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When I entered Motherhouse’s wood turning studio on Friday evening, Jack B. Smith ’19 brought me a small plank of hawthorn wood.

“Smell it!” he insists.

Smith has been a regular at the studio since he was in first grade. Hidden in Mather’s basement, this studio provides a space for students to practice the art of woodworking. Here, budding woodturners use hand tools and lathes (machines that rotate wood) to carve round objects such as bowls, cups, tool handles, and candlesticks.

Smith’s wood came from the branches of a hawthorn tree in the Adams House courtyard that broke off after a snowstorm.

“Every time a tree falls around campus, I try to be there first,” Smith says. “People email me when they hear Chainsaw.”

A few minutes later, Smith’s mentor Alan Haak entered the studio to praise Smith for his award. “It’s a big thing for the community,” he says. “Wood recovery”

Hark is a master woodturner. He has been teaching his craft at Mather Basement for the past 15 years and has worked with wood for nearly 50 years, starting as a logger in Vermont. He continues to live there, commuting to Cambridge every weekend to teach.

Decades ago, Haak became ill and was unable to continue logging, so he transitioned into medical advocacy instead. He started woodworking in the early 1980s, looking for a hobby that would allow him to continue his passion for woodworking.

When he began his conversion, he says, there was no “real formal guidance” available. Using the only books available on the market at the time and a process of trial and error, Haack honed his craft over the next several decades.

Alan Haack uses his hands to polish the outside of a black cherry wooden bowl made by his students while he turns it on a lathe.

Alan Haack uses his hands to polish the outside of a black cherry wooden bowl made by his students while he turns it on a lathe. Written by Amanda Y. Hsu

“What I’ve found is that the ‘centering’ effect of reorientation is beneficial for emotional and intellectual balance, resulting in a greater sense of well-being,” he says. .

He eventually quit his advocacy job in 1998 and began pursuing woodworking professionally.

Haack ended up in Boston because “there was a woman I was chasing” who lived a few blocks from Harvard’s campus. For several years, he maintained a high-end gallery trade throughout the East Coast, creating custom pieces for collectors and museums.

He brought attention to the craft by demonstrating wood lathes at his Porter Square store, Rockler Woodworking and Hardware. These demonstrations eventually led to a job teaching woodworking through the Cambridge Adult Education Center in Rockler, where Haak continues to teach on weekends.

In the spring of 2003, one of Haak’s adult education students, Mazer’s resident tutor Aaron S. Allen, approached Haak after class and asked if he would be interested in teaching a class at Harvard University. After Hark agreed, he and Allen conducted what Hark described as a “midnight raid” on the Radcliffe Quadrangle and recovered an old, unused lathe that was hidden in the basement.

The lathe was an addition to Haack’s own and was the first lathe in the Harvard wood lathe program.

Haak’s first formal classes at Harvard began in the spring of 2004. Since then, the program has had three university presidents in her tenure.

“There’s another person who’s lived in this house longer than me, and that’s Miguel.” [Casillas, Mather’s Building Manager]” says Haak.

Haak currently teaches a wood turning course for beginners on Friday afternoons, followed by a course for experienced turners on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. This program is open to all Harvard University affiliates.

Smith attends the beginner class as an instructor and the returner course as a student of Haak. “Nobody has decades of experience teaching traditional crafts,” he says. “It’s really unique to have access to his knowledge.”

When Jack B. Smith ’19 hollows out the inside of a wooden bowl, wood shavings fly into the air.

When Jack B. Smith ’19 hollows out the inside of a wooden bowl, wood shavings fly into the air. Written by Amanda Y. Hsu

Smith started carving wood in high school after seeing Instagram posts and YouTube videos. Arriving at Harvard with “minimal experience,” he read an old Crimson article about the wood shop in Mather’s basement and went to meet Haak as a freshman.

“He and I hit it off and have been close friends ever since,” he says. Now, before the Friday night return class, Smith and Haak always have dinner together at the Mother Dining Hall and get to know each other.

Last year, Smith was working at Harvard University’s Office of Sustainability when she noticed her favorite ornamental Japanese cherry tree had fallen outside the Environmental Center. Without wasting time, he retrieved a three-foot-tall chunk of wood from the wreckage and hurried to a meeting in his office.

“I ended up rolling in with this piece of wood, and that’s what got their attention,” Smith said.

A few months later, when former university president Drew G. Faust announced her resignation, the Office of Sustainability asked Smith to spin a bowl in her honor. Smith decided to use wood from that tree.

Smith dyed the outside of the bowl black and carved a design resembling the traditional antebellum egg-and-dart crown molding pattern. This is a nod to Faust’s expertise in antebellum history.

“She thought it was great. She loved it so much,” Smith says proudly. “Now, if there are other committees in the office, they know where to find us.”

Despite the general lack of familiarity with wood lathes, Smith notes their growing popularity among his generation.

“In the last 10 years, there has been a resurgence in woodworking and traditional wood carving,” Smith says. “People our age are going to fall in love with this movie and meet people like Alan.”

The opportunity to share the art form with a younger generation and help them develop an appreciation for wood lathe is what brings Haak up from Vermont every weekend.

“A lot of the people who were involved in the woodworking movement at the beginning of this century were mostly old people,” Haack says. “I saw this as an opportunity to introduce young people to woodturning, which is now a big push for the American Woodturners Association.”

During class, Herc walks from student to student, giving instructions and sharpening tools as needed. Smith remains in the corner, working on a bowl made of birch wood that Haak brought from Vermont. On their way to the basement laundry room, the residents of the Mother House peer into the studio, curious to hear the buzz of a lathe turning.

“It’s the biggest secret of Harvard art,” Smith says.



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