Aug 27, 2019
Al Swanson has always been an outdoorsy guy, so much that his first plan out of high school was to study turf management. Yes, turf management. His interest began with a manager who was on the cutting edge of sustainable, ecologically healthy golf course management. That manager was way ahead of his time, and Al knew it. That experience is part of what inspired him to continue his work as a sustainable craftsman.
A back injury prevented him from taking his degree to work, so to speak, and after a few learning opportunities, he came back to his roots (so to speak), in woodworking with sustainably harvested trees.
We spoke at his shop in Helena, Montana, while sipping some local beers with the extraordinary scent of cedar and pine all around us.
There are two reasons I asked Al to be a guest on the podcast. One was that during our last conversation, he told me a story about running into some people at a brewery in Phillipsburg, Montana, and having a moment of celebrity status - and owning it. I was intrigued with his idea about being comfortable with that feeling and choosing to be exactly what your admirers expect you to be. It’s not about being a know-it-all, or any kind of superiority. It’s about owning what you’re awesome at, knowing you’re still growing and learning, and acknowledging and appreciating it when people recognize your magic.
Al is well known for his fly fishing accessories, but he developed his reputation for fine art and craftsmanship in his furniture business. That’s how I met him; I coveted an absolutely stunning piece he had donated to an auction for our Prickly Pear Land Trust annual event, the Harvest Moon Banquet.
The other reason I asked Al to chat with me was that his work is truly extraordinary, and I wanted to learn more about his motivation behind what he does. We share the theory that when we provide a service or product, it’s the details that make your work unique. Similar to my conversation with Rocky Connell, the artisan bread maker at Park Avenue Bakery, we spoke about the energy we put into everything we do.
In Al’s case, a huge part of receiving a piece built by him is how he packages the gift. It’s all about the experience, not just the beautiful artistry in the piece itself. Al includes cedar, hand shaved into fragrant, curly, fine strips in the box. When that box is opened, the receiver is instantly transported to the shop where the piece was made, with a sense of belonging and longing for the forest where the wood was harvested.
One of the great stories he shared was about how he was inspired to create fly fishing accessories, many are available thanks to his relationship with Orvis. Because of Al’s generous spirit, he fixed a broken landing net (used to carefully scoop up a fish after catching it) that was meaningful to a young man who happened to walk into the A.L. Swanson gallery in downtown Helena. That young man was about to join the leadership team at Orvis.