Religious studies shape cabinetmaker’s writing and life

by Nancy Hiller, BA’93, MA’96

photo of alum Nancy Hiller

Probably like many majors, I got into Religious Studies by happy chance. I wanted to start taking one class a semester, just to keep my mind alive. At the time, my husband and I were living in a Brown County backwater where we ran our furniture and cabinet-making business. Because I wasn’t enrolled as a full-time student, I got the last dregs of classes to choose from at registration. One with space available caught my eye: “Religion, Medicine, and Suffering in the West.” Robert Orsi, a longtime member of the faculty, was the instructor. As soon as he began describing his course, I was hooked. It profoundly challenged my taken-for-granted worldview and ignited my enthusiasm to learn more.

Other department faculty members with whom I worked closely were Stephen Stein, James Hart, Richard Miller, and David Smith. The quality of the teaching in the Religious Studies Department was beyond compare at Indiana University, especially at the undergraduate level. I found in the Religious Studies Department a rare, and proper, emphasis on written work, which I appreciate demands considerably more of faculty members than do multiple-choice exams. I also found the faculty to be extraordinarily generous with their time, with encouragement, and with constructive criticism.

Although I had planned to go on to doctoral studies, I decided after a wrenching struggle that I would not. At the age of 35, I had an unusual resumé that combined years of professional cabinetmaking with a master’s degree in Religious Studies (a subject that is appallingly misunderstood beyond Sycamore Hall). After months of job-searching, I decided to set up a furniture-making shop in my damp, dark basement. (Nasty. A river really did run through it!)

Over the years I have worked hard to cultivate a niche, at the local and national levels, for the kind of work I like to do - that is, designing and making furniture and built-in cabinetry for houses from the late-19th century into the mid-20th.

In an effort to expand my opportunities for work, I gave a lecture at the Restoration and Renovation Conference in Baltimore in 2002 on designing rooms for small old houses. After my talk, the editor of one of my favorite old house magazines approached me and invited me to join her for dinner; she wanted to get to know me because she, too, had an academic background in religious studies. The following year she published the first of several essays and feature articles I have now written for niche magazines at the national level, all of which bring my training in ethics to bear on such issues as taste, neighborhood preservation, and the meanings of home.

My religious studies background was also enormously beneficial when I was asked to write a book on Hoosier cabinets for the IU Press, The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History. In my research and writing for the book, I had Religious Studies faculty (Stephen Stein and Kathryn Lofton) as conversation partners — literally and figuratively. Not only did I learn the research skills, discipline, and habits of mind required to write a book-length manuscript, but because of my training, I paid close attention to the historical and social context of my subject matter. In particular, my training both in cabinetmaking and in religious studies attuned me to the deeply embodied meaning and experience of household labor and the way in which notions of domestic happiness were bound up with Christian ideals.

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