When The Cabin, Idaho’s premier literary organization, announced Kurt Zwolfer as its new executive director in October, a few eyebrows went up.
You mean the history museum guy?
“Yeah, people immediately want to know my literary background,” he says with a laugh. “It does exist. I got a degree in creative writing and a minor in film, and that was going to be my career, but since then I’ve had a curvy, strange journey to get here.”
Zwolfer, 47, took over The Cabin in October after a national search to replace Britt Udesen, who left to head The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
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Career paths often take an indirect trajectory that sometimes makes more sense in retrospect. The twists of Zwolfer’s scenic route through literature, science and eduction have landed this even-keeled and affable guy in the exact spot for him to employ his experience and skills.
Zwolfer grew up in Lombard, Ill., a suburban town west of Chicago, fantasizing about a life as a filmmaker or novelist. He married his high school sweetheart Danielle after they both attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — he earned a degree in rhetoric, writing and film; she got her degree in marketing. They tied the knot and launched their dreams together right after graduation.
I wanted to write novels, short stories and screenplays
Kurt Zwolfer, The Cabin executive director
“But after four of five years of unloading trucks and sending stories to agents, I decided to do something else,” Zwolfer says. “It was just too hard a life for me.”
With that choice made, he turned to his second love and began taking science courses at a community college. That brought up a whole new set of opportunities. He traveled to Hawaii to research birds and to Alaska to rehabilitate salmon habitat. He eventually ended up at the Illinois Raptor Center, working to rehab birds of prey. All of that hands-on experience brought him to Boise State University’s Raptor Research Center to earn a master’s degree in raptor biology.
“I brought Danielle out here and didn’t know if we were going to stay, but we both fell in love with Boise,” he says. Danielle now teaches fourth grade at Sage International School.
Zwolfer studied, taught at BSU for three years and was in the midst of his thesis when he and Danielle learned she was pregnant with their twin daughters, Trixie and Vivian, who are now 16.
“I needed to get a job fast,” he says.
Zwolfer became the educator at the Observatory at Bruneau Dunes State Park, which had just opened in 1999. He set up the curriculum for its nature and history programs and discovered a deep love of teaching. He transferred all his credits to BSU’s education department and graduated with a master’s in curriculum and instruction.
His next job took him to the Idaho State Historical Museum, where he served as the director of education and visitor services from 2002 to 2015. He worked with staff, volunteers, teachers and schoolchildren, and helped develop education programs and exhibits.
He also got a chance to show his artistic side. He collaborated with the Consulado de México en Boise and area artists to produce an annual Dia de los Muertos — or Day of the Dead — art installation and celebration at the museum.
He dabbles in art occasionally and in 2012 created one of the city’s traffic box murals — the one at Hill Road and 36th Street, which was removed with the construction of a new traffic circle.
“What I found moving through these jobs is if you can’t create art full time, the next best thing is working with artists,” he says. “It’s tricky, and there are a different set of skills you need rather than being an artist. It’s fun and it’s satisfying, trying to create something on a communitywide level.”
The Cabin is the perfect venue for that.
Soon after Zwolfer started his Cabin position in October, he approached the Boise Art Museum to propose future joint projects.
“They were like, ‘We have the perfect thing right now,’ ” Zwolfer says.
The museum was putting together “Tall Tales: Narratives from the Permanent Collection,” focusing on art pieces that tell a story. Zwolfer and The Cabin staff paired selected artwork with local writers, who wrote a short poem or piece of fiction inspired by that piece of art. Then the two organizations co-produced a reading series to bring some of the writers to BAM to read their work in front of the art. There are two more installments in the “Tall Tales” reading series, on Sept. 22 and Jan. 19.
Now, Zwolfer is working on other partnerships with The Rediscovered Bookshop, Boise Contemporary Theater and other groups.
What was the first thing you wanted to do when you took this job?
The biggest mistake I see new directors make is they try to prove themselves by overturning everything, and to make their mark. The Cabin is a successful organization. It has 20 years of strong support from the community; the founders created some great programs. My job isn’t to overthrow anything. It’s to perfect and tweak and keep those programs going. That said, there is vision for the future, too, and that involves more collaboration.
I’ve said in the past that it’s something that works really well in Boise. You go to bigger cities, like Portland or Seattle, and they do collaborate, but they are very protective, and egos get in the way. What I’ve found, working at the Historical Museum in the past, is that all you have to do is ask and usually someone will collaborate.
What drives you each day?
Being part of a community, being part of something bigger than myself and working toward a shared goal. The Cabin’s success is the result of immeasurable time and energy expended by current and former staff, board members, writers, patrons, sponsors and volunteers. It is easy to come into work each morning when you work at a place that has such strong community support. That’s exciting to me.
What are you reading?
I love to read and I want to be prepared for the authors who visit for our Readings & Conversations. I’m currently reading “TransAtlantic,” an older Colum McCann novel, and some Aimee Bender.
All the writers this year are pretty exciting. I owe the writers and the audience (to) ... know the scope of work by each author. I find it’s illuminating to read their older books. You can learn a lot about them and get a sense of how their style might have changed over time. I always start with a book that is their least known.
If you weren’t working at The Cabin, what would you be doing?
There was a time in my late 20s when I was sure I was going to end up a bird biologist, working with Western screech owls. I did my thesis on them. It’s not a bird you see often; you have to know where and when to look. I’m currently studying them along the Greenbelt. There’s a few right now that I check in on. During the day they’re tucked into a tree. Right at dusk you’ll hear a lot of owl noises if you know what to listen for. I think I could easily slip back into that profession.
What do you do for fun (i.e., what do you do to relieve stress)?
Every Sunday morning my wife, our two 16-year-old daughters and I go to a coffee shop and play board games. We started it when the girls were little. We didn’t know that this tradition would continue and they still would want to go with us every weekend. Our weekdays are usually frantic, and this weekend ritual is often the only time the four of us get to hang out as a family. We love playing Catan; it’s a game about city building.
Who or what inspires you?
I take inspiration as it comes to me. You can find it everywhere — in your co-workers, on a walk on the Greenbelt. People do kind and wonderful things all the time.
If you want to be inspired, you just have to be looking for it.
Kurt Zwolfer, The Cabin executive director
What three movies would you most like to watch on a trans-Atlantic flight?
My mother is a big Cary Grant fan so I fell in love with classic screwball comedies at a young age. “His Girl Friday” (1940), “Bringing up Baby” (1938) and “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944) would make the time go fast on a long flight.
Do you have a mentor?
My father, Karl, has always been calm and kind, even in the most difficult circumstances. When I get into stressful situations, I try to channel his natural even-handedness. He worked for years in what I thought was a brutal job: negotiating labor contracts in the phone industry. He never raised his voice. I’m not necessarily that even-handed and relaxed, but I try.
Where do you like to take out-of-town guests?
For a hike in the Boise Foothills. It is fun to show visitors that all it takes is a short walk, and you can leave the boundaries of the city and you have this natural world at your feet. You can look for wildflowers, mammals, reptiles. That’s one reason Boise is a magical place to live. There aren’t too many places in the U.S. like this today.
Are you a dog or a cat person? Wine or beer?
Even though The Cabin has a resident dog (a little shih tzu named Bean), I’m more of a cat person. Our 20-year-old cat Mingo just passed away. Now we have Jinx the cat. Cats match my lifestyle. They’re the perfect animal for sitting around reading.
I prefer beer to wine, but honestly black coffee is my drink of choice. I love a good indie coffee shop, and we have one on every single block. I just make the rounds. I love to work, read and talk to people. Each one is its own little social hub.
In all of history, with whom would you most like to dine?
Dinner conversation is always better when you invite witty guests. How about Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx?
What is on your bedside reading table?
I like to read in bed, but I never last long once my head hits the pillow, so short-story collections seem to work best. I’m currently rereading an old favorite: Barry Yourgrau’s “A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane.”
What’s on your playlist?
Playlist? Even after six months I haven’t quite moved into my office. The only personal items near my desk are a record player and stack of vinyl records. Lately I’ve been listening to Brian Eno’s “Another Green World” and Horse Feathers’ “Words Are Dead.”
What is your guilty pleasure?
This is going to sound a bit nerdy, but I enjoy learning the Latin names of plants and animals. Field guides — I love them. It goes back to my biology days. The names are beautiful, and if you think about what they mean, you get a deeper understanding of our relationship to objects. Humans have a need to classify things. For example, when I worked at Bruneau, I learned all the constellations. I find it satisfying to be able to understand and identify something.
About The Cabin
The Cabin became a nonprofit in 1996 when it was known as the Log Cabin Literary Center, in the same historic log cabin where it exists today at 801 S. Capitol Blvd., Boise. It runs a variety of programs, including Writers in the Schools, yearlong residencies for professional writers in schools across the Treasure Valley, and Readings & Conversations, a lecture series that brings nationally known writers to Boise to discuss their work.
It also runs dozens of summer writing camps for kids in collaboration with other groups, such as Boise Parks and Recreation, Zoo Boise, Boise Rock School and, new this year, Boise Bicycle Project. It also creates a forum for local writers and readers to meet and talk.
The Cabin’s 2016-’17 Readings & Conversations series
Talks are at 7:30 p.m. (except Gloria Steinem’s at 8 p.m.). Cabin members get first shot at series tickets; they go on sale to the public on Wednesday, June 15. Series packages range from $50 for standing room only to $325 for front row. Single tickets go on sale in July if available. Become a member or buy series tickets at TheCabinIdaho.org.
▪ Gloria Steinem, one of the most powerful voices for women’s rights and contemporary American culture, will speak on Monday, Sept. 19, at the Morrison Center, 2201 Cesar Chavez Drive, Boise. Her talk will be preceded by The Cabin’s 6th annual dinner and gala fundraiser on the Morrison Center stage. Gala tickets will be $127 and will go on sale in the coming weeks.
▪ U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera will speak on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, at the Egyptian.
▪ Best-selling short story writer and National Book Award finalist Lauren Groff will talk at the Egyptian on Thursday, April 13, 2017.