On & Off the Page: An Interview with Anissa Kapsales

On & Off the Page: An Interview with Anissa Kapsales

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On the job

work station2Along with her colleagues at Fine Woodworking magazine, Associate Editor Anissa Kapsales decamped from Taunton headquarters in Newtown, Conn., to her home in Upstate New York this March. Her office for the past several weeks has been her kitchen table, which she shares with her children, ages 9 and 10. Each has a designated area. She works, they study.

For fun they’re conducting an archeological dig in the backyard, complete with tape to keep curious (if imaginary) visitors a safe distance from the site. A couple of years ago the family dog, Bongo, killed an unlucky groundhog. After scolding Bongo, Anissa dug a grave and buried the deceased. Now that her kids have to get their kicks at home, she figured digging up the bones and putting them back together would be a creative educational venture.

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Exhuming the groundhog. What finer activity could there be for a spring day?

The youngest of three siblings, Anissa grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., where her father, George Kapsales, was a mechanical engineer. Mr. Kapsales designed production lines for Dana Perfumes, a cosmetics company that produced fragrances such as “Canoe,” “Ambush” and “Tabu.” In the evenings and on weekends he tinkered in the family’s basement or on one of his many jalopies, and Anissa liked nothing better than to hang out with him while he built furniture or components for major home repairs, a portable black and white TV always on in the background. “To this day,” she says, “I love the background sound of football games, and the smell of second-hand smoke. He was never without a cigarette.”

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Family portrait: Anissa, Anastasia, Harry, George, Toni

Anissa’s mother, Anastasia Kapsales, has spent most of her career as a master seamstress who had a designer jeans store in the ’80s, at the height of the designer jeans movement, and alterations shop. “She could make anything, all the way up to wedding gowns,” Anissa says. “She’s a fantastic seamstress. She still works now, in her 80s.”

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Anissa’s father, George Kapsales, in his lab coat at work

As soon as she had her driver’s license, Anissa made a habit of visiting her father at Dana Perfumes, where they’d have lunch together. “The building was just super cool,” she says, “built in the early ’60s, so the architecture and office furniture were fantastic. It had a lot of glass and a giant ‘D’ sculpture in front.”

Whenever his employer was getting rid of stuff, George would take it home and put it in the basement. This is how the Kapsales family came to own such diverse artifacts as “a giant photocopier,” speakers, rubber and cork bottle stoppers and a collection of leftover balls from roll-on deodorant. Because you never know when a 6′-long commercial stainless steel lab sink from 1979 might come in handy.

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Modernist influences show up in Anissa’s modular wall unit.

Anissa and her now-former husband grew up in the same town and went to the same high school, though they didn’t know each other at the time. They met when she visited the outdoor outfitters shop, where he happened to be working, to buy a pair of hiking boots. Over the intervening years she’d worked a variety of jobs – lifeguard, waitress, bartender, juvenile detention center guard – and continued college, majoring in English with a specialization in creative writing/poetry. After attending a few colleges, including the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the University of Colorado-Boulder, Anissa finally graduated from East Stroudsburg University in 1999 when she was 30, and moved to the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York, where her partner was living. She took a job as manager of the rental shop at Hunter Mountain ski resort and did a brief stint as a rock climbing guide. They bought a 1915 house in a small town in the Hudson Valley and settled into married life.

Planning to become a teacher, Anissa started work on a master’s in education through SUNY-New Paltz. At the same time, she taught eighth grade full-time at a public middle school in the Bronx, a 90-minute commute each way, to generate income while her husband built up his outdoor guide business. Describing the school, she says, “There were armed guards at the door. It was pretty rough. I had about 35 kids in every class. There were some really bright kids, some troubled kids. For a first-time teacher, it was trial by fire. You really got put in the hot seat fast. It was an intense environment to walk into having only substitute-taught. My principal and vice principal were super supportive, strong New York City women. But in the end, you’re in the classroom yourself with 35 kids. They were tough. It was a challenging environment.”

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Nicholas and Despina Barounis, Anissa’s maternal grandparents

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James and Antonia, Anissa’s paternal grandparents, with their children

Anissa’s father died in February 2002. Devastated, she quit the master’s program and couldn’t bring herself to go back to teaching in the Bronx. “I just kind of didn’t work for a few months,” she says. But her grief, which was inextricable from her memories of those years in the basement with her father, sparked an epiphany. One day as she awoke from a nap, it popped into her head that she had a friend, Sandie, whose neighbor, Eric Keil, was a woodworker. (You can see Eric’s work on Instagram at @baldmountainwoodworks.) She thought: “I need to ask Sandie if she’ll talk with Eric about taking me on as an apprentice.”

“I just knew,” she recalls.

Sandie asked. Eric said yes. Anissa spent a few months working with him. “He was fantastic,” she says. “So smart. He had been had been in Fine Woodworking; he’d worked with Mark Schofield. I knew there were woodworking magazines out there but didn’t really know specifically about Fine Woodworking until I worked with Eric in the summer of 2002.”

That fall she took a job teaching sixth-grade English and ancient history at a Quaker school in Poughkeepsie. “I was able to run with both subjects at the same time. I learned the history part as I went. It was all really interesting. Ancient Greece, ancient China, Mesopotamia. All the religions. I was able to do an English curriculum that tied into them and then we would tie current events into them. It was really fun.”

The school had a shop; one of her fellow teachers suggested they take a Shaker hall table class at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking. That summer, they did.

Bob Van Dyke, who runs the school, shared this memory, which conveys Anissa’s tendency to deflect attention while also playing around with her friends’ heads:

“Anissa and her friend Jeremy took my week-long Fundamentals of Furniture Making…. The two of them were great to have in class — lots of fun. Jeremy was especially funny. The last day of class we were having lunch on the picnic tables behind the school. Jeremy had gotten a birthday cake for Anissa – “Happy Birthday Anissa” written on it – candles, the whole bit. He had us sing Happy bday to her. The whole time she kept saying – “but it’s not my birthday, it’s not my birthday!” He kept at it, and we all had birthday cake and Anissa kept insisting the rest of the day that it was not her birthday. No one believed her….”

The class led to a deeper exploration of the craft.

“I was obsessed with it at that point,” Anissa says. “Working with Eric had opened up so much more than I realized was possible in woodworking. In his shop I learned how to use a table saw! Until then I did everything with a circ saw and my dad’s radial arm saw. It was my first real exposure to hand tools and sharpening. And Eric’s refined design sensibility inspired so many new ideas and spurred a lot of research into everything woodworking. I started to get why my dad was so meticulous. But Eric was doing it professionally at a caliber beyond my dad’s.” Inspired to explore the craft more deeply, she applied to the College of the Redwoods (now the Krenov School), where she completed a one-year course.

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Anissa with a classmate at the College of the Redwoods

In 2006, Anissa was getting ready to graduate and thinking about what she’d do next. She knew that Fine Woodworking was based in Newtown, within driving distance of her home in Upstate New York. While looking for postings there (they weren’t hiring), she found an ad for an editorial position at Fine Homebuilding. “I’ve had my own property since I was 21,” she thought. “I’ve done woodworking. I can just get the job there and maybe I can jump over to Fine Woodworking.” She did the edit tests, went to Tim Snyder, senior editor at the time, and interviewed with the entire Fine Homebuilding staff. Rob Yagid (now editorial director) was interviewing at the same time. “The process took one-and-a-half or two months. Snyder called me and said ‘We’re going forward without you, but I know you’d be a really great fit at Fine Woodworking, so with your permission I’d like to forward your résumé over to the editor at Fine Woodworking.”

He passed all of her information on and she went through the tests and interviews all over again. “It was late August,” she continues. “I was on the phone with Michael Hurwitz, trying to persuade him to let me be his shop assistant, when the call came in from Asa (Christiana).” Two months later, Anissa did her first shoot involving a flight out of town, with all the scheduling, rental car, hotel and equipment schlepping such travel entails. That trip was to my shop; Mike Pekovich came with her to show her the ropes.

As it happened, Newtown, like the Bronx, was a 90-minute commute each way from her home. For the first year and a half, she commuted four days a week. Since then, she has switched to spending three days a week on the Taunton campus and two working remotely.

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Pregnant woodworking, 2009. Anissa in a shoot for her article on sawhorses two weeks before she gave birth to her first child.

Anissa had her daughter in 2009 and her son a year later. She worked at Fine Woodworking through both pregnancies but left in 2011, when her son was one year old. “I had a 90-minute commute and two infants,” she explains. “It was just too much. I wanted to focus on my children.” She tried taking the children to shoots, breast pump at the ready, but for that plan to succeed, her husband had to accompany her and keep a close eye on the kids. “What you have to give changes when you’ve had kids,” she says. “That never jived with my work ethic.”

sip-power_tool_basics_2007-17006While she was not on staff, she freelanced for Taunton’s special-interest publications. I had no idea what had become of her, when one day, at an airport, I happened to spot Arts & Crafts Furniture on a magazine rack. I cracked the cover, and there she was, with an editor’s note. She also edited several other special interest publications, including the tool guide – work she enjoyed for its challenges. “You have to re-edit the articles to make them fit,” she explains. “It’s the problem-solving part of the puzzle that I really like.” Kind of like putting a groundhog skeleton back together from a pile of bones.

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“I’m not office job material on the whole,” she says. “But I’m able to function in this job and love it because it’s so different all the time. It’s so creative, and the people I work with – we’re such a great crew right now. It’s such a joy to be working with people in creating this thing that goes out into the world and allows other people to create things.”

When Asa stepped down in 2014, Tom McKenna became editorial director. She’d worked for him on the freelance gigs and he made clear that he would love to have her back on staff, should a position open up. “Yeah, I would really consider that,” she remembers thinking. A job became available in late 2015. Both of her children were in school (kindergarten and first grade, respectively). She was getting divorced. The timing was good. She accepted the position.

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Sometimes the job requires extra patience.

The work at Fine Woodworking has changed over the years. There are fewer staff members today than when Anissa started the job. There’s significantly more digital content, such as podcasts and blogging. The basics, though, remain the same: She works with authors to hone article proposals; meets with fellow editors to discuss the concept and art direction; gets a manuscript from the author and generates a shot list. She collaborates with Creative Director Mike Pekovich to fine-tune the article’s focus and determine which props should be on hand for the shoot. And then she travels to authors’ shops for photo shoots, which have taken her all over the U.S. and Canada. (She currently has some articles lined up with Aled Lewis in Wales.) In addition to working on feature articles she’s the editor of the Designer’s Notebook and Handwork departments.

“Coming back after four years, I was ready to throw myself right back into it,” she continues. “I was so excited to be back at the magazine. I pitched this wall unit article and had all this stuff going. And then, bam! It was about a month and a half before I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.

“The radiologist was not good at hiding his emotions. I knew. I already knew it was cancer even before getting the biopsy. The surgeon called and said ‘Come in right now.’ I was on my way to the office. I stopped the car and emailed Tom. He was great through the whole thing. It was just really hard. At first, I didn’t tell anybody but Tom at work.

“People handle it differently. I needed to process all of it. I couldn’t just instantly jump into surgery the next week. I was diagnosed in mid-January and didn’t have my surgery until mid- to late-March. For those two months, I was just working and taking sick days and going to appointments and figuring things out.

“I kept things pretty quiet, but as people found out everybody was just amazing. The HR people were super supportive. As I got closer to the surgery date, Liz Knapp and Betsy Engel said, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but I know a couple people who… Would you like to talk to some people who have been through this?’ There were three people in the company I ended up talking with. It was immensely helpful to be able to speak with these people, to talk about what they chose to do and how they handled everything.

“People outside of Fine Woodworking did that, too. There is this unspoken club. You don’t want to be in it, but once you’re in it you’re grateful for the support. And I had health insurance. I was glad that I had the support I did from the people I work with in terms of logistics. I felt so bad, because I’d left Fine Woodworking after two maternity leaves and then I was back with cancer.

“That’s what cancer does for you. It’s that hidden gift. You know that things are out of your control and you just have to give it up. You make the best decisions you can for yourself. You cannot rely on doctors and nurses and health insurance companies to make those decisions for you. This was the second time in my life I realized ‘You have power.’ I knew I was on the right path. I just slowed down and made these decisions for myself. I gathered information and took care of my kids and did my job and took time off after my surgery; it may have been two months. And then started chemo in July. I was going back and forth to the city for appointments and treatment. I switched from Sloan Kettering to an oncologist in the Hudson Valley who managed to be an oncologist in an artistic sort of way. She listens and thinks outside of the box and does things differently. I knew that was the right choice, too.”

Anissa had chemo every other Wednesday, was off the rest of the week and went back to the office on Monday. “As the end of the four months got closer, I was really tired. I just plodded through it.”

Almost a year to the day after finishing chemo, she ran the 2017 New York Marathon.

“But then I tore my meniscus in the middle of the marathon!” she adds. “But I finished. It was just slower! And ended up with knee surgery in March of 2018.”

Her running partner, Judy (in the pink top, above), has been a close friend since the two of them had their kids. Entry to the marathon was by lottery, and Judy hadn’t won a place, even though they’d applied together. Those who didn’t get in could buy a place by raising money for designated causes, so to honor her friend, Judy did a breast cancer fundraiser. “She had yard sales, a gofundme site through the breast cancer group and sold socks that said ‘I love boobs.’” Between them Judy and Anissa raised $3,000 or $4,000. They ran the marathon together.

Fine Woodworking has seen me through a lot,” Anissa continues. “A divorce. Two kids. Cancer. It’s been a steady in my life for 13, 14 years. And this crew! We’re just very even. Very funny. There’s no drama. We don’t acknowledge big things in an overt way, positive or negative. If we do, it’s so subtle, or low key. It’s a really healthy place to work in terms of drama and emotion. A solid place with solid, good people.

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Colleagues, clockwise from top left: John Tetreault, Betsy Engle, Barry Dima, Liz Knapp, Anissa, Ben Strano (center), Jon Binzen and Rocky Knapp

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With her children and Bongo

“One of my biggest regrets when my dad died is that he didn’t get to meet my kids,” Anissa says. “And he wasn’t around when I got this job. We were really close and I loved building things with him. He was so meticulous, and I was so young and impatient. I just wanted the bookshelf finished, or the box we made finished. And he would say ‘No, you have to do it this way.’

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George Kapsales in his youth

“He would want it done the right way, and I would say, ‘Dad, can’t we just throw this thing together?’ And now I get why he persisted. The fact that he died prior to me getting into woodworking the way I did and being able to show him the magazine and talk to him about the magazine… I’m sure if he were still around he would be making things from the magazine all the time. Hanging out with him was what got me into woodworking.”

After her father died, she photographed his basement shop to document it. “I still have the weird stuff he would bring home from work,” she says. She took it to a storage unit for a while, then moved it into her own basement, along with his tools and woodworking machines, a way to keep him close.

— Nancy Hiller, author of “Making Things Work”

And here’s an update on the archaeological dig:

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Making progress


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