Wheeler Munroe starts the day off with some light sanding, then moves steadily into the disassembly of an old chair—separating its parts one at a time with the care and consideration of a surgeon working on a very delicate organ. Measured and ginger, she suddenly slams into a join with her anvil—thwack!
She knows when to be tender and when to be tough, and this isn’t just limited to furniture repair and preservation. She’s a seamstress who knows how to break down and rebuild industrial sewing machines; a woodworker who both designs and constructs fine furniture; and a maple farmer who both taps the trees during the day and braids wool rugs by a fire at night.
Jack, you’ve got a run for your money because Wheeler Munroe is truly a Jane of all trades.
“I have dreams—and a vision,” Wheeler says. “But no matter which medium I’m working in, they all require a tool belt.”
Although woodworker, seamstress, designer, and farmer seem like completely disparate roles, a theme runs through them. She thinks of something she wants to see in the world that doesn’t exist yet—it may be a particular type of dress or it may be a worktable—and then she “unbuilds it backwards in (her) mind,” reducing the vision into all the parts of a whole, ready to be pieced together.
“I look at whatever I’m doing like it’s a system,” Wheeler says, but stresses the importance of mindfulness in craft. It’s not enough to just put the parts together in a way that works, but to put them together in the best way. Working with a systematic approach leads to the precision that makes way for innovation.
“When you go into woodworking school, you go thinking you’ll learn to build a box, but you come out having learned to be attentive, to be present, and to solve problems,” Wheeler says. “Creating isn’t about not making mistakes. It’s about learning to deal with problems as they arise and coming up with creative ways to make something better than it was before.”
Wheeler seems to be able to pick up just about any material and make it into something beautiful, and although she’s teaching herself new skills all the time, she has a long history of professional training that began at a young age.
She first began using a sewing machine when she was nine, and just a year later could be caught building furniture outside for her tree house. It didn’t take her or her family long to realize that craft was just in her, so when she got to high school, the choice was clear. Now known as UNC-SA, Wheeler attended the North Carolina School of the Arts for her junior and senior years where she focused primarily on the visual arts to gain the foundational design skills that would end up informing her endeavors. Growing up in Western North Carolina, it was a clear choice to attend Penland School of Crafts after graduation, where she took her first woodworking class in 2003.
“The beautiful thing about craft is that it brings beauty to the common, utilitarian objects we use every day of our lives, Wheeler says.”
In 2004, Wheeler moved to Fort Bragg, California, to attend the College of Redwoods Fine Woodworking program—a two-year intensive course with a description that says, “All of our courses are designed for the aspiring (woodworker) who hopes to combine sensitivity with personal expression, patiently striving toward a goal best described as fine craftsmanship. We view craftsmanship as our legacy from woodworkers who have striven toward consistent excellence, which is perhaps the best definition of the word quality. Our efforts toward this goal have been recognized by the woodworking community around the world.”
College of Redwoods was founded and run by Jim Krenov, who studied under Carl Malmsten, a woodworker who founded Capella Garden in Sweden, where Wheeler would find herself for a semester as an exchange student during her time at College of Redwoods.
After completing the program, she stayed in Fort Bragg for a few years where she ran her own wood shop and small farm before returning home to Asheville. She returned to be closer to family and to help her father at the family maple syrup farm, Waterfall Farm, in Ashe County. Waterfall Farm is one of two maple syrup farms in the state, and her father, Doug Munroe, began with just a few buckets on a few trees in the backyard. Seven years and one Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) grant later, it’s a full production farm.
It’s just Wheeler and her dad and the wilderness when she’s on the there, but since her studio is in Asheville, she can’t be at the farm all the time. Ultimately, Wheeler admits she’s living a double life.
“I love it,” she says. “I go out to the farm, strap on a different tool belt, and hang my ripped up jeans on a peg by the door, and sometimes I stay out here for a week at a time. When I’m in Asheville, I wash my hair, put on some nice clothes, and become part of the city. I’m a Gemini. Us Geminis were made to lead two lives.”
Whether you’re interested in her furniture designer, fine woodworker, seamstress, or her Waterfall Farm life, get in touch with her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her at wheelermunroe.com in West Asheville, where she builds and restores furniture, performs custom upholstery jobs, makes clothing, and teaches basic woodworking skills.
Ryan-Ashley Anderson studied Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and has a background in Fine Art. She made Asheville her home five years ago and is proud to call herself a member of a thriving craft community. Find out more at frayknot.com.