Smoothing the cedar surface of a serpentine wedge in her Allston studio, woodworker Alison Croney Moses eyed the way the woodgrain played against the seams.
“Every time you cut a piece of wood, it moves,” she said. “It’s almost like it’s still living.”
The artist, who recently won the 2022 United States Artist Fellowship, gets to her studio once a week. She and her husband have two small children, ages 3 and 5 — and she also brings craft skills to the community as associate director of the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts.
“I am probably more efficient than I have ever been in my life,” said Croney Moses, 39.
If she’s busy, it’s because her passions are strong.
“Alison has two primary mediums,” said Michelle Millar Fisher, curator of contemporary decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts. “Wood and community.”
After Millar Fisher began at the MFA, the first piece she acquired for the collection was a walnut vessel by Croney Moses, in 2020. She includes two of the artist’s sculptures in “Designing Motherhood,” an independent traveling exhibition she co-curated coming to the MassArt Art Museum in June. “My Black Body,” a curvaceous abstracted figure with two detachable pods snuggling into recesses, is one of them. The pods represent the artist’s children.
“I was really thinking about motherhood,” said Croney Moses. “When I was growing children in my body, I felt like I was tearing apart.”
She had good reason to be anxious.
“Black moms grieve and have been grieving for a long time in deeper, all-consuming ways,” Croney Moses added. “How do you offset that?”
“This project was specifically about me building community and working with Black mothers during a time when society was going through a racial reckoning,” Croney Moses said. The trio will hold a series of upbeat gatherings this summer — details are still in the works.
“We’re going to do things that connect back to Black girlhood, like roller skating, hula hooping, double Dutch, all the things that I have memories of,” Croney Moses said.
The artist grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., the child of Guyanese immigrants. “My dad made furniture pieces when I was young. You know, a painted pine desk for my sister, step stools, things like that,” she said. He died of heart problems when Croney-Moses was 12.
“I don’t know what would have happened to me if I didn’t have art class,” said Croney Moses, who’d been making art since kindergarten.
A summer at the North Carolina Governors School, a free residential program for gifted teens, was foundational. “Six weeks of lodging on a college campus. [Choose] your major. And then you have a class about thinking about yourself and a class about thinking about the world,” she said.
Arts education became a mission for her. After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design, she earned her master’s degree in sustainable business and communities at Goddard College in Vermont and pursued education-oriented jobs.
“I was thinking, can I go back to my craft and make this accessible to folks specifically in public schools?” Croney Moses said. Nine years ago, she interviewed to teach woodworking for the Eliot School and found a home.
The Eliot School provides art and craft programming in Boston Public Schools and offers classes for all ages in its own Jamaica Plain studios. Croney Moses went from teaching to building the school’s Teen Bridge and Artists in Residence programs to becoming associate director.
“It’s hard to separate Alison’s growth from the school’s,” said Abigail Norman, Eliot School’s executive director. “She came in with strong leadership capacity and an incredible commitment to young people and artists, and it’s been a mutual process of shaping some beautiful programs.”
Croney Moses is still intent on making woodworking more accessible. “I don’t see many folks that look like me in a woodshop,” she said. “There have been times people thought I was cleaning the shop.”
“The wood shop is a very gendered space,” said Millar Fisher, “and the art world is a very white space.”
But there have always been woodworkers, like Croney Moses’s father, outside that world.
“There are Black woodworkers that are not in structured spaces like schools and museums,” the artist said. “Folks that have passed it down from generation to generation.”
Recently, Croney Moses ran a woodshop program for Black women at the Eliot School.
“I say, ‘It’s OK to be afraid of things. But how do you own that and use it to be in control?’” she said. “Then you’re like, ‘I can use this table saw. I can use this band saw. I can use this chop saw. I understand this process. Now, how do I apply that outside of this? How do I step into that uncomfortable zone and feel comfortable?’”
Working with wood helps keep Croney Moses steady. She makes voluptuous vessels with colored interiors and swirling, delicate shell forms from layered veneer. Many of her pieces call on the coopering and bent lamination techniques that she learned at RISD from Don Miller, then a lecturer in furniture design. Bent lamination involves layering thin sheets of wood with glue and shaping the bundle. Once the glue dries, it holds.
“If he didn’t teach us bent lamination, I don’t know that I would be so into woodworking,” Croney Moses said.
“I really like shaping curved forms,” she added. “When I was a kid, I wanted to hide in closets and make forts and tents. I think there’s something about shaping those kinds of comforting spaces.”
She knows working with wood can open up other avenues, too.
“I don’t really care if people end up being woodworkers. I just happen to love it,” she said. “But I do care that people go out and help to shape their world.”