I find it inspiring to speak with someone who has discovered what makes them excited to get up in the morning. If you have read anything about the Blue Zones (and I encourage you to because it’s fascinating), you know that one of the factors critical to longevity in those regions has been “purpose”. Most of the centenarians in the blue zones around the world continued to find purpose in their lives and a reason to rise out of bed each morning and face the day.
It sounds like a small task, but is it really? As I age, I understand how critical this is for overall contentment and wellbeing. I suppose the benefit of knowing your purpose is heightened when it is something that brings you tremendous joy.
I wouldn’t change anything about my life, but there are times when I wonder just what direction it might have taken had I pursued a few of my passions at an earlier age, rather than taking the safe and predictable bank job or deciding to stay at home with my children. I wish for my children that wherever they land, they find something they love to do that doesn’t always feel like work because it brings them great joy (and a decent paycheck!).
I am happy to watch friends, some of whom like me have stayed at home with their children and forewent a career, rediscover what makes them tick. Or in some instances, friends have found new passions to pursue. The range of interests is so broad from returning to a corporate job, studying to become a college counselor or a museum docent, selling jewelry and clothing and floral design to name just a few. And then I have other friends who have left big careers and are making the transition to a less structured day but more opportunity to awaken old hobbies. For me, all of this is quite inspiring and I enjoy seeing my friends thrive.
Today, I am sharing my conversation with a new friend, Julie Hagan of Turning Grace. I don’t know Julie very well, but we have met on a few occasions through our mutual friend, Ellen McHale who was the woman who one hundred percent inspired me to create The Kitchen Scout. An artist whose work you can see at www.nelleykelley.com, Ellen is the inspiration whisperer because she been very helpful to Julie along the way as you will see.
Two years ago when she was facing the empty nest, Julie took a class to learn how to “turn” wood and has since launched a business named Turning Grace. From her workshop in her home’s garage, Julie turns all types of woods into one of a kind pens, bottle openers and stoppers, pizza cutters, ice cream scoops and so much more. Her products are really beautiful and I was so intrigued by this craft.
This Fall, Julie got in touch because she wanted to gift me one of her hand made French Rolling Pins knowing how much I enjoy cooking. In exchange she asked if I would give her some feedback on the pin. I happily obliged 🙂
The pin arrived wrapped in soft blue tissue, tied at the ends with raffia and garnished with a Turning Grace tag. I used it to make a crostata and roll out some pizza dough and it sits alongside my other pin waiting for its next use. I love it.
Not knowing anyone else who is turning wood (do you?), I thought it would be so interesting to interview Julie for the blog and discover what was behind her decision to spend her days “getting dirty” to make beautiful products. I hope you enjoy the conversation and check out Julie’s website, Turning Grace as the holidays are coming and there are lots of fun things to consider…
TKS: Thank you for having me to your home, Julie. Can you please tell us about your background and how you arrived at where you are today?
JH: I grew up in St. Louis and attended Quincy College (now Quincy University), which is located in the small town of Quincy, Illinois. After college, I was a flight attendant for two years before moving back to St. Louis where I met my husband. Together we moved to Little Rock, Arkansas where I worked as his office manager for a home-based orthopedic business. My husband took a new role in the company that moved us to Germantown, Tennessee. It was there that we decided to start our family.
Once our two daughters were born, I was a full-time, stay-at-home mom. I dedicated most of my time to volunteering at their elementary school that was located right behind our house.
Our next move was to Amsterdam, again for my husband’s job. Our children attended the British School of Amsterdam and I once again found myself volunteering. The children were older, but I found it hard to start any kind of career there because my husband was traveling a lot.
Ultimately, we moved to Concord, Massachusetts in 2011 and I dabbled in at-home sales positions for a few companies. But as the empty nest approached, I began to think it was time for me to find something that was truly my own.
I’ve never been artistic at all. My daughters sing and play the guitar but I can’t do a thing. We enjoy going to art festivals together and always found ourselves attracted to the booths where wood products were being sold. I was accumulating quite a large number of bowls as a result! Our girls teased me to please not purchase one-more-bowl. I teased them back that maybe I could actually learn how to make a bowl myself and then we could have them all over the house!
That joke stuck with me and I decided to research local wood turning classes. I found one in Woburn, MA at Woodcraft and signed up to attend with my husband because we thought it would be fun to do it together. When Woodcraft moved the class to a different weekend that wasn’t convenient for my husband, he encouraged me to attend on my own. I came home with a bowl I made with my own hands and was incredibly excited.
I took the class in January of 2016 and subsequently talked non-stop about the lathe (the machine with which you turn the wood) and how fun it would be to continue doing this type of craft. On my birthday in July, I opened our garage door to discover my family had purchased a lathe for me. I thought to myself, “Crap, now I have to do something with it”! Ultimately, I just had to get started. It took about a month for us to figure out how to use the lathe without hurting ourselves as we were using bigger pieces of wood then. We decided to back off and work with smaller pieces of wood. The first products we made were pens which were more manageable in size.
And then we got more creative, making wine stoppers and bottle openers and it grew from there.
TKS: So how did you learn how to make things? Is there a manual?
There are no manuals but there are lots of YouTube videos. We went back to Woodcraft and asked them for guidance and what we needed. Another wood turner, Phil St. Germaine from whom we have purchased bowls lives in the area and he has been a tremendous resource for us. We went to his house one day and saw his work space and he gave me some pen sets that he wasn’t using any more to get started. He has been a wonderful mentor.
TKS: At what point did you say to yourself, this could be more than a hobby?
JH: That turning point came when people contacted me on social media, asking if the products I was posting pictures of were actually for sale. The reaction I received from posting some of my products on Etsy during holiday 2017 was also encouraging. I sold items to people from all over the world. Etsy was an easy investment to test the waters.
Also in Spring of 2017, my daughter and I were shopping at a newish gift store here in Concord named Joy Street and she encouraged me to ask the storeowner if she would carry my products. Long story short, I made an appointment with her and she seemed really interested but asked me to call her later in the year. I was discouraged thinking she didn’t like my wares. What I didn’t know was she was rebranding and changing locations. When I did follow up later in the year, she happily took a lot of my products for holiday 2017, which was more exposure for me and a lesson in perseverance.
This year, my friend Lorell (who also is TKS web designer), suggested to me that I needed to create a website which she designed and built with an e-commerce component that will allow me to reach people online. That site just launched this past Spring/Summer and that was a big moment for me.
So, the transition from hobby to business was really based on the reaction I was receiving from others and my luck with a local store. Those experiences made me think I could do more with my wood turning than just create things for myself!
TKS: What is behind the name, Turning Grace?
JH: That’s an interesting story. Of course, we were throwing around the word “turning” for the wood turning component of what I do. Grace is the name we gave to our second daughter who was still born at 37 weeks and who we affectionately refer to as Angel Grace. We started referring to her as Angel Grace because our oldest daughter was only 1-½ years old at the time of her passing and we needed to frame what had happened to our baby in a way a toddler could grasp. Calling her our angel was our solution. We have always kept Grace a part of our lives, celebrating her birthday every year by releasing balloons with a note attached and planting trees for her in the places we’ve lived.
When I suggested to my family that we could name the business Turning Grace with her in mind, my husband and daughters knew immediately that it was the perfect name.
TKS: It’s a title that turns something very sad into something positive. I’m so very sorry for your loss. (Note, at this point in the interview I was a blubbering mess and had to regroup. Julie also showed me a beautiful painting done by our mutual friend Ellen of a young girl as an angel rising that she painted for Julie after she shared this story with her. An amazing act of friendship and love).
TKS: Do you have a vision of where you would like to take the business? What are your goals?
JH: Yes! I have a goal of making a big bowl one day! I really want to get into some bigger things. Phil St. Germaine, my mentor who I mentioned previously keeps asking me if I’ve made any bowls and encouraging me to “just make one”.
In all honesty, part of me thinks I should expand what I am currently doing and be more creative with those items. I have people who are interested in these products because they are one of a kind so it would behoove me to stay in this space for a while. Not only that, there are so many creative ways to continue to make our existing product line unique. For example, we have started to spalt wood. Spalting adds colorful lines to wood by promoting fungus. We then harden the wood by stabilizing it in acrylic. Spalting wood yields really interesting designs and we are excited to work with those pieces.
If there comes a time when interest in my current product line wanes, then I can move into bowls and platters.
TKS: Where do you source your wood?
JH: For the items that you see here in my home and workshop, I source wood from lumberyards and people I have met along the way who have scrap wood to share. For example, a woodworker we met at the lumberyard shared with us cherry, walnut and maple scraps. We also sourced some wood from another wood turner who had some extra pieces.
Other more interesting sources have been situational. For example, my husband’s high school buddy’s father grew up in a one-room log cabin in Bonne Terre, Missouri that dated back to the Louisiana Purchase. The cabin was in disrepair and had to be taken down and my husband asked his friend if they salvaged any of the wood thinking I could make something with it. As it turned out they did and my husband traveled home with a log in his suitcase! We made a razor, pen and a Christmas ornament for my husband’s friend who gave them to his father for Father’s Day.
Locally, our arts center, The Umbrella Community Arts Center was undergoing a renovation/expansion so I took pieces of the floor from its dance studio and made pens that will be given to donors. I also made some serving pieces from the arm rests in the Umbrella’s auditorium that were auctioned off at its annual gala last Spring.
I love to make something from pieces of wood that mean something to somebody so it can come back to life if you will. Someday we hope to source all of our own wood rather than purchasing it as we do.
TKS: Where do you get your design inspiration? How do you decide what to make?
JH: There are a lot of companies that make wood turning kits and we browse through their online catalogs to get inspired. I think about what interests me or what would be fun to make. The kits come with instructions for how to turn the wood component of what we are making so that part if fairly straightforward. The creativity comes from picking what types of wood I will use and how it is finished, usually with some type of oil.
Other sources of inspiration have been my friends. My French rolling pin was Ellen’s vision. Last Christmas, she asked if I could make one. Since there are no kits for rolling pins, I had to figure out how to make one from scratch. My lathe actually wasn’t large enough to produce a pin so we purchased an extension and a stand for the extension! We now make the pins in two sizes in a few different woods.
Another friend asked if I could make Christmas trees from white birch. We went and found some birch logs and I turned a bunch of trees and sold a lot last Holiday season. This year we purchased approximately 100 feet of birch logs from a landscaper we were working with that we dried in the oven to rid them of their moisture before we could turn them into trees!
TKS: How much time do you spend in your home workshop? Are you there daily or do you take days off to refresh?
JH: Since October 1st, I have been doing some type of work every day and on the weekends to get ready for the holidays. This is my passion and when I work at the lathe all day, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s exciting to have this artistic side of me pop out and it is fun.
I do try to turn every day if I can, but it also depends on my schedule because it’s not like you can do this type of work and just get a little dirty! If I turn wood, I am in there for as long as I can be because if I am getting a little dirty, I might as well get a lot dirty! Beyond the actual work of turning, shopping for wood, coming up with new ideas, managing the website and social media keeps me pretty busy.
TKS: Do you feel as though you are improving with your efficiency?
JH: Definitely. Although a lot of times, my efficiency depends on the piece of wood I am working with or even how tired I might be. I don’t know how things are really going to look until I start cutting into the wood and that will influence how long it takes me to get the wood where it needs to be.
TKS: What have you found to be the best avenues to promote your business?
JH: Social media. Instagram and Facebook are what I use the most. I hope to add a blog to my website so that I can send out periodic emails to followers to show what I am making.
TKS: Who are your mentors?
JH: For the wood turning side, it would be Phil St. Germaine. He has given me a lot of encouragement. My friend, Ellen McHale inspires me to keep doing more.
TKS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
JH: Ellen has encouraged me to trust myself and to just go for it. She also has helped me to understand that not everyone will be attracted to or want to purchase what I produce and I cannot take that personally. She has helped me to manage the realities of owning a business where you are giving up a part of yourself.
TKS: What advice would you give to others either facing the empty nest or trying to grow a small business?
JH: Trust that what you want to do and what you have a passion to do is something others will see joy in and appreciate. If you are trying to sell something, just get out there and knock on a few doors and ask if people are interested. I think believing in yourself that you can accomplish something is key. I have no regrets about staying at home with my children and feel fortunate that I was able to do that, but I think it’s neat to have something that I can call my own now that our girls are grown. It’s healthy to have a passion that you don’t feel is actually work.
TKS: Ok, here come the food related questions. Do you like to cook?
JH: I love to cook!
TKS: Favorite cooking tool?
JH: Probably the grill. I just started using an Instant Pot, which I also really enjoy.
TKS: Favorite Indulgence?
TKS: Most memorable meal?
JH: There is a part of St. Louis called The Hill which is similar to The North End here in Boston. There was a restaurant we went to that made stuffed artichokes that we loved. One time when my husband and I were still engaged, we planned to go to the restaurant and order the artichokes and share a bottle of wine. Sadly our server told us they were out of the artichokes and of course we were so disappointed. So the owners called their grandmother who lived across the street and she literally came over and made us the stuffed artichokes if you can imagine.
TKS: What have you learned about yourself that would surprise your teenage self?
JH:That I could do something that is considered art to some people. I mean, I can’t even draw!
TKS: Is there a philosophy by which you live?
JH: You either make dust or eat dust.
TKS: Please finish this sentence: Julie Hagan is…
JH: Julie Hagan is proud of our girls.
Turning Grace products can be found online or at the following stores in Concord, Massachusetts:
Julie will be selling Turning Grace products at the following upcoming events: