For more than three decades, artisan Bien Brignoni has been working with local mahogany, hand crafting one of a kind sculptures and furniture, turning bowls and doing restoration.
Brignoni, 77 years-old with a real gift of gab, was not always an artist.
He operated a grocery store in Christiansted, was a successful salesman, and owned Don Quijote restaurant and bar in Gallows Bay. He said he enjoyed those jobs, but there was always something in the back of his mind telling him to try something different.
“Let me tell you a short story,” Brignoni said numerous times during a recent interview. And his tales were definitely not short.
Back in 1983, while he was at work in the restaurant, something in his head told him to go find a book. He added he was not sure what book he was looking for. While browsing in the local bookstore he picked up a book on woodworking and decided to give it a try.
He was so enthused with woodworking he sold the restaurant and set up a woodworking shop at 76 Tan Tan Terrace. Since then he has purchased more books and subscriptions to woodworking magazines, and read everything he could on woodworking.
“It was a miracle I found the right book,” Brignoni said with a wide smile. “I love woodworking.”
Brignoni uses local woods, such as mahogany, teak, neem, lignum vitae, tan tan. He adds he does not pay for wood because people give it to him or he cuts trees for the public and keeps the wood in return for the service.
“I think St. Croix has the best mahogany in the world,” Brignoni said.
He added there are 14 different kinds of mahogany on St. Croix, but only one is native.
“Woodworking is now my bread, butter and cheese," Brignoni said. “To tell you the truth, I’m not getting rich.”
He said he had to make room in his shop, so he recently sold, at rock bottom prices, items he had been commissioned to do that people had not picked up.
A few years ago he made two large mahogany chairs for the University of Boston, he said, adding he gets a lot of his work through word of mouth.
Brignoni is committed to teaching others, in particular young people, hoping someone will continue the woodworking art and culture of the Virgin Islands.
He is always a presenter at the St. Croix Career and Technical Education Center annual Career Fair and Open House and Men’s Carousel, demonstrating and talking about his work. He also gives demonstrations, and displays his work at the annual Woodworker’s Expo at the University of the Virgin Islands.
Brignoni has mentored a few students he hopes will continue the craft. He is adamant about teaching how to handle tools correctly and safely. His main focus is teaching the wood turning of bowls, vases and candle holders, which he has a passion for.
“I tell students to study and research what they want to be tomorrow,” Brignoni said. “For people to be successful and happy they need to find work they love to do. And they need to do it well.”
Cenita Heywood, media specialist at the Career and Technical Education Center, said Brignoni has been instrumental in encouraging students at CTEC and the community to share and appreciate his love and expertise for woodcraft.
“Mr. Brignoni has even gone so far as to teach anyone willing to learn to come to his wood shop and gain some one-on-one hands-on training. I personally took advantage of this and brought along some young teens anxious to learn. They continued to visit him on their own afterwards and made several wood products that they were quite proud of,” Heywood said.
“It was without hesitation that the CTEC school honored Mr. Brignoni at the last Career Fair and thanked him publicly for his time and talents, which have been a benefit to hundreds of school personnel and the community throughout the years. He is a blessing to us all,” Heywood said.
Brignoni was born on St. Croix in 1936 to Don Francisco Brignoni and Juanita Torres Rivera de Brignoni. Brignoni is Italian, Japanese and Puerto Rican. His parents moved from Vieques to St. Croix in 1926.
He attended Catholic school in Christiansted, until he was kicked out for bad behavior in third grade.
He said he couldn’t recall what he did that was so bad to warrant the punishment he got, holding bricks above his head. He and his cousin, also being punished, decided to get back at the nun – which he knows is something he should not have done.
He said the first time he wanted to quit school he was in the fifth grade. His father said he should at least learn a trade, so he hung around a day and watched boys working for the local joiner. They made a mistake cutting a board and the cabinet maker beat them with a hot oiled handsaw.
“No way was I going to learn the trade from him,” Brignoni said. He completed his education through the tenth grade. “Everything I have learned is by experience,” Brignoni said.
Brignoni enjoys photography, fishing, boating and playing pool in his free time. On Sundays he goes out for a joy ride along the south shore on his motorcycle. He has been happily married to Victoria Brignoni for 48 years and they have a daughter and six grandchildren.
“Apparently the skill at woodworking was naturally in me,” Brignoni said. “I never went to anyone to ask for help. I just read about it and go by the books I have.”
More information on learning woodworking with Brignoni or for custom designed items and restoration can be obtained by calling 1-340-778-5608.