I grew up in the town of Gilford, New Hampshire, not too far from Keene. I had a wonderful free-range childhood, spending days out exploring the woods, the pasture behind the house. Our TV time was limited, so we were always made to go out and play and ride bikes – back when the world was safe and kids could do that kind of thing.
My interest in environmental studies goes back to exploring and learning on my own time, not necessarily in school. I was never the best student; I was better at learning on my own terms. I was very interested in insects as a kid, for instance. I had butterfly collections and beetle collections. They weren’t for a class – I just enjoyed looking at them.
I landed at Keene State because I could study biology and possibly graphic design there. The College helped shape the person I am. I had a great four years there. I loved the community of Keene, I loved the small town, I loved the small classes. You could go to office hours and your professors knew your name and how you were doing.
I started as a biology major but switched late in my junior year. Environmental studies was a much better fit for me because it was a more applicative subject matter. It worked for me as someone whose learning process came from growing up in the outdoors and seeing the plants and the stone walls and the natural environment. I was able to make meaning out of it in a way that made sense.
After Keene State, I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do within the environmental science field, so I spent quite a bit of time working at nature centers and environmental education centers around the country, just figuring out what my niche would be. I worked for the Washington and Vermont state park systems in natural resource management and environmental education. Then I decided to go back to school for my master’s. I researched programs, and it turned out there was a little graduate school that’s famous for its environmental studies department back in Keene. So back I went, to Antioch New England.
Through the environmental education program there I took classes in interpretation and in exhibit design and development. Interpretation is about connecting people with places. It’s a process that’s both emotional and intellectual, and it connects the interests of visitors or audiences or students with place or resource or the content that you’re trying to communicate. After I graduated I did internships at the Bronx Zoo and the Philadelphia Zoo, and I realized this sort of teaching for the masses through exhibits was what I wanted to do.
At the Bronx Zoo, I worked in the Exhibits and Graphic Design Department. I focused on visitor studies, understanding who an audience is, who goes to places like this. What values do they place in the institution or in free choice learning? Are they going because they want to learn? Are they going because they want to spend quality time with their family? Are they going because they enjoy spending time outside?
When I finished the zoo internships, I landed a job with Main Street Design, a private consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., that specializes in exhibit design and interpretive planning for places like zoos, aquariums, nature centers. After several years on staff I’m now freelancing for Main Street Design.
I help create the concept and the general design of an exhibit with a team of people. We have exhibit designers who come up with the blueprints for the exhibits, and we work with fabrication companies who build the exhibits.
There are different ways of organizing an exhibit conceptually. We work with the exhibit site – the zoo or environmental center or whatever – to find out what they want to accomplish, and then we work with what they have to help them do that. Do they want their visitors to go through time, like in historical, chronological order? Do they want it to be theme-based, where visitors enter and go through different environments as they proceed through the exhibit – first the prairie and then the wetlands and then the tall grass? Do they even want visitors to go through a sequence, or is it popcorn style, where they can go anywhere they want? It’s about figuring out how visitors will interact with the exhibit that’s being created – coming up with a big idea, or a set of key messages.
My focus is, What do we want people to learn, or feel, or experience as they go through? – working with the client to figure out what the messages are and what the content is going to be. It’s more of an educator role. It filters down to: So what exactly is going to go on each graphic? What kind of interactive can we design that will best deliver the message?
I’m working now on a new Everglades exhibit for Zoo Miami. This project has gone through several iterations, and now the visitors’ sequence is thematic. Developing the exhibit is about figuring out what the zoo wants visitors to take with them when they leave. Do they want everyone to know that the Everglades is in peril because there’s not enough water? Or is there a set of simple, clear content points that they really want everybody to know? Or maybe they want visitors to do something. To vote on something, or to use less water when they’re brushing their teeth. They went through the exhibit, and now they feel something.
Right now I’m working with the client on finalizing all of the text that will appear on the graphics and finalizing the images, photos, or illustrations that will be used. That’s a big part of my job. This project has about 350 photographs in it.
I really enjoy this work. It’s multi-faceted. It uses so many different parts of my brain. One of the first parts of any project is to really understand what the content is, so I can figure out what messages to tell. There’s a lot of research involved. I learn a lot every day – like how many pounds a black bear has to put on to make it through hibernation. And what does that look like? How many blueberries is that, how many salmon steaks is that?
These days I freelance for Main Street Design, but I also own my own reclaimed furniture business; I’m a furniture designer and maker on the side. So I have two big jobs or careers in my life. I started a little company called the Pallet Shop. I make things out of pallets or other reclaimed or reused materials. It started back when I was making furniture for my own house and my mother-in-law said, You should try to sell this stuff, this is beautiful. There’s a market for this. I said, OK. I opened up an online store and, ba-da-bing, it’s a hit. So I started doing it on the side and I’m doing it mostly full time now, plus consulting with Main Street.
I started doing this back in 2013. I’ve had a couple of really big jobs, really big clients, and it sort of catapulted. I made the dining room tables for a restaurant down in Cambridge, in Kendall Square, called Commonwealth. I did about 40 tables for them. I’ve done a handful of other restaurants and bar tables. The latest project was a 65-foot bar at the Urban Farm Fermentory in Portland, where they make cider and other fermented products. Now I’m on to making stools out of oak barrels for the Fermentory, and other fun clients are popping up. My online shop sells headboards and desks.
I ship my products across the country. This stuff is pretty big and pretty heavy; I’ve had to learn the rules of FedEx and how big and how heavy something can be in order to ship at a reasonable price. And how to make a headboard and have the legs come off. So there’s a lot of problem solving and knowing your customer. You want to create a beautiful piece of art or piece of work, but having it be practical enough to ship for 50 dollars across the country is a whole other product design issue.
My partner, Jodie, is a conservation biologist. We met at Antioch, and because we both love the town of Keene, we picked “Keene” as our last name when we got married. It fits both of us. We’ve got an adorable 12-year-old greyhound-German shepherd mix. We go for long walks. We love camping trips to Acadia National Park.
I plan to continue to do exhibit development on the side while I make furniture. I really like the complement that they give each other, so I can spend a handful of days working with my hands and standing up in the shop, smelling the wood and problem solving and creating a beautiful piece. But at heart I’m more of an educator. The Pallet Shop is a hobby that turned into something greater. But I think I'll always want to educate first and help create passion in the environmental field, help people make meaning out of the world.