Kate Joyce poses on one of her early tables which sits in her workshop in preparation for refinishing.
This story, published on Jan. 18, 1974 in The Pittsburgh Forum, was headlined "Why can't the lady be a carpenter?"
The Pittsburgh Forum
This story, published on Jan. 18, 1974 in The Pittsburgh Forum, was headlined "Why can't the lady be a carpenter?" The back page showed furniture Kate Joyce made.
This Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, published on Feb. 5, 1974, was headlined "She Came, Sawed And Was Conquered."
This Pittsburgh Press story, published Feb. 5, 1974, shows Kate Joyce holding a copy of the federal lawsuit she filed against the local carpenters' union.
Kate Joyce, a woodworker and furniture maker with a studio in Point Breeze, has this saying hanging on the wall.
Kate Joyce a woodworker and furniture maker uses a technique she calls polychromed wood to make painting-like art to hang on walls.
Kate Joyce, a woodworker and furniture maker, used wire from brasseries to make the "trees" on these art panels.
Kate Joyce's brushes sit on the worktable in her Point Breeze studio.
This crescent table by Kate Joyce is constructed from California walnut.
Kate Joyce, a furniture maker and artist who works out of a studio in Point Breeze calls the finish on this chest "polychromed wood" in which she uses a mixture of paint and stain to highlight the grain in the wood.
By Marylynne PItz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Kate Joyce studied English literature and biology in college, but an introductory sculpture class changed her life.
Making furniture in that class helped her realize that she wanted to work with her hands. While a student at the University of Pittsburgh, she taught arts and crafts at the Wilkinsburg Boys Club, which had an unused wood shop. She taught herself to work on those machines and later led a wood shop class at the YMCA in East Liberty.
How she carved a path in woodworking and built a career in what remains a male-dominated field is a case study in determination and the willingness to learn. Ms. Joyce, who works with Pennsylvania walnut, African mahogany and purpleheart, likes to incorporate found objects into her designs. Her first solo exhibition in Pittsburgh showcases 30 pieces of furniture and opens April 4 at BE Galleries, 3583 Butler St., Lawrenceville and runs through May 2.
In 1972, Ms. Joyce was an auburn-haired college graduate who went to the USX Tower and took a test for admission to an apprenticeship program run by the local carpenters union. Union officers heckled her and told her carpentry was a man’s job; one man sat on the corner of her desk for a while during the exam. Her rejection letter was addressed “Dear Sir.”
“They were right in my face. They told me, ’We build buildings. We don’t build little stools,’” she recalled.
Two years later, she filed a federal lawsuit that eventually opened trade unions to women all over the country, and not just for carpenters. Police and firefighters were also included.
“Before there was ’Cagney and Lacey,’ there was me,” Ms. Joyce said.
The carpenters union paid a modest financial settlement and agreed to be pro-active in recruiting women, but Ms. Joyce did not wait around for the legal wrangling, which lasted until 1978. While saving money for a plane ticket and rail pass, she wrote to furniture designer George Nakashima, who gave her a tour of his studio in New Hope, Pa. The Japanese-American craftsman said if she was serious, she should train in Europe or Japan. By then, she had a black belt in karate.
In April 1972, she boarded a plane and backpacked through Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Germany before arriving by train in Brienz, an alpine village on a lake in Switzerland.
“I looked out the train window and said, ’This is where it’s going to happen,’ ” Ms. Joyce recalled.
Kate Joyce holds a pair of industrial hinges she found in the building housing her studio. She intends to use them to make a piece of art. (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)
Kate Joyce calls this box of metal objects a work in progress. (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)
A kind British gentleman who spoke German translated as she applied for a job with a multi-generational business run by the Blatter family, staffed by two brothers and their sons. The men made cabinets, tables and chairs for restaurants and suites of furniture for newlyweds. Brienz is known for its woodworking school, founded in 1862.
The Swiss craftsmen were baffled. An American woman who wanted to work with her hands? Plus she lacked a visa and did not speak German. “They don’t want you,” the British man told her.
“Tell them I will be back,” Ms. Joyce replied, then landed a job with a couple who ran a farm and restaurant in the countryside near Zurich.
At her request, the couple spoke nothing but German for six weeks. Armed with a basic command of the Swiss version of German and a visa, she returned to Brienz, where the Blatter family gave her a work bench in their shop.
“I learned by observing and by doing. It was really hard work,” she said, adding that the cabinetmakers worked six days a week and logged 10- and 12-hour days. A chair she made in Switzerland became her parents’ Christmas present that year.
Attached to one of the brothers’ homes was a tiny vacation apartment where she slept, cooked on a hot plate and enjoyed a view of the lake from her balcony. The Blatters shared their midday meal with her and loaned her an old bicycle. In time, Ms. Joyce said, “Though I found them very conservative, they liked me and they respected me.”
Back in Wilkinsburg, her parents and six siblings enjoyed her letters. “I became almost like a folk hero in the family,” the Edgewood woman said.
After nearly a year in Switzerland, Ms. Joyce returned to Pittsburgh in 1973 but did not plan to stay. Just before her lawsuit was filed in February 1974, she spoke at a well-attended news conference. She moved to Seattle in 1975 in a green Ford van she paneled with mahogany and opened a woodworking shop on Bainbridge Island. She spent the money from her legal settlement to buy equipment for her shop, called Kate Joyce Co.
With five male woodworkers, she co-founded NW Gallery of Fine Woodworking, one of the country’s first woodworking cooperative galleries, in 1980. It still operates as Northwest Woodworkers’ Gallery. In 1985, she began working at a fine art business called Davidson Galleries, serving as its director.
More than a decade passed and in 1997, she merged her love for art and furniture in a consulting business with residential, business and institutional clients. She selected an 80-piece collection of contemporary art for the Seattle University School of Law.
After 31 years in the Pacific Northwest, Ms. Joyce returned to Pittsburgh in 2011. Since September 2013, she has worked in a studio in the former 32,000-square-foot Mine Safety Appliance building in North Point Breeze. She also does work for Ann Davis of nearby Typhoon Lighting.
Now in her 60s, Ms. Joyce assessed the older pieces of furrniture in her studio.
“These pieces have traveled and picked up a few dents,” she said.
Like their maker, they possess that glow or patina of hard-won experience.
Kate Joyce poses in her Point Breeze studio with art and furniture she intends to use in her upcoming gallery show. The piece at left is called "Tractor Prei Dieu," and is crafted from a Case tractor grill and slabs of stained white oak. (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)
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