The building at 24 Webster Ave. in Somerville looks unappealing from the outside. Built more than a century ago as a schoolhouse outside Union Square, its brick facade is covered by pale blue siding that hasn’t been updated in ages. And with only narrow slits for windows, it’s hard to ascertain what’s happening inside. But the mystery dissipates upon opening the building’s heavy metal doors as a musky mix of sawdust, freshly cut lumber, and finishing oil wafts down the stairs.
For four decades, carpenters have honed their craft in the space as part of the Community Builders Cooperative, running renovation and construction operations in the school’s converted classrooms. Today, many of the co-op’s founders have now retired, and one of the schoolroom/workshops is home to the woodworking studio of Tim Lorenzo , an artist who is the resident creative carpenter at the Franklin Park Zoo and Stone Zoo . His mural installations can be found in homes around the city.
Lorenzo, 39, is trained in historic restoration, and got his start working as a contractor on some of the city’s biggest building projects. About three years ago, while working on a remodeling project in the Millennium tower in Downtown Crossing, he realized he might need to pursue a new career path. he realized he might need to pursue a new career path. “All the designers are looking to make one really sweet unique feature,” for their built-outs, he says. “And I said, ‘I could do something way cooler than this.’” He decided to devote himself full time to making wood sculptures. (Lorenzo calls himself a “wood magician.”)
Finding a space to do his craft, however, wasn’t easy. “Art spaces for woodwork is really difficult, because nobody wants you in either space,” Lorenzo says. “It’s too much of a mess for art spaces and too much art for woodworking spaces.”
But he found a home at 24 Webster Ave., taking over the workshop of one of the building’s owners, Marc Rudnick.
“Inside my shop is such a perfect expression of me. There is no place than I would rather be,” Lorenzo says. “My work and my focus of life is to try and celebrate myself as a person, and this room is a direct outcome of that goal.”
Lorenzo’s 900-square-foot space is crowded with tools and lumber. His carved wood murals hang on the walls.
“I make almost all of my wood sculptures out of reclaimed urban trees, and use a power carver to do the wood murals. Last summer, I redid the butterfly exhibit at the zoo, and also built life-sized fairy houses, which was super fun.”
“My assistant would say I specialize in buying unique tools and using them incorrectly. I have a passion for traditional woodworking. It’s something that connects humans from across land and time.”
“I use a lot of traditional woodworking tools in abstract ways; most of my art is the cross between the classic use of tools used in a different fashion to talk about where we are today. I try and use the tools that are available in the best way possible, whether it’s carving with a chain saw or softening woodwork with a cement mixer to create a weathered and worn look. It’s hard to pin down. I’m really good at using a tool outside of what it’s supposed to be.
“A huge reason why I got this space was its history. The table saw was there, and the wood benches, and all to of the basic infrastructure. I reuse them and like the history of it.
One of Lorenzo’s current art projects involves fashioning “lumber gems” from reclaimed wood.
“They’re made from spalted beech and birch that came from Franklin Park Zoo. And some of them are oak and ash from the Blue Hills.
“Spalted basically means the tree has fallen down or gotten a fungus, and it has this really cool black texture to it. You don’t get this other places — it happens on park trees in the city because of the environment we create.”
“To make them jewel-like, I apply a shine coat, and I try to use all nontoxic items, and food based dyes for the colors.”
The former school hallway has been outfitted with shelves to house lumber for the carpenters’ various woodworking projects.
“The wood and tools and the things that are in the hallway — it’s a gem collection in a lot of ways. It’s a beautiful statement to the history of the building. The pictures on the wall are from mostly cool articles. Most of the woodworkers were really politically active hippies.”
“The wood [on the shelves] is the most beautiful collection. It’s a group of people’s lifetimes. There’s so much love and deep feelings about these things that are dusty and yucky to almost everyone else.”
“My neighbor’s shop has been there for 40 years, and the lumber on that rack, half of it has been there for 15 years. If carpenters were hermits, this would be his pot of gold. There’s a piece of wood that is in his shop and it’s too big, too valuable, and it’s too beautiful — he’s had it for 15 years, and he’s too afraid to cut it. It’s a piece of true Brazilian mahogany. He’s like, ‘We can’t cut this, what if we make the wrong thing?’ It is a truly a beautiful piece of wood.”
Lorenzo inherited the woodshop from Rudnick, a longtime carpenter and one of the co-owners of the woodworkers collective that has occupied the building for over 40 years. Rudnick has been approached about selling the building, but he and Lorenzo are hoping to find a way to keep it a place where craftspeople and artists can continue their work in Union Square.
“The chair is out of my truck, and the chalkboards are from the original classrooms. It’s one of the things I loved when I was looking at the space. I bring my two kids to the shop and that’s something they identify with and relate to. They draw the pictures there most of the time.”
“I wanted to make it as comfortable as possible in my space. Most of the lamps are hand-me-downs from other people — they know that I like to fix them. There’s a strange assortment of tchotchkes in my space. It’s mostly funny things that make me feel at home.”
“Every day I think about what will happen when this place turns over. The owners are all old-timers — they’re all retired. I want to be able to purchase this building and turn it back into art space, while Union Square turns into a commercial mecca. I’m hoping to save some of that solo builder feel that’s always been in Union Square.”