Against the Grain is a series spotlighting people who are underrepresented in the woodworking, carpentry, and construction space. We’ll speak with people working on projects from whole-home renos to intricate wood sculptures to learn what inspires them, how they’ve carved their own space (pun intended), and what they’re working on next.
We recently had the pleasure of connecting with woodworking artist Aleksandra Zee from her sun-filled living room in Northern California, where her big smile and clear passion for her work shined through instantly. As we chatted, Aleksandra told us all about how she began, where in nature she finds her inspiration, and what she hopes for her future as a female artist working in a male-dominated medium.
Meet the Expert
2008: Cutting Her Teeth at Anthropologie
“I first fell in love with woodworking while I was a window display artist for Anthropologie,” she told us. After graduating from college in 2008 with a double major in liberal studies and studio art, Aleksandra originally had dreams of working as an art teacher, particularly “fighting to keep the arts in school.” This is still a passion of hers and something she keeps open as a possibility in the future, but after a studio class her senior year, she began creating abstract, mixed media installations. “It dawned on me that I wanted to explore life as a solo artist first,” she said.
Shortly after graduating, Aleksandra learned about the visual display teams at Anthropologie: a group of artists who create custom displays surrounding all of the products in store. She had no idea that this was even a career path, but it sounded like the ideal opportunity for an aspiring artist. With the understanding that each store had its own aesthetic, she applied to a few locations. Aleksandra got a call from the Bay Area store, met with Katie Gong for her interview, and three weeks later, she was packing up her life in Southern California and moving to a new city, “really, with not even a place to live.”
Fortunately, the experience was exactly what she hoped it would be. “It was like getting your masters. And it was sink or swim, because that job was so coveted. There was always somebody to take your spot.”
A 'Boss-Turned-Bestie' and a Tiny, Ahem, Snag
On top of the incredible learning opportunities, Aleksandra’s instant bond with Katie was instrumental in leading her toward the path she’s on today. She described her boss-turned-bestie as not only a mentor but also “my soul sister; my wifey!”
There was one slight snag. During her interview, Aleksandra told a small lie. She didn’t really know how to use any power tools. Determined not to let that get in her way, Aleksandra turned to the free tool classes at Home Depot. After a course on how to build a deck, she bought her first drill. “I was kind of like, if I’m going to be building things, I cannot show up to this job not having owned a drill! What if I have to bring the drill?” She’s since upgraded, laughing as she admitted her first purchase was, “so cheap! Not very powerful, pretty terrible.”
Fortunately, her lack of power tool knowledge didn’t get in her way, and Aleksandra leaned on Katie as her new mentor. Because Katie comes from generations of woodworkers, she used the material often in their store displays, teaching Aleksandra and the rest of the team the foundations of the craft.
Aleksandra was instantly hooked. “The displays that involved being in the woodshop were always the ones I found myself diving deepest into. I knew that working with wood was something I needed to explore more.”
2010: Starting Her Own Company
In 2010, Aleksandra transitioned to a part-time role, exploring new artistic opportunities. Then, three years after joining the team, she left to pursue a full-time career as an artist. Coincidentally, Katie left at the same time and since then, they’ve been each other’s go-to support systems for all things, including guidance, problem-solving, and getting unstuck creatively.
“It’s really magical to have someone who kind of ‘gets it,’ being a female running a business, and in a world and industry that’s dominated by men,” she said.
Overcoming Stereotypes and Lessons Learned
Throughout our conversation, Aleksandra recounted different times that being a female woodworker has had its frustrating moments. There were the innocuous-but-annoying moments, like companies sending her pink toolkits full of tools she’d never use (though one pink tape measurer continues to haunt her, somehow moving with her to each new home and workshop). But there were truly infuriating moments, too.
A Fellow Artist Takes Credit for Her Work
She revealed a time in 2010 when a (male) friend and fellow artist asked her to assist him on a commissioned project. She agreed, but when she arrived in his studio, she learned he had printed and pitched her work and was now asking her to assist him on her own work. He even went so far as to ask her what materials to use and how to implement and install her entire design.
“It irked me and I didn’t know what to do. I thought I still had to be so honored and polite that I was asked to be an assistant on my own project that he was putting his name on. I ultimately was like, ‘You need to split this with me.’ But I still let him take all the credit.”
Today, Aleksandra sees this as one of the most formative lessons from early on in her career. “It’s okay to stand up for yourself. Nobody gets to take work that you’ve created and put their name on it. [It] really kind of set the tone for the woman and the female business owner that I was becoming.”
While talking about the biggest lesson she’s learned in her career, she said that being an artist “is about trusting your gut and knowing your highest self always has your back. Every time I have gone against my intuition I for sure pay for it.”
2020: Her Best Project to Date
Fortunately, Aleksandra has had plenty of highlights since then, all proudly stamped with her name. The best project she’s worked on to date was a ceiling mural at the MacArthur Place Hotel in Sonoma, installed in February 2020. “It is the largest piece I have ever created, and it lives on the ceiling of the beautiful lobby and entrance to their restaurant, Layla.”
When asked what made this project so truly special, Aleksandra’s big grin was back in place. “It was a dream combination, you know? When you get a client who really wants to explore with you.”
She described the experience of getting the large-scale mural up into place on the ceiling as “a battle,” thanks to the historic building’s quirk angles. But her bright smile and the pride in her voice held steady as she gushed about the team she led through the process. Her regular team includes her husband, Antrom, and her other assistant, Daniel, but for this project, they also had a construction team with a plywood lift who was thankfully also familiar with the historic, retrofitted building.
She Led the Team—and Everyone Was Onboard
“It was really great to have a team of people and contractors who knew about its quirks … I couldn’t rave more about that whole process. The team really respected me being in charge, which is rare. It’s rare to work with a contractor or someone that usually runs the show to then take direction from a woman. But they were incredible. Truly.” After emphasizing again how rare this is, she added, “They didn’t look to my husband, which usually people do!”
Evolving and Inspiration
As Aleksandra’s aesthetic continues to evolve, she finds most of her inspiration in nature. “I am constantly drawn to the high desert. There is a magic there that I continue to bring back with me into the creation process.”
Joshua Tree Dreams
Most recently, she and her husband have been traveling regularly to Joshua Tree. They’ve fallen so in love with the area that they bought five acres of land with the dream of building a home and moving there full-time.
"Joshua Tree has got this stillness and this magic to it that every time I’m there, I bring something new and different with me back to the shop,” she said.
When not working on large-scale projects like the MacArthur Place mural, she does a lot of commissioned, made-to-order pieces available through her site. She’s also currently working on a new body of work that will be available to buy directly through her site once she’s finished. “I’m really big on not rushing through anything, because if you are rushing through something, then I feel like the art never translates and you know you rushed through it. So I do like to allow myself to take the time to make it how I want it.”
Opportunities on Social Media
When it comes to promoting her work, Aleksandra says “social media is key nowadays.” Through her sizable following on Instagram, she’s seen a bigger reach and more opportunities than she might have seen otherwise. But there’s an intimacy, too. “Social media is so important to not only keep a small business going but also to share an intimate look into the lives of the people behind the brand.”
Along with Instagram, Aleksandra finds Pinterest to be key for her brand development. “For me, Pinterest has given me the opportunity not just to share the things I create, the way I design my home, and the travels I take. There is the extra added layer of sharing my inspirations, from form, to color, to texture, to feeling — being able to connect with my audience and give them a glimpse into the inner workings of my creative brain and give a story to the work I create."
Get a glimpse into her space on Story Pins on Pinterest:
“Story Pins on Pinterest is my new favorite way to create and bring my audience in the shop with me. It is not just a static image; I get to create a complete story which is always something I am trying to achieve with the way that I share. Full-circle moments are what paint the entire picture and lend to multiple moments of connection and inspiration with others."
Her Creative Process
Aleksandra is not one to start her projects on paper. “I’m not a big sketcher or a planner," she said. "I like to explore with the medium. Try out different angles and colors. If I hate it, I rip it back up. I explore with my hands. It’s a lot of play and experimentation in how I create. Then once I’ve got it, it’s a meditation. I know how it’s going to go and I get to be in a flow. That’s where I find myself in my happiest state, when I get to meditate and have it flow through my hands.”
Women Supporting Women
Throughout our conversation, Aleksandra mentioned tons of friends and women within her artists and woodworking circle that she leans on in her process. “I’m really thankful for the community that I’ve built up here. [It] is a bunch of really badass women that are not competing with each other. We’re just here to support each other," she said.
Getting Started in Woodworking
For a truly great intro to woodworking and a rundown on the most commonly used woods and how to use them, as well as what tools she personally recommends, check out Aleksandra’s book, The Way of the Woodshop.
“The best tip is just to try, get started and explore. Start with learning about different types of lumber and which ones you are drawn to. The more exploring the better. What you are drawn to will reveal itself with time and trying new things.”
Aleksandra also offers a video cutting board workshop available to download, and she does 1:1 workshops in-person for anyone in the Bay Area.