Tracking Down Fingerprints

One of James Krenov’s photos from his trips to the remote Härjedalen region of Sweden, just one of the far-flung places on which he left his mark (and that left its mark on him). Photo courtesy of the Krenov family.

Krenov’s first commission, a teak cutlery box, was commissioned by an American anti-Communist spy turned short fiction writer in 1958, and was paid for with a bottle of Scotch whisky.

That’s a fun mouthful. It’s one of the crazier sentences I jotted down as I interviewed people for my forthcoming biography “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints.”

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During the research for the book, which spans the nine decades of James Krenov’s life and four continents, I was lucky to converse with people who knew and worked with Krenov from the 1950s to the late 2000s. The biography, due out this year, will reveal the fruit born from these connections. And as I reflect on the process now, with the book nearly ready for publication, I’m amazed by the people I had the privilege of talking to throughout my work.

Since September 2018, I interviewed about 150 people around the globe, and I think that highlighting a few of these far-flung folks might hint at the breadth of Krenov’s life.

I reached back as far as I could to find living voices, and I was terrifically lucky to find three people who knew Krenov at the outset of his cabinetmaking career in 1957. The first, and perhaps the most “larger-than-life” character, was Harley Sachs. Today, Sachs works as a board game designer and fiction writer, and has retired to a quiet life in Oregon after living in five countries and traveling the world. He’s now in his late 80s, and was a terrifically loquacious interviewee.

Krenov, the best man, at left behind Harley and Ulla Sachs at the Sachs’s 1960 wedding in Stockholm. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Sachs-Bustos and Harley L. Sachs.

Sachs went to Stockholm in 1957 on the GI Bill after (what he describes as) an odd stint as a misfit in the American military during the war in Korea. While in Stockholm, Sachs worked as an English language teacher and an informant and undercover agent for the American government, who worked against Communist influences in Sweden. Sachs doesn’t recall how he met Krenov, but says his work as a spy drew him to the man. Krenov’s own history, as a Russian-born, trilingual American citizen in Stockholm, would have made him a great potential agent. But Sachs recalled that Krenov was uninterested, though they struck up a friendship that would lead to Krenov’s being Sachs’s best man in his wedding in 1960.

While Sachs only knew of Krenov’s woodworking tangentially, not being a craftsperson himself, he was, perhaps, Krenov’s first client. Sachs commissioned a small dovetailed teak cutlery box, for a nice set of stainless flatware he bought while in Sweden. Unable to pay a satisfactory price, Krenov instead enlisted Sachs (and his connections at the American embassy) to find a fine bottle of Scotch whisky. The case is still in use today by Sachs’s daughter, Cynthia Sachs-Bustos, and holds that same flatware that it was made for more than 60 years ago. A small inscription on the underside of the box’s removable tray, written by Sachs years after its construction, notes that the box is the “first cutlery chest made by Jim Krenov,” an allusion to the fact that Krenov would go on to make a series of “Silver Chests” in his career as a woodworker.

The teak cutlery box Krenov made for Sachs, perhaps his first commissioned work, made around 1959 and in use by Sachs’s daughter, Cynthia, to this day. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Sachs-Bustos and Harley L. Sachs.

I was able to track down and interview two more people from the 1950s who knew Krenov well, and both were woodworkers themselves. Krenov attended Carl Malmsten’s Verkstadsskolla from 1957 to 1959, and thanks to Malmsten Foundation Chairman Lars Ewö (by way of one of my chairmaking students, Matthew Nafranowicz) I was able to get a list of students from Krenov’s years at the school. After some sleuthing, I contacted Manne Ideström and Kjell Orrling. Neither Ideström or Orrling continued on in their careers as woodworkers. Today, Ideström works as a minister and choral director in Ontario, after moving from Sweden in the 1970s as a partner in his father’s furniture manufacturing business. Orrling is just an hour’s drive away from him, also in Ontario, where he now works as an incredible watercolorist, having sold the lighting fixture business that brought him to Canada in 1973.

Krenov in the workshop at Carl Malmsten’s Verkstadsskola in Stockholm, around 1959. Photo by Kjell Orrling.

Often times, in interviewing people about past events I feel guilty asking them to recall those memories – who can be expected to reach back so far with any clarity? But both Orrling and Ideström easily recalled Krenov, perhaps due to his oddity and unique presence as a student. His classmates were largely in their late teens or early 20s, but Krenov was 37 when he enrolled at Malmsten’s school, and Orrling remembers Krenov’s penchant for reciting poetry and reading from his favorite books during mealtimes in the workshop, a habit that Krenov kept up when he later became a teacher. Orrling also provided photos, some of which are reproduced here, from his time at Malmsten’s school. And there is Krenov, the earliest photo of him working wood. How appropriate it is that he is using a doweling jig and a small hand drill – both practices he would share with readers and students.

Georg Bolin, Krenov’s teacher and the principal teacher at Malmsten’s Verkstadsskola, in 1959. Photo by Kjell Orrling.

Perhaps the most memorable interview for the book wasn’t with someone who had ever heard of Krenov, though he did know about the church that Krenov’s father, Dmitri, built in Sleetmute, Alaska.

Much of Krenov’s early life is tied to the lives of indigenous people of Siberia and Alaska, in particular the Chukchi of far Eastern Siberia, the Yupik people of Sleetmute, Alaska, and the Dena’ina people of Tyonek, Alaska. The Chukchi people of Siberia are a well-researched and documented group, and I had a wonderful time researching them as a part of my writing. But when it came to the natives of Alaska, I had a hard time finding the correct terminologies, histories and surviving documents. Unequipped with the all-important “keywords” that might bring up the correct documents, I decided to rely on one of the great interconnecting presences in America – the postal service.

A young Krenov and his mother, Julia, in Sleetmute, Alaska, around 1924. Photo courtesy of the Krenov family.

Last spring, while Sleetmute was still covered in snow, I found the number of the local post office branch. Sleetmute is a town of 86, hundreds of miles up the Kuskokwim River from Bethel, and I suspected that if I could get in touch with just one resident, they would surely know who might be able to answer my questions. The clerk, sure enough, told me to call “Frank,” the oldest of the village elders who he thought would welcome the odd call from Kentucky. Frank answered and was happy to spend an hour on the phone with me. I wish I could give you Frank’s full name, or link to a website as I did with the people above, but I never got any such information, nor did it seem appropriate – Frank was happy to be in a place he noted as deeply isolated. He was able to share what he knew of Sleetmute’s history, confirmed the dates of the flood that Krenov’s mother noted in her unpublished memoir, and even better, he was simply happy to chat with a curious outsider. His father was Yugoslavian, his mother was Yupik, and he had lived all of his seven decades on the Kuskokwim River. He also had a few choice jokes about Columbus and his being the “first person to collect American welfare” from the natives he came to colonize and enslave, and told me a good five-minute story that turned out to be a pun on the name of the Yupik tribe (the punchline was something like, “No, YOU pick!”).

This biography, which I am thrilled to say will be in the hands of readers soon, is really just a spun thread composed of the collective memories of dozens of such conversations, writings and photographs. Over the course of the years of research, I’ve realized the power of picking up the phone and finding a friendly and talkative person on the other end of the line. I’ll end with an encouragement, one I heard from many. Share your stories with those around you and with those strangers who might just be interested. Harley Sachs surely has, as is evidenced in his voluminous list of publications. So, too, have Manne Ideström and Kjell Orrling, through their music and artwork. And so, too, did Frank, with the curious young man calling from Kentucky.

— Brendan Gaffney


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