This story is part of ELLE’s America Redefined series. To read the full series, click here.
After successfully hunting down “Cat Alley,” supposedly one of the hotspots in Manchester, New Hampshire, an alley showcasing street art of…cats, I sat in the rental for a few minutes. Manchester was my thirty-second city. The idea of wandering backstreets and squares hoping someone would speak to me, or going to Stark Park, as recommended by the hostess at Don Quijote restaurant, held no appeal. This evening was chilly, and it was getting late. I was spent.
Still, there I was in the alley, by my lonesome. Again.
I took to Instagram to see what was happening around me and found Aaron Kinne’s page dedicated to their fine woodworking studio: “Statement pieces for powerful queers; Trans-feminine craft-ship; DM for sales or commission requests; They/them.” One DM, five text messages, and ten minutes later, I had downed the rest of my weak Marriott coffee and was headed to their workshop, five minutes from Cat Alley.
Aaron was about six-foot-three, with fine silky hair, draped in Dexter Morgan’s garb. Only theirs was stained with sawdust. It wasn’t sketch at all. Aaron formally greeted me and, within seconds, instructed me about their proper pronouns. Thank the lawd I didn’t assume. I can be so quick with a casual dude, bruh, or girl here and there. It reminded me to get better with that in general—asking people their preferred pronouns.
The shop was about the size of a two-car garage. I had never seen so much wood in my life. Man. Shelves stacked high with boards and scraps and logs. There were tools: a belt sander “for shaping and sanding,” a 6-inch jointer “for flattening stock,” a 10-inch radial arm saw “for cross-cutting and ripping,” a drill press, and hand planes “for flattening pieces wider than 6 inches.”
The concrete floor had cracks in it like it was still being constructed. There was a ginormous Laguna Bandsaw—a tool used to slice wood—in the back. And more pieces of wood…sticking out from everywhere.
I tiptoed to get around the space. Bumping into one thing or another. To my eye, which likes order, it was a disaster zone. But I think to Aaron, everything was perfectly in place.
They collected a whole lot of wood. Oak. Hydrangea. Birch. Lilac. Maple. Walnut.
“From the roadside, or repurposed from antiques,” they said. “It’s a lot cheaper and a lot more interesting than buying wood. There are a lot of woods that stores don’t just sell. I only buy wood if I need specific dimensions or quantities.”
Aaron walked over to one of their three workbenches (that they made), towards the back of the workshop. “Like this,” they said, pointing inside the log they had just picked up. The back of their hand ran down the wood’s body. I looked closer. “This is a spalted linden,” they said. This is one of the ones they recently got off the street.
“I have no clue what that means,” I told them, eyes locked with theirs, dead stare.
I’m so dense, I thought. Should I have known what a spalted linden was? To me, it was merely blue and oh so pretty. Their eyes met in a brief smile as they explained: The wood is from a linden tree, and it’s spalted. It became discolored for any number of reasons—exposure to certain temperatures, or a fungus inside the wood, or insects. The result is a mesmerizing pattern of divots and squiggles and dots and lines, which interact with the natural grain of the wood.
This piece could become earrings, or maybe they’d use it on one of their commissioned projects that ranged from caddies to desks. “I’m processing a lot of it, just chopping it up and seeing what I even have.”
Aaron has been working with wood their whole adult life. “I’m a botanist,” they said, “so I know about all the plants.” A tattoo on their left upper arm says compost when dead. For five and a half years, they worked for Greenlife Garden Supply, a specialty store in Manchester that sold hard-to-find specialty equipment, until the shop closed in 2019.
“So I was like, ‘What do I do?’”
Shortly after, Aaron attended an exhibit called “Gender Bending Fashion” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and felt drawn to the jewelry they saw. The exhibition was all about redefining gender conventions and amplifying the LGBTQIA+ community through art. They bought a pair of wooden earrings. “And that’s what started it off.”
When the garden shop’s closure left them out of work, Aaron began making jewelry in their bedroom, selling to friends and on Instagram. Shortly after, a friend “very graciously let me move into his barn and start a workshop.” It was a little ramshackle when they moved in, but they’ve fixed it up quite nicely.
From the start of their new venture, Aaron channeled a lot of artistic energy into supporting the trans community. In 2020, that mission became more important to them, and they expanded their outreach to include the Black Lives Matter movement. A July Instagram post read: “If you are a person or organization working towards abolition or to further the Black Lives Matter movement and need access to a workshop, DM me.”
“The government has kind of abandoned us,” Aaron told me. “Especially Black trans people. I don’t know how many murders there have been because I’ve kind of stopped keeping count. Once a week, there’ll be a post of another trans person or other black trans person killed.”
They stood in front of a workbench that held a large saw. Above it, orange and green wires intermingled with a wooden ladder plastered to the wall. Their veined, strong hands directed and measured their words.
“I feel like Black trans people are betrayed the most. Like, they are actively wished harm upon,” they said. “With all the protests and whatnot, I think people are just paying more attention to it. It’s always been this bad.”
Most trans people that Aaron followed or that followed them on social media were struggling in some way: with discrimination, with housing, with loneliness. A sense of community—being with each other in person, attending events, supporting each other—that’s so vital to so many people Aaron knew had been wiped out by the pandemic.
“There used to be a poetry night in Manchester. And it was like, if you’re queer in Manchester, you went. It was like that one place, every Thursday night, everyone got together and had fun,” they said. “It doesn’t exist anymore. It went online, and then it kind of petered out. There’s only so many things you can do online. If you want to have community, you have to be around people. Even with friendships, dating, no one can get together physically. I feel like the queer community is so based off of family and being around one another. And that’s just gone.”
The stereotypes against the community haven’t gotten better either. “I’ve been called fag. I’ve had people stop on the street and stare at me. I’ve had people park their cars and look out the window at me as I walked down the sidewalk. And interacting with people like that, it’s hard. Who knows, maybe if I came out to all of these strangers, it’d be fine? But experience tells me it wouldn’t be.”
Aaron recently started working at a big-box store, first in the garden department and now in deliveries (they prefer garden), to help financially while they grow their business. There they are surrounded by strangers, though they know some queer people who work there too. Even with that, it was difficult for Aaron to feel accepted. “I felt uncomfortable coming out to my coworkers. I felt uncomfortable presenting as myself. I’ll go into work and people will come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, bro, what’s going on?’ And I’m like, I’m not a man.”
Their employer has helped with Aaron’s coming-out process. “They were like, ‘Oh, that’s fine, we’ll send out an email. We’d tell everyone,’” they said. “Whether or not all the managers paid attention to that email and whether or not anyone actually uses my proper pronouns, that’s a different story.”
The pandemic canceled all the industry markets that are so important to Aaron’s business. Last November, they had four shows in one month where they “did very well, and I was looking forward to this year.” Shows are trying to be online, but they don’t know how that will work, if even at all. One of their favorite shows from last year was the Western Mass Queer Makers Market in Easthampton, Massachusetts, a market that promotes LGBTQIA+ artists and creators.
“I make art specifically for trans people,” they said. “I mean, obviously, if you’re not trans, I’d still sell to you. But my art is specifically brutalist. When I make these things, in my mind there’s like just some beautiful queer person wearing it—which doesn’t stop the Bedford moms from buying them.”
The large cutting bandsaw machine remained in my vantage point the entire time Aaron and I stood in different pockets of the cracked shop floor. “Can you show me how that works?” I pointed to the Laguna. Aaron was waiting for this question, I think, all evening.
I was excited. I’d never been this close to anything this wild. Then again, everything about Aaron had been fascinating. From the junkyard of a workshop (I’m sure it’s a treasure trove to people who gush over wood), their calculated responses, to their beautiful, well-defined features—as I snapped them, mask-less and from a distance, I kept thinking, This is one pretty human.
They grabbed a jagged mid-sized log from the floor. Mini-toss up in the air. It’s the right one. Plugged in the machine. As they did, the candescent bulb hanging from the ceiling accented their sharp jawline, behind their blue mask.
Clinnnnk. They removed the silver fence from the bandsaw: “It holds the piece of wood in place while cutting it, so you have a flat reference,” Aaron said. The log they had selected was too big and oddly shaped to use the fence.
“It’s going to be a little loud,” they warned.
They placed their hand over the green-lit button. Brrruuum-brrruuum-BRRRRRRRR. It was loud. Painfully piercing. I stepped closer anyway. The flat, smooth side of the log sat on the base of the machine. Aaron pushed it all the way through the pulsating blade in the middle. (This was super dope. This city girl, raised on the streets of the South Bronx, was all, I may take up wooding?)
Seconds later, Aaron slapped the green button again. Not a word or a glimpse my way. They were all about that wood.
They studied the bigger piece, viewing it from the freshly-cut side, angled. They ran their hands through it, turning and analyzing it on all sides. Looked good.
Here was an outsider, someone who rarely felt at home in the world, having found a place. Somewhere they felt comfortable, where they could lose themselves in a piece of wood, in the noise and smell of their shop, in the grain of an oak board. It made me happy for them, that they had this.