Profile: Blue Ox School of Traditional Arts

Wednesday, August, 1, 12 § Leave a comment

Eric Hollenbeck’s no teacher. But the master craftsman’s reaching kids no one else could.

Place: Eureka, CA. Pop 50,000. 80% white. Service industry and tourism are major employers.

History: Blue Ox Millworks has operated as a business since the 1970’s. It has doubled as a school since 2000.

The Skinny: 24 teenagers who’ve been kicked out of every school in Eureka spend three days a week with master craftsman (and master human being) Eric Hollenbeck learning how to lathe wood, blacksmith, make jewelry, throw pots, and more. Run in partnership with the Humboldt County Office of Education, a model of how businesses can be places of learning.

What Matters: Self-esteem. Do your job well, and with craftsmanship.

More info:

Nothing about the Blue Ox School of Traditional Arts in Eureka, California, indicates it’s a school. The “facilities” seems little more than a spread of ramshackle outbuildings on two acres of soggy, oceanfront turf. The main entrance seems more like a home-turned-curios shop than a front office—on the day I visited, an enormous white Great Pyrenese lay before a roaring wood-burning stove, opposite a wall of dusty books.

But for the last twelve years, the Blue Ox has been a school. More than a school—it’s been a place of transformation for some of Humboldt County’s most marginalized teenagers.

Eric Hollenbeck’s maybe 65. He wears a beard and finely curled moustache, and always seems to be casting his gaze about for something to fix or whittle or carve.

A native son of Eureka, Hollenbeck was a logger as a teenager, then was shipped off to Vietnam. He returned in 1973, took out a bank loan for $300 to buy himself two acres of land, and began working with wood—the old-fashioned way.

Working with rescued machines from times past, Hollenbeck became a master at traditional woodcrafts, and his Blue Ox Millworks became a successful business and a local tourist destination—a sort of cross between the Amish towns of Pennsylvania and Williamsburg, where you could see doors and cordels and other architectural wonders being created as they were created decades ago, when there was no such thing as a Home Depot, and Made in the USA was the rule. He’s been on television programs, sold a table to Bill Clinton, and testified before Congress. He’s got four employees and ships Victorian style doors across the world.

But in 2000, he began focusing on how he could use his skills—and by now gigantic collection of machinery—to help out local kids.

As someone who dropped out of high school at 16, he’s thought a lot about the way we educate kids, and especially kids who aren’t wired for school.

“What we’re doing to our youngsters is criminal,” he says. “Beyond bad to evil. What we’re doing is evil.”

Claiming he didn’t learn how to read and write till he was 50 years old, he says: “I know these kids,” he says. “I’m one of them.

“I don’t know where we got this idea of school as an island of education away from the community,” he adds. “But it’s pretty silly.”

The students who work with him would probably agree. All of them—there are 24 at a time—have been expelled from the regular pencil and paper schools. Many are at Blue Ox by court order.

A joint venture between Hollenbeck’s business (Blue Ox Millworks) and Humboldt County Office of Education, the school provides an innovative model of what it would look like truly involve businesses in educating children. The students have a hybrid schedule, spending two days a week in a classroom with a teacher and aide, to fill in academic skills, and three days a week at the mill, where they learn to lathe wood, blacksmith, silversmith, create stains and dies—and much more.

Despite getting bounced out of the regular school system, Hollenbeck doesn’t see much limitation to what these kids can do.

“The two things these kids have got: low self-esteem, and they don’t sit. I didn’t say ADD. I said, ‘They don’t sit.’ I put their fingers an inch away from an electric bandsaw and tell them they mess up and next thing they know their finger will be on the floor. Suddenly they’re paying attention just fine. Maybe the regular classroom was never giving them nothing to pay attention to.”

(In twelve years has had one cut that had to be sewn with two stitches—“and that was only because the hospital wanted to do something.”)

Motivation is not a problem. Eric pushes the kids to try all sorts of craftsmanship, but then lets them ““migrate to where they’re interested.”

There’s also some financial incentive: the students’ work—from pencils to coasters to pots—is displayed in the store’s gift shop, and the students make 50%. (The other 50% goes to the school.)

“They learn real quickly that it’s good for business to chat with the tourists who come by,” Hollenbeck says. “They explain what they’re doing, then the tourists get to the shop and want to buy their work.”

The students graduate with a full diploma, as the Office of  Education figures out the credits, giving them math credits for their work in the lathe room, science for the print shop, etc. But learning here is not about picking up credits. It’s not even about learning specific crafts skills—few, if any, of the graduates have gone on to careers in woodworking or craftsmanship. The school even has its own yearbook—painstakingly typset and handrolled through a 1909 printing press. “Perfect for us dyslexic types,” Hollenbeck says.

Blue Ox is about discovering your self-esteem, and learning the value of good, quality work.

“I tell these kids there are two kinds of jobs: jobs you take a shower before you go, and jobs you take a shower when you get home. The world needs both types, and whichever you do, you do the best you can.

“We’ve got to look past higher education. It’s so engrained in everyone’s psyches that everyone has to go to college. Look, the public buys products that are made by people. The people who make them are okay human beings, they have a skill. That’s all in the world we’re after.”

Over the years, the school has expanded its offerings as Hollenbeck’s business has grown and diversified, and his curiosity has led him into unlikely projects. He’s picked up a habit of hauling off condemned buildings from Eureka, and bringing them onto his land to house projects as varied as jewelry studios (students gather the precious stones themselves), an outdoor kitchen (“we learned how to pressure cook fish—there’s a science lesson for you”), a homemade cable car, and even a puppet theater, where a master puppeteer took a group through a weeklong transformative ed theater program.

“That pissed them off,” he said. “They’d storm out and 5 minutes later walk back in. They had 100% attendance that week. Only time in the state of CA that an alternative program had 100% attendance for an entire week.”

The puppeteer had the kids role playing, working on theater games. He had “all of them bawling,” Hollenbeck says.

“I don’t do feelings,” he adds. “I’m not the right person to go into how do you feel. At 19 I was in Vietnam, in the front line infantry. I’ve got PTSD and all that. These kids have their own PTSD. When I came back I built myself this place as an island of safety. The kids get that—they come in on weekends, evenings.”

Hollenbeck thinks the school is working. He has a concrete expansion plan to buy 12 acres of seafront property next door and creating a sort of craftsman village—which he thinks he can pull off for about $1.25 million.

“Not like Williamsburg,” he says. “That’s a play. I want a place where real men and woman can work, right now. It’s about developing the ability to do for yourself with what’s around you.”

Recently, Blue Ox celebrated its ten year reunion. 55 alumnae showed up. They were gainfully employed in every trade you could imagine: they were chefs, road repairmen, stone masons, head of maintenance for hotels, roofers, electricians. They were working job with dignity, and making a good living for themselves—living proof, far more convincing than any test scores, that the college-obsessed, “island” away from the community model of schooling is not, by any means, the only path to success.

Seth Biderman | Based on visit January 19, 2012


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