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Michelle Holzapfel, “Crazy 8.” Walnut, turned and carved.

The Arts

Staying the course

After a long career working with wood, Michelle Holzapfel is honored with a substantial grant award

MARLBORO—United States Artists recently awarded Marlboro wood carver Michelle Holzapfel a $50,000 grant in the Craft category of its fellowship program.

Each year, United States Artists awards up to 50 unrestricted fellowships to the most compelling artists working and living in the U.S., in all disciplines, at every stage of their career.

Spanning creative disciplines including architecture and design, craft, dance, film, media, music, theater and performance, traditional arts, visual art, and writing, USA Fellowships are awarded through a rigorous nomination and panel selection process.

The entirely unrestricted Fellowships encourage artists to use the funds for whatever they need, be it housing, medical expenses, debt reduction, their artistic practice, or a much needed vacation.

This year, 45 artists and collectives working across disciplines will each receive the cash award. Holzapfel joins an illustrious group ranging in age from their 20s through their 70s, who hail from 20 states across urban, suburban, and rural communities, each making significant contributions to their respective fields as architects, ceramicists, choreographers, filmmakers, podcasters, composers, playwrights, weavers, sculptors, journalists, and more.

“We believe in artists and are honored to support and care for them in this way,” said United States Artists President & CEO Deana Haggag. “Each fellow is a reminder of the breadth of our cultural landscape, and the 2019 cohort is yet another testament to how much incredible work is happening across the country. From painters to podcasters to pop musicians, we’re lucky to have these artists reflecting our collective humanity and stirring the public’s imagination.”

Inches away

Holzapfel was initially nominated for the 2016 round of United States Artists fellowships.

“I was informed that I was only inches away from making it as a finalist then,” Holzapfel says. “They automatically nominated me for next year’s awards, guiding me on how I could tweak my application and expand my narrative to make it more successful with the committee.”

Holzapfel was informed last August that she had won, but the awards weren’t made public until January. In March, she will go to the award ceremony, where she will meet the other recipients.

“That really excites me, for they are quite a powerhouse group,” she says. “I am honored to be in their company. For instance, one of them, Lynda Barry, is a cartoonist I have loved for years.”

Unlike many grants based on future work an artist plans to do, this grant is unrestricted.

“That’s a nice thing,” Holzapfel says. “You can use the money to pay your rent or go on a trip. United States Artists believes you have proven your worth, and you will do the right thing with the money.”

Holzapfel is a self-taught woodturner and carver. She creates vases, bowls, boxes, and still life sculpture from local hardwoods like burls, unmanageable crotches, gnarled branches, and rotten trunks left behind in the forest when logging operations have ceased.

She attended Marlboro College, and received her B.A. from Vermont College. Her work can be found in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Mint Museum, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, the Wood Turning Center, the Museum of Art and Design, and Rhode Island School of Design, among others.

Early start

Holzapfel’s interest in carving wood goes back to high school, when she began carving to make prints. She soon found she liked the carving part of the printmaking the best, and so switched directions. Later in high school, she began making signs out of pine with hand tools.

She grew up in northern Rhode Island and came to Vermont in 1969 to attend Marlboro College. There, she met her husband David in 1970, and the couple decided to stay in the area to raise a family.

They opened Applewoods Studio on Route 9, featuring hand-carved hardwood furniture and vessels. After initially selling from this studio, the Holzapfels began to show their work at crafts shows in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, about 20 years ago, David began teaching fifth- and sixth-graders at Marlboro Elementary School, and the itinerant life of craft shows no longer worked so well for the Holzapfels.

“We did still do some shows on weekends and in summers, but it was not the same,” Michelle says. Instead, Michelle began to show her work in prestigious galleries in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia.

“I usually had a one-woman show about once a year,” she says. “In the 1990s, there was a madness about collecting woodcraft, and now some of these great collections have been bequested to museums. Consequently, my work is now on view in many major museums.”

As might be expected, Michelle is “excited and delighted” about having been awarded a fellowship from United States Artists.

“It’s an interesting organization,” Holzapfel says. “You do not apply for a grant from United States Artists as you would for other foundations. You have to be nominated. Once you are nominated, then United States Artists gets in touch with you.

“They send you an application to fill out, in which you submit a bio, pictures of your work, as well as other aspects of what you do that might interest the committee. It’s a foundation that wants to promote diversity and collaboration as it supports underserved populations such as gender and/or race.

“I think one reason United States Artists was attracted to what I do was because of my long standing commitment to the community. And, of course, because I was a woman woodworker.”

‘Not many women woodworkers’

Holzapfel says it has been a challenge working as a woman in a male-dominated field.

“Especially in the 1980s and 90s, there were not many women woodworkers,” she says. “Also, the imagery in my work is domestic and points to an interpersonal realm, which is traditionally considered feminine.

“There’s an old notion that women write bios of love life and there it ends. I consider my work to have a wider scope than that. I address issues of community and even the political. But there is no doubt what I do is more emotional than most woodworking is.”

Holzapfel also had the desire to use ornamentation in her work as a means “to push the aesthetic narrative.” She believes that the art world today still clings to the postmodern aesthetic that privileges abstraction and the pared-down, and sees ornament as a weakness.

“Yet I liked and could do ornament, and so I did it,” Holzapfel concisely puts it. “This frankly pushed some buttons for other woodworkers. I honestly believe that it took courage to do what I do. Did I face prejudice being a woman? Yeah, of course.

“I had to grow a thick skin. For years, I was relegated to craft shows where people would come up to me and ask incredulously, ‘Did you really make that?’ They were unable to conceive a woman could make that kind of art.”

The United States Artists Fellowship has come at an opportune time, because Holzapfel is shifting gears in her artistic career.

“I am beginning to do less carving,” she says. “Working with wood is hard on your hands. I am now 68 and realize that I should go easy on my finger joints.”

Instead of embarking on the task of creating numerous new works, she is now focusing her energy on archiving her past pieces, perhaps for a book in the future.

“This is weird, but ultimately delightful, retrospective work,” Holzapfel says. “I am being assisted by my daughter-in-law who was an archivist at UVM where she catalogued the photographs of Porter Thayer, so she knows a lot about this kind of thing.

“I have to data-entry hundreds of pieces I have made over my 40-plus year career. I also have written a lot over those years about what I do in a journal as well as in publications in the field, and this too will be part of the archival project. I want to communicate what I have learned.”

Holzapfel feels that she is the kind of writer who really is not clear about what she thinks until it’s written down.

“The old fashioned mantra may be ‘don’t complain/don’t explain’ and ‘the work should speak for itself,’” she says. “But perhaps the work does not speak as clearly as I think it does, and besides I would like others to understand what I do who may not have my exact visual eyes.”

As Holzapfel told The Commons in an interview in 2017, “I have now been doing this work for so many years that I feel like a relic. Everyone has a story to tell but most don’t get the chance to tell it. I am grateful I have been given that opportunity. I want to inspire younger people working in craft and to encourage them to hang in there, just as I did.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #496 (Wednesday, February 6, 2019). This story appeared on page B1.

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