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Jean Crabtree inspects one of her recent, intricate creations.

The workshop is thick with blokes and blokey things – buzzers, bench saws, mitre saws, band saws, scroll saws.

But they’re not for Jean Crabtree.

“If you have a dog, why bark yourself.” Leave those to the boys, they’re the experts. Jean’s weapons of choice are the chisels, knives and mallet of the wood carver. And she wields them like the maestro’s baton.

“It’s the sheer joy from thumping the chisel with the mallet and having chips flying.” Jean prefers sawdust in the hair and woodchips everywhere to the more genteel pursuits befitting someone of her years.

Because upstairs at the Greenwood Park retirement village, the rest of the sisterhood might be tatting, knitting, crocheting, chatting or snoozing. “Done all that,” says Jean. Copper work, basket weaving, icing cakes, the works. “I just think I am more the artisan than the artist.” She enjoys the dust and dirt, prefers a chisel and mallet to knitting needles and yarn.

So Jean is downstairs in the workshop at Greenwood amongst the blokes. And the feisty 90-year-old, soon to be 91, has her latest creation, a piece of silky oak tree which is morphing into a bird, locked in a vice and she’s attacking it with a chisel and mallet.

“There’s a perception carving is a male activity, that it’s not for women.” Did she roll her eyes just then?  “Women are just as capable, just as able.” So just drop the idea, or get over it. In fact there are 16 active female members of the Tauranga Woodcrafters Guild of which Jean is a member. And to hammer her point, or rather thump it with a mallet, she suggests a trip to the Hamilton Gardens.

“There’s a huge carving by Megan Godfrey and Derek Kirwood. Worth a trip to Hamilton just to see it.”

Jean has a deep affinity with wood. “Wood is fantastic, a beautiful medium. I have a piece of polished kauri root in my room – green and red colours and the grain is mind-boggling.” That appreciation starts with the roots and rises all the way to the canopy. “Trees inspire me. I can picture the grain inside the tree, I can look into the structure of a tree and I can delight in it.”

And when Jean’s not downstairs at Greenwood, she will be at the Woodcrafter’s “fantastic” workshop at Cherokee Place in Mount Maunganui where the men are “absolutely fantastic”.

“We’ve got one guy, Ivan Watchorn, who is amazing at guiding new carvers through the process and never stops helping, especially when there is a challenge.”

Jean would like a little of the Woodcrafters style and success to rub off on her home workshop. “It’s a bit headless at the moment but I have to be careful.” She won’t say as much but it could be because of her seniority, and because she’s female, and asserting herself wouldn’t go down well amongst the boys.

Jean presents a couple of recent pieces to The Weekend Sun – a complex, intricate mirror destined for her niece and a cat… a tactile piece… which enjoys a good stroking. Or is it the stroker enjoying the patina of the finely hewn wood? She’s known to have a women’s patience and care with her work, so her work is nicely executed.

Even as she bears down on 91 Jean is promoting her craft as well as indulging in it. “If we can get more women upstairs to come downstairs, it would be lovely.” There would be no girls’ talk because everyone is focused.

“That’s not to say at morning and afternoon tea and at lunch, we don’t solve the problems of the world.” Then it’s back to dusting the workshop floor with more woodchips. Oh, the joy.

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