When artist Brian Trainor drove through a warehouse area in South Dade recently, after getting his car repaired, he never expected to look inside one of the units and see his former college professor hard at work handcrafting wooden canoes.
“I looked in and there’s this guy building boats. As an artist I first noticed the templates on the wall,” Trainor said. “I drove slow and then I saw him.”
His professor, John Zeien, worked at Miami Dade College for 38 years helping hundreds of students pursue their dreams. Zeien taught Introduction to Education for 16 years and before that he was Director of Student Life and Assistant Dean of Students.
Over the years he had made a huge impression on many. And when it came time to retire he decided to go back to woodworking, a hobby he started in college. Along the way he had discovered the art of building wooden canoes.
“This is a process of striving for the perfect boat and there’s no such thing. Not when you’re a boat builder,” said Zeien, 70.
Surrounded by tools, many donated, pattern charts and different colored wood hanging from the walls, Zeien said he has been in his warehouse space less than a year.
Leslie, his wife of 46 years, is happy he is out of the garage, driveway and yard of their Cutler Bay home. She helps out by making the wicker seats for the canoes.
“Making the woven seats is kind of satisfying,” she said. “You have to concentrate.”
Zeien also makes paddles out of leftover wood from each boat.
“They start out as chunks of wood on a stick,” Leslie Zeien said. “He likes it. I don’t get it.”
The paddles are works of art, too. It is difficult to see the division between stick and wood chunk. They are smooth and shiny with strips of wood in varying colors just like the canoes.
The boats and paddles look like they are from another century. In fact, Zeien got started in boat-building when he rebuilt a 12-foot, 1850s Atlantic rowing dory at the WoodenBoat School in Maine. His wife gave him the project as a birthday present in 1994.
It was through the Maine experience that he met legendary boat builder Henry A. "Mac" McCarthy who quickly became his teacher, coach and mentor. McCarthy invited Zeien to his workshop back in Sarasota, where he made the elegant wooden canoes known as Wee Lassies.
“He was going to teach a class in Wee Lassies and he told me he had a workshop. That’s where I learned,” Zeien said. His mentor is missed. McCarthy passed away in 2011, but Zeien continues to pay forward the lessons he learned. Now, he wants to help others build wooden boats too.
“I’m not a school, but if someone is interested. There’s just not enough of that anymore,” he said of apprenticeship. Prospective boat builders need to “just call and make sure I’m home.”
In his warehouse, there are five boats in various states of completion. When canoes are finished he and his wife take them down to Key Largo to make sure they are water-tested. While they look heavy, the Wee Lassies are actually about 60 pounds. The kayak is easy to lift at 45 pounds. The weight comes mostly from the five to six coats of varnish.
Zeien said his boats are recreational and not for competition.
“But each one is an adventure for me,” he said.