Jen Holsten ’86 trades coaching for carpentry by starting Bear Isle Boards
After 25 years instilling confidence, skill, and strength in scores of young athletes, Jen Holsten has shifted her focus inward, and shaped—and sourced, sanded, and smoothed—a dynamic new version of herself.
Holsten, a 1986 Williston graduate and longtime Colby College soccer coach, now runs Bear Isle Board Co., maker of handmade cutting and serving boards. Sourced from a network of New England wood dealers committed to sustainable forest management practices, and made without joinery, Holsten’s boards highlight the beauty of the natural material, including six types of maple, cherry, walnut, and sycamore. Part of her artistry in creating each individual piece, Holsten said, is “getting out of the way and letting the wood speak for itself.”
Her boards can be found in retail stores all over the northeast, including the flagship L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine, an accomplishment that impressed even her 13-year-old daughter.
With each Bear Isle board, Holsten, 52, is, in a very tangible way, honoring her family. At the same time, she’s acknowledging and empowering herself, carving out a life in a part of the world she never planned on entering. Holsten’s journey to Bear Isle Boards was a circuitous one that began with an early fascination with woodworking that didn’t come to fruition for many decades.
When she was a child, her grandfather, George Holsten, used birdseye maple in renovating a bedroom of the family’s East Bear Island cottage, on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. “I was so blown away by the beauty of it,” she recalled. That beauty stuck with her.
But, as a Williston day student from seventh grade on, Holsten was not a natural artist. Instead, she found her footing as a three-sport athlete, playing soccer, ice hockey, and softball. She brought that athletic prowess to Colby College, where she continued as a triple-threat athlete, graduated in 1990, and then returned in 1994 to begin what would become a 22-year career as the Head Women’s Soccer coach. (She remains friends with Jen Fulcher, Director of the Middle School, who was Middlebury’s Women’s Soccer coach when Holsten was at Colby.)
In the early 2000s, after a particularly bad year for the team, “I realized a lot of my emotions and daily pattern would live or die by the success of the team,” she said. “I got to the point where I no longer wanted that to define who I was. I wanted a little more control over my own destiny on a daily basis.”
To that end, Holsten decided to enroll in the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine. She took beginner and intermediate classes, and studied with top names in the industry, but she did not have any professional ambitions. Instead, she found herself bringing the skill and solace she learned in the woodshop back to coaching.
“After a tough loss, on a Sunday I’d carve spoons just to get out the bad juju,” she said. “Woodworking kept me sane.”
It also, in the long run, became a portal for her to practice what she had been preaching to others her entire professional life.
“I was teaching all these young athletes how to be the best version of themselves,” Holsten said. “I decided it was time for me to be the best version of myself.”
Holsten said she identified for so long as an athlete and coach that she gets a “secret chuckle when I think of myself as an artist.” But her work is not a joke: Bear Isle Boards have received numerous accolades—including recent profiles in the Boston Globe and Décor Maine magazine, as well as honorable mention for best new product at the 2019 New England Made Giftware show.
“When I started getting accolades for the woodworking, it didn’t feel real,” she said. There was no marketing department, no PR machine. “It all came from me as a tribute to my grandfather.”
Though this second career is relatively new, Holsten has her sights set on another passion: learning guitar.
“I always thought to myself, ‘You’re not a musician,’” she said. “I think that’s going to be my next pursuit.”