Robert Van Norman walks around the room, moving from bench to bench, offering a helping hand. He is patient and focused as he assists students with drilling cross pins by hand. The workroom is filled with light, its air pungent with the aroma of freshly cut wood. The atmosphere is easily summed up by a quote written on a chalkboard: “I live in a beautiful place, I work at something I love.”
Van Norman has a deep admiration for woodworking. So much so that in 2005 he opened his very own institute in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast —the Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking. As the school’s resident teacher, he says he is fiercely dedicated to teaching, “a very different way of woodworking here,” one that isn’t industry focused. While other institutions emphasis conventional techniques and efficiency, Inside Passage takes a deeper, more sensitive approach.
Van Norman says his passion for his craft began when he himself was a student, under James Krenov. “He was one of the most influential woodworkers of our time,” Van Norman says of his mentor. The connection was made in 1987 when Van Norman was teaching at a youth center in Saskatchewan. “I read his first book A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook and I immediately picked up the phone and called him,” he smiles. “He was very generous with his time and told me I could call anytime. So, we talked on a regular basis.” In 1999, Van Norman decided to go back to school and called Krenov, who was teaching at the College of the Redwoods’ Fine Woodworking School (now called The Krenov School of Fine Furniture) in California. Krenov invited Van Norman to join his class. After returning to Canada and teaching in Prince George and North Bay, Ontario, Van Norman made his way west with his wife Yvonne, the school’s teaching assistant and admissions lead, and their children, to open Inside Passage.
“It’s been fantastic,” he says of life on the Sunshine Coast. “Roberts Creek really embraced the whole concept of the school.” Just beyond the iconic Gumboot Café and mystical Elfinstones Rock and Gem shop, Inside Passage School’s tall wooden body, big windows, and inviting front entrance blend in nicely with the community. “We wanted to be somewhat secluded because the whole idea here is to sequester students from outside influences so they can focus on their work,” he explains. “Some place inspiring was important to us.”
A world map hangs from a wall in his office, pins marking where current students and alumni hail from. “We have 41 different countries we’ve got students from at this point,” he says. Malaysia, Singapore, Scotland, France, Israel, Germany are among those represented. But how did these students discover this school in a tiny community in B.C? He laughs. “The internet.”
Before he passed away in 2009, Krenov did weekly lectures for Inside Passage students. “Some were a set topic, like making drawers,” Van Norman explains. “And sometimes he would go on a rant and talk about something else, [and that was] quite often the better conversation.” The lectures took place by phone, with the school’s students gathered around to listen, and were recorded. Van Norman now for the next generation of woodworkers that come to study here in Roberts Creek. The goal, he says, is to not simply teach skills, but inspire a deep connection to the work.
“My aspiration for my students is that they look at this craft not as a way to make money or make a living, but as a way of life.”
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