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As the Wood Turns: Meet Workhouse Woodturner Artist Patrick O'Brien

Think before you throw that log of wood on the fire! It could be your new breakfast bowl.

Workhouse Arts Center artist Patrick O'Brien is happiest when the classic rock is blasting, the lathe spins and sawdust flies. And why not? It's a welcome relief for O'Brien after a lifetime directing library systems across the country, including the Chicago Central Library and the Alexandria City Public Library system. 

"I tell people to not start wood turning unless they want to get addicted," O'Brien recently told Patch. "One of the best feelings for me is that I can come in here on almost any day without a specific project in mind, pick up a piece of wood and leave here three-to-four hours later with a finished piece."

Things are certainly different for O'Brien now that he's retired. A native of Newport, RI, he received a degree in English Literature from Merrimack College, a Master's in Library Science from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Business from the Weatherhead School of Business.

From 1965-72 he was a research librarian for Newsweek, and then directed the Central Library in Chicago for five years, managed 27 libraries in Cuyahoga County in Cleveland, directed the Dallas Public Library System in Texas for nine years and was the director of the Alexandria City Public Library system for 17 years. 

"What kept me going most of the time was the challenge of taking on greater responsibilities," said O'Brien. "Public libraries are the most Democratic institutions ever created. It doesn't matter who you are, what your station in life is. There is going to be a librarian there to help you." 

But everyone needs a hobby, and in 2001, O'Brien and his wife, Roberta, took a vacation and enrolled in a week-long course in Appalachian culture at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina.  

"From the first day that I turned that lathe on I never turned it off," said O'Brien. 

Two years later, O'Brien started a side business selling wooden bowls, hollow forms, tops and ornaments. He retired in 2008 from the Alexandria Public Library system, and that same year joined the Workhouse Arts Center. His pieces can take between five minutes and five days to make, he said, and range in price from $9 to $500.

"This place is a godsend," O'Brien said. "Every piece I make is an expression of myself, and I feel that every day is a new adventure."

You can see more of Patrick O'Brien's work in building 10 of the Workhouse Arts Center. 

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