Wood and Fire

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“I have a last name which is Ukrainian. I am an American citizen. I was born in Poland. I was raised in Belarus. I went to college in Moscow. And I left Russia for Springfield, Massachusetts.”

Such was Sergei Gerasimenko’s life as a “rolling rock.” Now a New Havener, he’s a rock of a different kind, working on West Rock Avenue in the shadow of West Rock itself, expertly fashioning custom features made of wood (not rock).

It was a trip to the theater, of all things, that started his long roll to New Haven. The year was 1980, and Gerasimenko was a teenager living in Minsk, the capital city of Belarus—a “provincial town at the time,” he says, where few went out to enjoy the arts. Yet it had (and still has) a grand 1920s performance hall in “a clamshell design, a strange mixture between classical and Stalin-influenced architecture”: the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre, which he says was the city’s only major building to survive World War II.

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One day, Gerasimenko felt an irrepressible urge to attend a show there. “I put on the best shoes and clothes that I had, marched there, got a ticket… As soon as I heard the orchestra tune their instruments, I said, ‘I want to be part of this. It’s magical. I don’t know how, but I want to be part of it.’” He began working for a small local theater but was soon drafted into the military. Upon returning to Minsk, he found that his earlier job had been taken by someone else.

But the theater did have an opening in the wood shop. Under the guidance of “an accomplished furniture-maker” who “looked like a retired gymnast—five feet tall, really powerful guy but really tiny”—Gerasimenko began to assist in the building of stage sets. Nights and weekends, the pair would take on residential projects including cabinetry and wainscoting.

Noticing his aptitude for carpentry and woodworking, the mentor tried to convince the mentee to become a full-fledged apprentice, but young Gerasimenko wasn’t ready to settle down. Instead he accepted a spot at the Moscow Art Theatre School, enrolling in a five-year design and production program that trained him as a technical director. Along the way, he fell in love and married a fellow student. They had a son named Max, a February baby who slept best outside even during an especially brutal Moscow winter.

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Gerasimenko says he finished school with strong prospects but never got the chance to make his mark on Russian theater. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and it wasn’t long before the entire Soviet Union did, too. In Moscow, he says, “it was stagnation, a recession, shortages of food… It was the point where you felt like you were on the brink of total collapse.”

’89 is when he and his now-former wife decided to leave; March of 1991 is when they arrived in America. He quickly landed a part-time job as an assistant to the technical director in the Smith College drama program, where he found unexpected support overcoming the challenges of starting fresh in a new country. “When my first junky car broke down,” he says, still expressing astonishment about it, “my boss handed me the keys to his pickup truck,” an extra family car the boss didn’t need. Meanwhile, students at the all-female school helped him learn to speak English. He would point to things in the shop—“dustbin, broom, screwdriver”—and they’d give him the right words. “Slowly,” he says, “over the course of a year, I was able to communicate.”

To better support his family, which by then had added a second child, Gerasimenko initiated a job search that brought him to New Haven, where he was hired in 1993 to be a full-time staff carpenter for the Yale School of Drama. He stayed there for about five years, until he realized he wanted to build things that last longer—much longer—than stage sets. He took gigs “trimming houses and doing remodeling work… I started installing a lot of kitchens, including building cabinets onsite. Then it was a logical transition from working with portable tools on driveways or in people’s basements or garages… to having a full-time shop.”

It took more than a decade, but Gerasimenko secured his first dedicated workshop in 2010, then moved to his current shop, an L-shaped study in organization and efficiency, in 2013. “I just love it,” he says. “If I didn’t have to go out into the world, I would probably spend all my days here. I’d make my apartment smaller, make the shop bigger and just sleep on top of the table saw.”

He shows me an informal portfolio—a series of pictures of the kind you might develop at the drugstore—and identifies some of the many residential, commercial and institutional projects he’s done: “a dining room table, a pastry case for Manjares, a receptionist desk, a couple of doors made from reclaimed lumber, a TV cabinet, a window seat, a deck, a desk with bookshelves for the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, cabinetry for a mud room, a [home] library…” His knowledge, experience and talent, he says, lie not just in crafting a vast array of fine wooden elements but also in optimizing the spaces for which those elements are destined—a skill he attributes to his many years working as a set builder.

You can see that ability in the way Gerasimenko has managed to organize his own immensely complicated workshop. Extending high and low around much of the perimeter, shelves, cubbies, chests and wall mounts, often custom-made, hold countless tools, accessories, boards, samples and other materials. At one end, heavy machines—a planer, a shaper, a band saw, a line boring machine, a wide belt sander—stand on casters, ready to be moved around if needed. At the other end are two worktables, one quite large and both with plenty of storage. In the middle, the aforementioned table saw can expand to handle massive planks of wood. “It took three guys and a lot of swearing to put this monster in the shop,” he says. “And it weighs almost 2,000 pounds. I had to open up and reinforce the floor.” Another danger—sawdust, with its penchant for getting everywhere—is held in check by a tubular dust collection system.

Flush with raw lumber and industrial components, it’s not a space that should be beautiful, but beautiful it is. When it comes to making wood look good, it seems, Sergei Gerasimenko just can’t help it.

SMG Woodworking
425 West Rock Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 804-1029 | sermger@yahoo.com
www.smgwoodworking.com

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped very much by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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