Woodworking in America: Stephan Cheney

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We are interviewing producers from all 50 states. Today we introduce Stephan Cheney, a Lokata carpenter from Kul Wicasa Oyate in South Dakota. He currently lives in the Wiyot Territory of California.

How did you start working with wood? Who were your mentors?
My first introduction to woodworking came through a relatively short but active career in Wildland Firefighting. I spent 6 years working in the fire. That introduction allowed me to see firsthand the beauty and history of trees. The very first pieces of wood I worked on were cedar trees I had cut down on the South Dakota Plains. I honestly had no idea what I was doing, but I took my time and got it! Since then I have been reading books, watching demonstration videos and taking every opportunity to learn!

My mentor is a fantastic carpenter named Matthew Issac. Matt came to see the cedar pieces I had created and he loved them. He told me to spend some time in his shop to check his space. Of course I did and my world was open to all the beauty and possibilities that exist with woodworking. He lent me tools here and there to carry out projects I had undertaken and ultimately pointed me in the direction I am now. A true friend, brother and mentor who loves working with wood as much as I do. Matt is always there when I solve a problem or have a question. From time to time he calls me from time to time to help install his beautiful furniture! These days he is very encouraging and supports the work I am doing with the High Rez Wood Company, often telling myself “one of these days I will work for you”. Now I’m getting calls and job opportunities that I would definitely need her experience to finish, so hopefully we can co-create some great art together soon.

What do you think is your best or favorite job? What kind of work do you do the most?
My best works are the ones that challenge me to build something new. I love the excitement of trying to figure out which way out of the hundreds of ways to build something, I’m going to build it! Other than that, my favorite works are the ones that give me the opportunity to incorporate culture-centered design into the work. I recently just completed a work that embodies this. A large round table, 8 feet in diameter that features hidden wireless charging and a custom made base that resembles a tree. That table will be on its way to Washington DC this weekend! I also had the honor of building a court table for the Redding Rancheria in Northern California. The Tribe wanted to create a space that honored their traditional values, elevating their efforts to re-indigenize their space. This challenged me to think of a design that honored him first and then the challenge of bringing everything together in the construction of the piece. I created a circular table consisting of three sections and found every possible way in both design and construction to make them stand alone as individual pieces and coexist together. This type of work is what I do the most. I find ways to reclaim space for the people I’m building for. New homeowners, recent graduates, new entrepreneurs, new ideas, etc. I have the honor of helping those dreams come true and for that alone I love it.

What advice would you give to those who want to start woodworking or take it up as a profession?
My biggest advice would be to be courageous in everything you do and kind to yourself in that process. Get help and surround yourself with those people who want to see you succeed. There are many out there. Join woodworking groups and ask the questions you need to make your dreams come true. It is with that support that you will support yourself as you make that transition into a full-time concert. The other tip is to create time and structure it just like you would any other job. Take this part seriously! Whatever the situation or environment, be consistent with your work and how you present yourself. An additional note to this might be taking pictures of your work and process. These will serve as a work portfolio of your work and will also serve as a storybook of your progress! It’s nice to see where you’ve been to know where you want to go.

What’s your best practical advice or woodworking technique?
I am learning every day and consider myself quite new to the whole craft we are working in. My best advice is under that old size cut twice once motto. Take this idea to the internet, woodworking threads, YouTube videos, etc. And understand what you want to do. Understand the process and refine the method according to your needs or project. Create both physical and digital mockups to understand what you will do before you do it and take your time!

Is there anyone you would like to shout out or would you recommend following? Who inspires you? (It doesn’t even have to be related to woodworking.)
I would love to shout out to all the amazing Native American artists and creators out there. People who are doing extraordinary work in many different mediums. All people inspire me in different ways. Their art and work effortlessly express themselves in the world! Go check them out!

You can find these great people on Instagram!

@Indiangiver – Cheyenne Randall – Digital | Mixed Media | Press | Design | Installations

@Ernestoyerena – Ernesto Yerena Montejano – Artist

@wahpepahskitchen – Crystal Wahpepah – Indigenous Chef in Oakland California

@nativein_la – Jordan Daniel – Lakota Runner, Activist, and Organizer

@janaunplgd – Jana Schmieding – Lakota Comedian Actress, and Beader. In a new show now streaming Rutherford Falls on the Peacock platform

@kiramurillo – Kira Murillo – Shosone-Bannock and Pima Tattoo Artist

@stevenpauljudd – Steven Paul Judd – Kiowa and Choctaw – All around an amazing artist!

See more of Stephan’s work on Instagram @highrezwoodco.

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