himself.

After the service, Christiansen gravitated toward education, wondering how many people don’t achieve their potential and how many go without mentors.

Christiansen decided to be the change he sought and pursued his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in special education at the University of Utah. Later, the boy who failed 5th grade earned his PhD from Utah State and devoted several decades to helping others. 

In addition to teaching elementary school and college, Christiansen has worked in special education and administration, including at a psychiatric center for severely disturbed children. When his father passed away, he relocated to Wyoming to assist his mother. There he met Robbie Robinson, a school administrator who so inspired Christiansen that he opted not to return to teaching college. 

Instead, Christiansen became assistant principal in Evanston, Wyo., where he came face-to-face with children who suffered abuse and neglect. 

“It’s all so frustrating to see what happens despite your best efforts,” said Christensen, recalling the challenges educators face.

Christiansen continued dabbling in woodworking, mostly making boxes, trivets, cabinets and other functional items. In 1995, after several decades working in education, Christiansen decided to devote himself to his artwork. By this time, he’d relocated to Moscow, Idaho and shifted his attention to a specific technique called woodturning. 

Woodturning is a means of giving form to a piece of wood that spins on a lathe. Sharp tools are used to cut into its exterior, such as a chair leg, or interior, which would create a hollow vessel. 

“A large part of the attraction of woodturning is seeing ideas and feelings develop into an actual work of art,” wrote Christiansen in his artist statement. “A successful piece will ultimately communicate reverence and a sense of preciousness.”

Christiansen immersed himself in the artform. He bought a lathe, restored it, and experimented. He attended conferences, read books, and made stuff, always learning.

“I realized to get better, what you need to do is get feedback,” said Christensen, who joined a woodworking club in Spokane, Wash., only to find the group had enough bad experiences with peer-to-peer critiques to not offer feedback to members.

“Some people give critiques as a way to dominate,” noted Christensen, who saw an opportunity to create the kind of woodworking community he sought. 

So, beginning with the shop next to his house, Christiansen welcomed other woodworkers to share resources. He built a reputation for his mentorship and his craftsmanship.

Since leaving teaching, Christiansen has curated a book about the artform’s leading woodturners and exhibited throughout north Idaho and beyond, including the Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design fair in Chicago, the Northwest Woodworkers Gallery in Seattle, and the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine. 

Several years ago, Christiansen rented a 2,200-square-foot shop on the outskirts of Moscow, forming a loose collective of woodworkers who would share tools and expenses, as well as learn from one another. 

The group, along with additional northwest woodworkers, was featured in a June 2021 exhibition at Coeur d’Alene’s The Art Spirit Gallery, called Confluence/Influence. 

For the exhibition, Christiansen teamed up with artist and woodworking collective member Jill Kyong to create Hunger, a mixed media piece. Twenty of Christiansen’s small, dark hand-held bowls resembling bronze or fired clay sit empty along the top of Kyong’s narrow, horizontal wooden box. The box is filled with rice shaped into a wave, visible through a glass front. 

In addition to promoting woodworking, the exhibition allowed several woodworkers the opportunity to show their work in the kind of professional setting they might not otherwise have access to. 

And since one good turn deserves another, it was only fitting that many of those same artists wrote letters to support Christiansen’s nomination for the Moscow Mayor’s Lifetime Achievement Award this past summer.

Ben Carpenter, who started woodworking as a teenager making yo-yos, met Christiansen while he was still in junior high. He wrote about Christiansen’s mentorship, “His patient approach to teaching let me learn at my own pace and his encouragement has given me the opportunity to find my voice through woodworking and art. My life now revolves around woodworking and the collective shop that Jim started.”

Kyong, who helped spearhead the nomination letter-writing process, noted, “Because of Jim Christiansen, there is, and will remain, world-class wood art produced on the Palouse.” ISI

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