An island treasure

44_treasure_01Avelino Samuel is man of many talents. A native of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Samuel has been an industrial arts teacher for 21 years, a furniture maker and turner. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree, and his work is displayed in galleries in the Virgin Islands and the U.S. mainland. And, most admirably, he has achieved so much from an upbringing of so little.

44_avelinosamuel_01Avelino Samuel

Shop location: CoralBay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

Occupations: Teacher, turner, and furniture maker.

Education: Bachelor’s degree from North Carolina A&T State University; Master’s degree from Eastern Michigan State University.

Why he loves turning: “Freedom. I can use all the material that I normally wouldn’t use for furniture. I don’t have to wait. I can turn it as soon as the tree comes down, which means a lot of times the colors are more vibrant and more vivid. Some of the trees, like mahogany, are pink when you first turn it, but it isn’t when it ages. I have a lot more flexibility with what I can do.”

"When we grew up, we didn't have much so we had to make our own stuff," he recalls. "We did things like the oars for boats; we made the handles for axes, pick axes and hammers. So I started out early on with a spokeshave and a machete. Then I started making a lot of toys like bows and arrows. My cousin's friend gave me a book on Indian toys and games and I made a whole bunch of stuff in there for myself. I was probably in elementary school then. When I got to about seventh grade, when I could take shop in school, I started making head sculptures."

As a student, Samuel says he didn't think his coordination was very good, but he did have the ability to shape things. He took woodworking and drafting in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades, but that all ended when he entered the college prep program, which did not permit him to take electives.

"Originally, I thought about being an electrical engineer and then I said to myself [in] 11th grade, 'I don't think I want to work every month of the year.' And with a pseudo-teaching career I would have all the time to do the things I really wanted to do, like make stuff."

He attended the University of the Virgin Islands and transferred to North Carolina A&T State University for his senior year. After earning a master's degree in education at Eastern Michigan State University, he embarked on a nearly 30-year career teaching industrial arts at Julius E. Sprauve School, a kindergarten-through-ninth-grade school in Cruz Bay, St. John. The plan is to teach one more year and retire.

"When I first started, the classes had 12 to 20 students. Now a lot of my classes have 10 or less, really small," he says. "I primarily teach drafting and woodworking. I've had several students who have gone on and become woodworkers. I have one student who has a business in Puerto Rico and he does woodworking on boats and he's really good at it. I have had a lot of students who have had a great aptitude for it, but not the interest, not the motivation."

45_treasure_01Samuel has been making furniture since his college days, when he teamed with a professor on a restoration business. He also did commissions and spec work for galleries.

"I did my first rocking chair around 1986, four-poster beds and a lot of Queen Anne traditional furniture like writing desks. But I also did a lot of craft things like bowls, cutting boards and rolling pins," he says.

He works primarily with native recycled woods, such as raintree (monkey pod), white rosewood, mahogany, genip and seagrape (cocobolo), and can get Cuban mahogany from a couple of mills in St. Croix, when high winds take down a tree, for the unbelievable price of $16/bf. An avid spear fishermen himself, he's well known on the island for his gorgeous spear guns, built out of necessity.

"On St. John, you can't buy or even get some things you want," he explains. "When I was growing up, there were some spear guns I really wanted that cost $300 or $400. I didn't have that kind of money then, so I bought what I could afford, making a longer barrel for one gun and a handle for another."

More time for turning

Turning has become his respite, with many hours spent at a Powermatic model 3520B lathe in a covered area behind his house. He especially enjoys the freedom associated with turning.

45_treasure_02"I can use all the material that I normally wouldn't use for furniture," he says. "I can turn it as soon as the tree comes down, which means a lot of times the colors are more vibrant and more vivid. Some of the trees like mahogany are pink when you first turn it, but [change] when it ages. I have a lot more flexibility with what I can do. I can do more things and get a better return for my time. It's more fun for me to produce smaller projects that you fit in more places.

"It's not so equipment-intensive. As a furniture maker, you're always buying a tool to do a specific job. I don't think [customers] recognize how much money you have to spend on tools, like for all these cutters for your shaper."

With retirement on the horizon, Samuel should have more time to devote to his professional woodworking pursuits.

"I'm starting to get back to the point where I'm doing some furniture," he says. "I don't like commission work that much. I like to explore and have some fun."

46_treasure_01"Custom work to me is very stressful because if you get a job you have to buy special cutters to do it, you have to make special jigs and then you stress over the price because you don't want to charge too much. I really struggled pricing stuff through the '80s. It got to the point where I felt like I was doing a lot of work, but not getting any return. I have gotten a lot more confident with pricing stuff over the years. But since it was never my living income, I never really priced things in real value."

An island treasure

Samuel's work can be viewed at a number of galleries including Bajo El Sol Gallery in Cruz Bay, St. John; Gallery St. Thomas in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; and Creations Gallery in Newark, Del.

Tom Hitchcock, co-owner of Bajo El Sol Gallery, calls Samuel an island treasure.

46_treasure_02"Avelino was born here and worked with wood his whole life and has been a longtime teacher in our public school system," says Hitchcock. "His work is probably one of the reasons people come back to the gallery. If they haven't seen it before, they are amazed at the quality, the delicacy of it, the turning inside as well as the outside. He works with local woods and there is an organic feel to the piece as well as the true artistic piece that he produces.

"He is recognized as one of the gifted wood turners in the States and I'm just honored to have his work in the gallery. His work is beautiful. He's built homes, built beautiful furniture, but I'll be surprised to see if the school lets him go. He is such a gift to the kids and the school and the community."

Contact: Avelino Samuel, 10911 Palestina, Coral Bay, St. John, USVI, 00830.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.