The Questions -July 2017
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Evan Schwanfelder has been on the island just over a year. After serving as a museum educator and site interpreter for the summer at the Nantucket Historical Association, the avid fisherman and musician was hired full-time to be the NHA’s manager of education.
How did you end up in Nantucket? What brought you here?
One of my best friends from college, Jack Killen, is from Nantucket. I had always visited him out here in the summer during school and after we graduated. Over those years the island became a really special place for me. Last spring Jack had his wedding out here, and it had been a few years since I had returned for a visit. I was single at the time, living and teaching in Connecticut, when out of the blue I met an amazing woman at Jack’s wedding, a dear friend of his that he grew up with. The stars aligned. I came out to visit her pretty much every weekend between when we met and the end of my school year. I decided to move out full-time to be with my girlfriend and see where the summer would take us. It’s been one of the best years yet and I can’t wait for many more to come. To answer the question more simply, I fell in love with a girl from Nantucket, the beautiful and talented photographer, Katie Kaizer.
What made you first become involved with the Nantucket Historical Association?
When I decided to move out here I knew I wanted to have a job for the summer and work in some capacity with Nantucket’s history. I love “Moby-Dick” and tore through Nathanial Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea,” and the few times I visited as a kid I always remembered the whaling museum. I really just asked Katie, “Hey, do you know anyone at the whaling museum who might be able to help me find a summer gig?” The rest fell into place pretty quickly. Katie knew Marjan Shirzad at the NHA, put us in touch over the phone, and after a whirlwind conversation I was basically hired as a museum educator and site interpreter. The little twist to the story is that not too far along into the interview Marjan mentioned that there was a full-time manager of education position open, and half-jokingly, if I didn’t want to leave Nantucket it might be a really good fit for me. Well ... it was. I applied for the position last September after a great summer with the NHA, and couldn’t be happier with the job, the organization and the great people I get to work with every day.
Who did you look up to or see as a mentor?
I am really thankful to have a few mentors who have guided me along the way. Number one, my mom and dad. Both are lovers of history and the outdoors. My dad taught me to work with my hands helping out with his tree business over the years. He taught me to fish, which I am forever thankful for. I think my mom and her wonderful personality imbued in me the patience it takes to be a good teacher and to work well with children. My college advisor, Steve Beckham, from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., showed me how to be a good historian and encouraged me to pursue history and education as a career. And finally, my old boss, dear friend and mentor from my fishing days in Wyoming, Jeff Currier. He led by example, and showed by what life looks like when you follow your passions with heart and tenacity.
What would you like to see in the future for the NHA?
I think the NHA is at an amazing place right now. Having been here for just a year, it amazes me on a daily basis what the organization does as a cultural center for the year-round residents and island visitors alike. At this point I can speak to what I see for the future of the NHA’s educational programing. We will continue refining and upgrading our legacy programs such as our fourth-grade sleep-overs, Museum in My School programming, our Discovery Room crafts and activities, including Hands on History and Winter Discovery Days. We hope to cultivate even closer ties with other educational organizations on Nantucket to give the best educational experiences possible to all of the children that live and visit here.
What was the best advice you have received?
Early in high school I had a wonderful old humanities teacher for an introductory general-studies class. The very first thing he told us in a very deep, direct voice that I can still hear in my head today was “Nothing, that is worth a damn, comes easy.”
As manager of education, what impact would you like to have on the NHA, interacting with the public?
I really want adults and children alike to see how history comes alive on this island. To pay attention to how it surrounds us in the landscapes, in the architecture and in the people. The stories that go back thousands of years to the first indigenous people can still be felt here. I want people to feel the presence of those stories and then explore the storytelling on their own. The whaling museum, our properties and the stories they tell are a great starting point for this. In particular, I love seeing kids light up when they make a connection to an actual artifact that they get to see, feel and explore. One of my favorite things to do is take the objects from our collections into the schools and watch each student light up as they get to touch a piece of history and make that connection. In the future I would love to explore more about how we can get great objects into their hands so they can literally feel the history here.
What are three of your biggest concerns on the island that need to be addressed?
I am still new to the island, having just hit the one-year mark of living here year-round, so I am still becoming familiar with the different challenges that the community faces. What becomes very clear is how precious finite resources are to an island. Questions about balance of housing and open spaces, clean water in our harbors and a healthy ecosystem in general become more pressing in my mind. I am an avid fisherman and have become interested in the current efforts to protect the island’s waters, especially through the efforts of my girlfriend’s father Pete Kaizer, who I have great conversations with about the current state of Nantucket’s fisheries and the history of Nantucket fishing. He is a trove of amazing information, and tells a killer story too.
What's your favorite way to relax on the island?
I love driving out to Great Point or heading out to Coatue with a fishing rod close to hand. I really enjoy taking a ride and exploring all the little nooks and crannies of the island. There always seems to be a place I haven’t seen, or stumble upon and say, “wow, I can’t believe this was here.” I grew up playing music as well, guitar, and for the last few years playing stand-up bass in a family bluegrass group. Just playing music with friends is always a good time.
If you could invite six people to dinner, from the past or present, who would you invite?
John Wesley Powell, an amazing geologist and explorer of the American West. Benjamin Worth, an incredibly successful Nantucket whaling captain. His portrait is in the museum and I often think of what it would be like to hear his stories first-hand. Lee Wulff, one of the legends of American fly-fishing. Lastly, I would have three of my favorite musicians: Keith Richards, John Coltrane and Del McCoury just because you know it would get really good.
What's your dream destination?
Some of my favorite trips have been fishing-related and usually take place in some tropical destination. At this point the ultimate trip would be an endless flat in the middle of the Indian Ocean with 10-pound bonefish at every turn.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just started the book “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger, a really interesting look at tribal societies in human history and how the ties to our tribal roots manifest themselves in today’s Western world. In particular, the author looks at the tribal nature of soldiers in war and how those soldiers are affected when they return to mainstream society.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that you don't think most people are aware of.
Over the last few years I really got into metal sculpture. I had a little studio back where I was living in Connecticut and had a blast making sculptures inspired by boats that I love and fish that I love to catch. I also got really into blacksmithing, too, and hand-forging metal, and was lucky enough to score a small forge set-up from our wonderful former NHA director Bill Tramposch, who did a lot of blacksmithing himself. So stay tuned, I hope to get a little studio set up in the near future and perhaps you all will see some work out here on the island soon. ///