How do we discover the right path to make our way in the world? What touchstones guide us? We have to find our own answers, but I’d like to share Eric Hollenbeck’s story and how he became a master craftsman, teacher and sage.
At first, Eric drifted as a youth. School was a miserable experience. As Eric tells it:
Because I had a hard time with spelling and reading, I was constantly made to feel stupid by the system. So, I started working in the woods at sixteen.
His auto shop teacher shepherded Eric through high school by arranging for him to spend three hours a day in auto shop and one hour in English class, where Eric wrote poetry.
I got the same grade on every poem I wrote: an A over an F. An ‘A’ for content and creative thought and an ‘F’ for spelling and grammar…which averages out to a C! It was this way that the auto shop teacher got me to graduate.
Eric found refuge in the woods near his northern California home. After serving in Vietnam he developed PTSD. He came back to the forests, pooled his money, and with two friends, $300 and a ramshackle truck, he started a logging business.
Eric started salvaging antique wood forming equipment and began constructing his own Victorian era mill: Blue Ox Millworks in Eureka, California, which he runs with his wife Viviana. He was fascinated with the craft and became a master woodworker, specializing in recreating 19th century decorative objects to restore historic dwellings.
His Blue Ox Millworks became a successful business and he added blacksmithing, ceramics, letterpress printing and other trades of the Victorian era, recreating a time when every town had local craftsmen that made what people needed to build homes, transport goods and enhance their lives.
Hand work was the key to Eric’s success and rehabilitation and he thought it could help others, too. When a teacher asked if he could help castoff kids from the county schools, Eric and his wife created the Blue Ox Millworks Historical School of Traditional Arts, serving about 25 students each year. The students supplement classroom studies by working alongside Eric and his mill crew two to three days a week.
From the Modern Day Pioneers site:
He’s … giving students a place to learn hands-on skills that can be transferred to many trades. He says they learn critical job skills along the way too, like the importance of quality, problem solving and critical thinking, as well as how to take direction from a boss and collaborate with co-workers.
The thing that worked so well is that little, one-room schoolhouse concept, where you’ve got youngsters of different ages and skill levels mentoring each other. It’s that unit feeling. They become a family, a unit together.
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.
We live in a world of so many distractions. Perhaps that’s one of the great strengths of hand work – it requires focus, concentration and patience. Plus there’s the excitement of learning and honing a new skill. At the end of the day it’s a great gift to hold that work in your hand and say “I made this.”
Canadian Ben Proudfoot was also attracted to handwork, first as a magician and later as a filmmaker. Proudfoot won international awards as a magician – before he turned 18. He took up filmmaking at USC and his student work was nominated for an academy award. He set up Breakwater Studios with backing from SONY to pursue a documentary series on the intersection of craftsmanship and life journey.
His second film brought him to Eureka to spend three days with Eric Hollenbeck and the Blue Ox.
Ben describes Eric, from the Eureka Times-Standard:
He is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. He’s down-to-earth, but philosophically brilliant. I think creating alone so much has given him time to ponder about life, and express himself in many different ways — from woodwork to poetry.
Here’s Ben’s excellent film, The Ox:
Eric Hollenbeck sees his life unfolding in many directions at once – he values how woodworking rescued him from PTSD and the emotional caldron of the Vietnam War, he’s mastered a worthy but dying craft, he celebrates the maker movement and the importance of craftsmanship, and he rescues kids at risk – like he was once himself – and uses his skills to teach them self-worth and the value of hard work.
I found Ben Proudfoot’s film joyful and inspiring. You can sense his enthusiasm for Eric Hollenbeck’s wisdom and what he and Viviana have accomplished.
Ben, from a facebook interview
You never know why you feel a tug to tell a story. It’s sort of like falling in love—it just happens without explanation and with overwhelming power—and the only way to get over it is to make the movie. So you never know why. But, after having released the film and getting emails and letters from people who were touched by Eric’s story, it’s clear his experience is something that hits home with a greater audience and reminds people that they are not alone.
You can view Eric as a symbol of the working man, of a period in our nation when “Made in America” stood for a work of high quality and craftsmanship. You can call Eric a homespun philosopher, a self-taught sage who found wisdom through work. I see all that and something else too. Eric found an inner strength – he refused to give up when faced with challenges, he followed his own vision, worked at it, had the drive to keep going and the wisdom to see that progress is made one step at a time.
A writer friend from the old days used to sign his letters “keep going.” Good advice for all of us.