How do you adapt to changes in your community, maintain a business, be true to yourself, and still put food on the table? As I got to know the Schoonover family and spent time photographing them, I learned there is no clear or easy answer to this question. They taught me that being successful has something to do with perseverance, resilience and a commitment to quality over an extended period of time.
I met the Schoonovers on a frosty morning in March. “I am blessed with lumber, I guess is what my problem is,” Keith said with a grin as he looked over the rim of his metal glasses at me. I noticed the steam from his breath had formed a white pillar that hung for a moment at the edge of his gray woolen beard. I pondered what he meant as we walked from one of his rustic lumber sheds back to the barn. That day, Keith, his wife Lori, and Keith’s daughter Karlin were busy preparing for the spring 2016 Maryland Home and Garden Show. We made our way across the rutted frozen ground on this rural Jefferson, Maryland farm. Keith’s long legs swept across the crunchy ground as I took two steps to his every one trying to keep up. This place is one of two locations for their sawmill and the family business, Wood Eye Wood Products.
Keith was enthralling to watch at work. He not only carefully examined his material to see its potential, but he also experienced each piece of wood – held it, rotated it, and rubbed the rough edges – to discover what new forms he could shape. His style of woodworking, inspired by Nakashima, carefully and intentionally brings new life to each tree with every product he creates.
Despite his experience and skills, Keith said that he finds it challenging to balance what suits his artistic eye with what people will use and enjoy. For him, it’s a lot like “working in the dark.” Because time, materials and space for inventory are limited, each item Wood Eye makes is something else they cannot make; at the same time, they face the reality of a market that’s full of surprises. In 2015, for example, Keith made some tough choices as he packed his truck with Wood Eye products to sell at a trade show in Richmond, Virginia. Not able to bring everything along, he selected a variety of items including a slab shelf that was not one of his favorites. In the end, this decision ended up paying off for Wood Eye not just because the shelf was the first item to be purchased, but the exchange was the start of a mutually beneficial relationship between the customer and the craftsman that continues to this day.
Showing signs of a lifelong learner, Lori works with the family to expand or change Wood Eye’s offerings based directly on her interactions with customers. She’s the public face of the family business at shows, and I understand why – her shy smile was disarming from the first day I visited. Her warmth quickly made me feel at home as she took time out from her preparations for the show. Lori discovered her woodworking talents at Wood Eye and each beautifully crafted household item she makes offers a glimpse into what she enjoys most in life.
I experienced Lori’s contagious excitement and radiating joy as I took a walk with her, Keith and their dogs one evening after dinner. We wandered along their meadow and followed the outlines of waist-high stone fences as they, too, seemed to wander across the landscape. Fascinated by every aspect of farm life, Lori talked of its simplicity, and her enjoyment of the animals, gathering eggs, working in the garden, and sitting around the kitchen fire sharing some of her home-brewed tea. The inspiration she gets from the sweet beauty around her seems tempered by the enormity of the tasks that lay before them. Still, she finds time to enjoy the simple and mundane moments of rural life.
Karlin Schoonover is an artisan in her own right. She named the business “Wood Eye Wood Products,” and designed its Japanese-inspired logo. Watching her work transported me to another time and place. Dusty, wedge-shaped columns of light poured in through the old window behind her as she worked with the chisel and hammer. Her patience, presence and attention to detail persisted through each repetitive task. I am certain her approach is an expression of the love she possesses for creating. At the age of 18 she is working quietly to carve out her place in the world as she finds her wings.
At first, I wasn’t sure what Keith meant when he said he was “blessed with lumber.” As I saw the family business in action, learned about the abundance of material and witnessed the craftsmanship that is a core part of what they do, I started to understand. For the Schoonover family, the way to overcome challenges – some of which might also be blessings in disguise – is to learn how to best balance beauty with practicality and profitability. They do this by cultivating relationships with their customers, each other, and the wood itself and refine how they communicate their craft through the products and services they offer. Ultimately, the constraints that limit them and the opportunities they rise to meet improve what the Schoonovers offer to the world through Wood Eye Wood Products.
As I walked to my Jeep to leave, I looked back over my left shoulder at the barn and paused to remember the moment. My experience was heartfelt and despite the cold wind jabbing at my eyes and pinching my cheeks, I felt warm inside. I noticed a maple tree in the distance reaching on its tiptoes, towards the swirling sky. I raised my camera and made a photograph of the tree and the sky. A copy of this photo is hanging in my office today and serves as a reminder that with constraints also come opportunities and sometimes, blessings.
Wood Eye Wood Products, Inc. is located in Jefferson, Maryland and can be reached through their website at www.woodeyewoodproducts.com or by phone at 240-555-1212. They frequently bring their items and passion to home and garden shows in Maryland and Virginia and are available by appointment, too. Check their website for the most current list of shows and where you can find them. If you use one of their items or know someone who does, let them know about your experience with it.