December 8, 2022

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Ouida Vincent: Firing on All Cylinders

https://blog.lostartpress.com/2020/10/24/ouida-vincent-firing-on-all-cylinders/

Editor’s Note: Apologies if you received this post twice. We had some technical problems with this entry (our fault and not Nancy’s).

In her profile on the Brigham and Women’s residency alumni web page, Dr. Ouida Vincent had some fun with the pro forma question “DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE MEMORY FROM RESIDENCY?”

“Spending the night out with co-residents at the ’70s disco,” she answered, punctuating her response with a single word: “Polyester.”

This disarming response will come as no surprise to those who know Ouida, whether in person or from Instagram, where her warmth, humor and sense of adventure are on regular display. “Headed to Handworks by way of MSP,” she wrote in May 2017. “Please say hello… I’ll be the BWWDL” – as she’d previously described herself, the “BLACK WOMAN WITH DREAD LOCKS” – because (let’s be real) how many Black women (or men) with dreads would you typically expect see at a gathering of hand-tool woodworkers in rural Iowa?

With her Dutch tool chest in her shop.

When we spoke, on a crisp Saturday morning this fall, she’d just returned from delivering sourdough cinnamon rolls to her mother. It was a short walk up the hill by her house; she was still in her pajamas, under a Carhartt jacket.

Along with thousands of others, Ouida (pronounced WEE-da) took up sourdough bread baking in April, when the pandemic prompted so many to plunge themselves into baking that stores could not keep yeast on the shelves. It wasn’t her first experience with baking; at Cornell she did a medical school rotation on the Navajo Reservation in 1989, staying with a family who baked wholewheat bread or cookies every day. Inspired by their example, she took up baking herself when she returned to med school. Although her first few loaves were “like hubcaps,” she kept at it and quickly improved. She baked every weekend until her professional work became too demanding.

Ouida approaches sourdough baking with the analytical rigor of a scientist and the enthusiasm of one who bakes for love, not money. Her Instagram feed is full of boules and batards – some whole, some sliced in half to reveal herbs, olives or “crumb.” An early September entry that shows the kind of springy texture I can only dream of producing reads like notes on an undergraduate’s experiment:

“[W]hen I want to check oven spring, I look at how the holes are oriented and if the entire loaf from bottom to top was involved in ‘spring.’ You can get three patterns[:] no spring (dense loaf) that may or may not have risen any, spring primarily on the outside of the loaf with a dense (yet hopefully done) interior and spring that involves the whole loaf. The holes will be elongated in the direction of spring and will glisten.”

Note the measurements. Clearly the work of a scientist.

She brings the same studious curiosity to woodworking. Ouida sees a piece of furniture she likes and figures out how to build it. Her office and home are furnished with pieces of her own making. And when she decided a proofing box would be a boon to her sourdough baking, she puzzled out what it would take to fabricate one.

Ouida’s proofing box with a loaf in progress.

These days, Ouida, whose day job is clinical director of a hospital on the Navajo Reservation, is “in a mask 10 hours a day, five days a week.” Anyone who pays attention to national events will be aware that Native Americans have been affected terribly by Covid-19. Ouida adds, “Even when there is a vaccine, I will wear my mask (even after getting the vaccine). This is about public health.”

Ouida was born in Nashville, Tenn., the fourth of five children. When her mother and father married, her father brought three from a previous marriage and her mother brought her; they had one son together. Her name is common in the South. “My mother told me that she heard the name and wanted me to be remembered, so she gave me the name.” Then comes the zinger: “You can imagine what kids and substitute teachers did with [it].”  

Ouida and her little brother.

She can’t remember a time when she wasn’t fascinated by making things and figuring out how to fix them. Her older brother David was “a real Mr. Fix It” from the start, Ouida says; she followed him around and learned from his example.

After her parents split when Ouida was 10, her mother moved Ouida and her younger brother from one place to another, wherever she could find work, usually in college financial aid offices. Ouida would have signed up for shop class in school, but as a girl born in 1963 she wasn’t allowed to. That changed when her family moved to Virginia Beach, Va., in 1976; she enrolled in shop class and small engine repair. She and her classmates learned to strip down and rebuild two-stroke and four-stroke engines, restoring them to working order; they also had to frame the corner of a house, complete with functioning plumbing and electrical service.  

When they moved to Alabama in 1979, Ouida found herself barred from shop class once again. Undeterred, she decided to go ahead and build things on her own, though she found that was more easily said than done, with few tools and no shop. While working on a body for an electric guitar she asked the shop teacher at school if she could use the band saw. He asked her to prove she knew how – a challenge she met in short order. He gave her permission to use the shop facilities when classes weren’t in session. She’s been building ever since.

Given her facility for learning new skills and diagnosing problems, it’s not terribly surprising that Ouida, who excelled academically, found her way into medicine. She graduated from Cornell Medical College in 1990 at the age of 27, then did a residency at Brigham and Women’s in Boston. “My uncle was an Ob/Gyn. It was really the first medical career I was exposed to. I was briefly attracted to general surgery, but the general surgeons I was exposed to seemed not to have personal lives. I was ultimately attracted to the combination of surgery and diagnostic medicine that obstetrics and gynecology offers.”

She originally hoped to do a medical student rotation in Alaska, but when she inquired, she learned that all rotations there were filled – she would have had to apply at least a year in advance, rather than a few months ahead of the starting date. “When I walked in to talk with one of our deans, she was opening a letter from alumni who had taken jobs in Shiprock, N.M. They had space for students, so I went. The year was 1989. I fell in love with the medical community and knew I wanted to return,” though she adds “I didn’t plan on making a career out of it.” 

In 1998 she moved to Gallup, N.M., and became Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology. When her real estate agent heard about her interest in woodworking, she mentioned there were classes at the local branch of the University of New Mexico. Ouida signed up for a course in cabinetmaking. The college had a well-equipped machine shop, but no hand tools. As she deepened her experience of working with machines, she learned another valuable lesson – “the frustration of power tools!” Even though the college had a full-time staff person charged with repair and maintenance, “there was always a machine down.”

Ouida’s work responsibilities grew, leaving her with less time for classes, yet she continued to pack in as much woodworking as she could. One of her early projects was an 8’-high x 3’-wide media cabinet. Another was a hutch based on an article in Fine Woodworking; it’s in her office today.

In 2006 she bought a property in Colorado, attracted in part by a dilapidated barn on the site. “This is my woodshop,” she remembers thinking when she first saw it. Termites and rain had done their worst; contractors she called for estimates to rehabilitate the structure said it wasn’t worth saving, that she should build something new. “But I wanted to work in a barn,” she says. Eventually she found a contractor who was willing to fix it up for her.

The barn shop at dusk.

Ouida slowly taught herself to use hand tools. She learned a lot from Chris Schwarz’s videos on hand tool basics and watched the Popular Woodworking series “I Can Do That.” She made a desk of ambrosia maple and cherry for a friend; the hand-cut dovetails were “so gappy that I made the gaps the same size and backfilled them with filler of a different color.” She persevered and improved. The same went for sharpening. “The first time I sharpened a plane blade it took six hours,” she says. But she found the more she worked in hardwoods, the greater her appreciation of the need for sharpening and the better at it she became. In the end, she says, “the wood became my best teacher.”

Around 2011 she made some shop stools based on a video by Mike Siemsen. When “The Anarchist’s Design Book” was published, she built one project after another from it – a boarded bookcase, staked desk (now in her office), six-board chest and staked chair. “I would have made more from that book,” she says, “had Peter Follansbee not published his book and completely derailed my life! I’ve literally done nothing but carve since 2019.”

Evidence of obsession.

Ouida is well aware of the sacrifices her mother made as a single parent. She also deeply appreciates her maternal grandmother’s support, calling her “a constant figure in my life until she passed away in 2001.” She cites one incident in particular, which culminated in the United States Supreme Court case NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, to illustrate the impression her grandmother Dolly made.

Dolly Thompson was from Mississippi and had a ninth-grade education. “It was in the Jim Crow South,” Ouida points out by way of context. Even though the population of Claiborne County, where they lived, was majority Black, all the political seats were held by White people. Her grandparents owned a funeral home and were solidly middle-class. But when they traveled cross-country to attend mortuary conventions, they always had to think about where they’d be allowed to stay at night.

It was common in that time and place for Black people to be called names (if their presence was even acknowledged) and forbidden to use public restrooms or sit at lunch counters. Tired of being treated as second-class citizens when they were upstanding members of the community, Ouida’s grandmother (her grandfather died in 1962) and many of her fellow community members, working with a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), decided to “talk with their dollars.” They organized a boycott of White-owned businesses, setting up a supply house of their own called Our Mart to keep fellow citizens supplied with hardware, food, clothes and other everyday needs. They funded the project by selling shares.

Ouida’s maternal grandmother, Dolly Thompson.

Several of the White-owned businesses joined forces and sued for damages – in a majority-Black county, their businesses couldn’t survive without the now-missing income. When the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in the White businesses’ favor, Ouida’s grandmother and her fellow boycotters took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the NAACP.

The whole thing, she notes, came about “simply because that group of people wanted better treatment.” Although this was her grandparents’ experience, Ouida understands it’s not that far removed from our own time — she belongs to the first generation to grow up outside of Jim Crow. And it’s easy to see how Ouida, with these determined and hardworking role models, became the kind of woodworker who doesn’t flinch at challenges, but sticks at a task until she has mastered it, having lots of fun along the way.

Summing up our conversation, she reflects that “the reason I’ve continued doing [woodworking] is the stimulation it provides.” She trained as a surgeon, but her work for the past several years has been in administration. She misses the contact with tools and materials. Bread making helps fill the gap; woodworking goes even further. “Now I get to hold instruments in my hand that use fine motor skills., similar to using a scalpel,” she adds. No wonder she can’t stop carving.

— Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work

You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.

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