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Lee ’00 combines art and craft at Offerman studio

Independent woodcraft commissioner blazes trail to find niche in male-dominated world

By
Staff Writer
Monday, February 10, 2014

RH Lee ’00 has carved up the artistic and philosophical stratosphere of Los Angeles. An independent commissioner of woodcrafts in California, Lee manages Offerman Woodshop, established by the Hollywood-famous Nick Offerman, of “Parks and Recreation” fame.

In a saga that began when she was seven, Lee has moved from coast to coast, from theater to studio and from conception to creation. Her odyssey reflects a lifelong development of aesthetic ingenuity — diverging from the conceptual to the physical — and a career on a trail traditionally overlain with male domination.

The artistic spark went off early for Lee, whose sprint down the path to carpentry began as a young girl in Berkeley, Calif. “My parents really encouraged it,” says Lee. “They set up a little woodshop in the basement.”

At seven, her parents enrolled her in a youth program, “Kids’ Carpentry,” where a nascent interest received real cultivation. Her passions continued through college, where she studied art semiotics, a now-defunct concentration that emphasized visual and artistic styles’ interplay with philosophy and culture, according to the Office of the Registrar’s website.

“I basically started at Brown in visual art” — another passion of hers — says Lee, “then got into theory the last couple of years.”

Lee’s transition from conceptual to craft also evolved at Brown, where she worked as a technical assistant for the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies. With fond memories, Lee recalls, “It wasn’t fancy or anything — we got paid three dollars an hour when we calculated it.”

But Lee says her theoretical background has remained important during her whirlwind career, especially in a workshop so “media-related” as Nick Offerman’s.

After Brown, Lee returned to San Francisco, working in an administrative role for three months at the East Bay Institute for Urban Arts, a nonprofit that mobilizes artistic expression from multiracial communities, according to the institute’s online mission statement. She also worked at San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum for 10 years as a designer and woodworker.

She later returned to theater, set-building for Brava Theater Center before moving to Los Angeles, where she joined Offerman and the self-declared sustainable woodworking collective.

At the Offerman Woodshop, Lee acts as both an independent commissioner and workshop manager. She describes her works as “all over the map,” and her only consistent projects are pieces for the Exploratorium. Lee says the Exploratorium atmosphere is “kinetic and interactive.”

The majority of her pieces are commissioned independently alongside eight other artists in residence.

Though Lee feels the workshop is “a place that is outside of Hollywood,” Offerman’s popularity has a certain influence on the workshop’s online success. Lee herself has built props that have appeared on “Parks and Recreation” and filming has occasionally taken place at the workshop.

Reflecting on her experience in carpentry, a typically male-dominated industry, Lee expresses gratitude for her success. “I do feel like I’ve carved my own path, but I still think that there are certainly challenges. Earlier on, you make a lot of mistakes, and it’s especially hard when you’re the only woman in the shop.”

Despite following a winding career path, Lee seems to have finally found a stable niche. “Here at the shop, we all get along great, and I feel lucky for that,” she says.

 

A previous version of this article misquoted RH Lee. She said, “I basically started at Brown in visual art,” not video art. The article also took one of her quotes out of context. She described her 10 years at the Exploratorium, not her three months at the East Bay Institute for Urban Arts, as “kinetic and interactive.” The Herald regrets the errors.

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