Jennifer Shirley: Hoosier Favorite Turner

As a working single mother with a teenaged son, Jennifer Shirley already has a lot to juggle. As everyone knows, juggling takes balance and, after all, what is more balanced than a lathe?

“Turning keeps me grounded,” explained Jennifer, a Hoosier from Indianapolis. “My day job as a director of the evening news on ABC station WRTV is relatively stressful. News is, as a rule, depressing. I am bombarded with it during the day, so turning helps me escape the chaos I deal with at work. Doing creative work as a hobby gives me a sense of balance that I find necessary in this hectic age.”

What she also finds necessary is to use her hobby not just for her own pleasure, but to help others. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, she decided to take her Anthem Bowl, which has the first notes of the national anthem carved into the rim, and use it for a good cause. “I asked Ellis [Walentine, webmaster of WoodCentral.com] if I could auction it off on WoodCentral to raise money for hurricane victims. We did, and it started a movement. Others did the same, and before the dust cleared, Woodcentral had raised over 12,000 dollars. All the money went to the Red Cross.”

That’s just part of a pattern of sharing that is typical for Jennifer. “This is a straight-out hobby,” she pointed out. “I’d be in a heap of hurt if I were trying to rely on turning sales for my livelihood. Besides, I get more pleasure from giving my work away. Every year I give bowls to the local Boys and Girls Club through my local turning club. I have sold about a quarter of the bowls I have made, and some are displayed here at home, but I give away about half of what I make.”

Besides bowls, pens and other turned objects, she also gives of her time and expertise teaching and demonstrating at her local woodturner’s club and at woodworking stores. “Teaching is something I would really like to pursue,” Jennifer told me. “I think I have a knack for it, and I very much enjoy teaching. We often learn on our own incorrectly. Learning the right way is a huge improvement, especially when something clicks for students. It is very rewarding to see their faces light up when they finally get it.”

Like many of us, Jennifer got into woodworking for very practical reasons, at least at first. “It all started in 1993, the year my son was born. I bought a 1925 bungalow that needed repairs, so I bought a chop saw and went at it. I did floors, trim, and whatever else needed to be done. Along the way, I added more tools as I needed them. I took an adult education class in woodworking at the local high school in 1996, and that is where I was introduced to the lathe.

“One guy in the class did nothing but turning. I recall one night when he brought in a cherry log and three hours later walked out with a completed plant stand. He talked me into joining the local AAW [American Association of Woodturners] chapter. When The Woodworking Shows came to Indianapolis, I bought a JET mini-lathe, and that is where my turning career started. After that, I never wanted to do anything but lathe work. Of course, I still do other woodworking, mostly making things in my house that I can’t afford to buy, but these days, I have to cover up the lathe in order to get other woodworking done.”

“I used the mini-lathe for three years, then bought a large variable speed lathe that will handle a 20-inch bowl. That opened up my world as far as material I can use and what I can turn. Ironically, it was after I bought the large lathe that I got into turning miniatures.”

It’s clear that her style is evolving and getting more eclectic as Jennifer tries new things, but by her own admission, not everything comes out perfect. “There are things that come off my lathe that look awful,” she confessed, “but as with photography, you make a lot and save the good ones. The Bamboo Bowl is a good example of trying something new. It has fire-scorched bamboo skewers glued onto the bowl. However, in my opinion it did not work, so I donated it to a local fundraiser. Dancing Kids was another new direction; it was the first piece I used both color and woodburning on. It was made to be donated to my son’s school for a silent auction.

“The Fiesta Platter is a good indicator of the direction I am going now, and represents a bunch of cumulative styles. It is both carved and burned with a pyrography tool, and it has some black gesso, which I often use because it colors well but still shows the grain. I think it is one of the strongest pieces I have made. When I was done with it, I looked at it and felt ‘that’s the best I could have done on this.’ Sometimes you end up saying ‘that’s good enough,’ but this went beyond that.

“I am a firm believer that most people need a creative outlet,” Jennifer insists. “I think everyone can be creative, and I think it is good for your soul, for your wellbeing. It makes you emotionally, and ultimately physically, healthier. For me, it has brought so much to my life. Woodturning gives me great pleasure and brings to my life a peaceful balance. That makes me more stable, which makes me a better mother.

“One of the greatest pleasures I get,” Jennifer confided, “is when I come in from the garage and show my latest work to my son, Weston. He is my most honest critic and my biggest fan, so when I see his eyes light up, it makes my day. He is forever dragging friends into the house to show off my work. He makes me feel like the artist I aspire to be.”

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