Works In Progress

"The artist is not a special kind of man,
but every man is a special kind of artist."

- A. K. Coomaraswamy

The Riddle of Craft

By David Orth

The secret, enduring purpose of craft is to disturb our sleep with an elegant riddle. Deep within the body of a craft an enigma curls and uncurls. There were odd hints all along--little moments when I sensed that craft may not be such a simple, practical pleasure. I saw that I understood tools wrongly. Tools are not only for acting on materials, but also for seeing, listening, and reflecting. With practice even a hammer eventually becomes a kind of combination microscope/stethoscope/mirror. In my approach to the wood, something of my own condition could be seen. Now and then, I sensed that some old tools radiated a rare intelligence from another time and another place. After a few years I realized that craft even had something of astronomy in it. I had to gaze, stalk, study, wait, suffer, gamble, and speculate. Craftsmen, and all lovers of craft, finger secret questions in their hands.

I have come to believe that the fire in the heart of craft is an ongoing search for a connecting bridge between the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of life, between the material and immaterial concerns. At first the potter's questions seem simple enough: "What kind of mud makes for good clay?"   "What is the temperature that will vitrify without slumping?"   However, as the questions pile up, a metaphysical quality appears. Mud, a most "ordinary" thing, touches on the most extraordinary. "What must be brought to the clay, if we are to make a vase?   Tools?   Skills?   Ideas?   Love?   Clay plus what makes a teapot?   How can I prepare for the day I will be asked to shape an urn to hold ashes of the beloved dead?"  

Can the practical and ordinary things in life ever reflect the terrible and delicate beauty of life?   Isn't this the riddle that genuine craft always poses and attempts to answer?   Craft is object and spirit, machine and mystery, and so are we. Craft, like us, includes this organic mixture of stuff, spirit, and latency. I believe craft haunts us because of this resonance with our human condition and the way in which, in some respects, it seems to surpass us. The process and products of serious craft not only remind us of our flaws and limitations but also open our eyes to the surprising stardust glittering throughout.

All fields of knowledge raise or need to raise this question in their own way. Architects concern themselves with the puzzle of space and shelter. Philosophers persistently contrast and link the paradoxes of appearance and reality. The distrust between religion and science happens precisely to the extent that there has been a mutual failure to formulate an organic expression of this riddle. A real craft not only distills this concern into a fairly pure form, but it may be unique in offering the riddle within enough of a physical and functional context that we may explore its strategies with some degree of protection against wishful thinking. In other words, craft offers us real friction in a way that thinking, writing, and drawing cannot. This friction requires of us an obedience to the truth of things. Regardless of our hopeful thinking, our talking, or our creative sketching, a poorly imagined or poorly executed mortise and tenon joint will eventually be seen for the failure it is. In our imagination we draw a chair we think might be comfortable, strong, and elegant. But the actual building of the chair is an instruction in truth--a lesson often uncomfortable and inelegant.

The practice of a difficult craft seems to me to offer insight by analogy into the esoteric problem of meaningful human life. Time and again, work in the shop has offered clear parallels to the muddled conundrums and conflicts of my own life. When something in life is not working, we can study the corresponding moment in craftwork, where the consequences and links are more clear. Life is often felt to be in the teeth of opposite forces and opposing perspectives. We rush to align ourselves with one opinion, opposing another: striving or letting go, trusting the elders or trusting personal experience, the parts or the whole, action or contemplation, compassion or truth, tradition or progress. These apparent conflicts used to concern me deeply. I felt I had to make global, final choices. In the shop, however, I see that a strong passion for one tool is often the beginning of poor judgment--in craft or life. Imagine a furniture shop equipped only with tools for cutting and another shop across town equipped only with tools for assembling. Imagine them in cutthroat competition with each other and spending most of their time disparaging the use of the glue and joints in the first case and the use of saws and chisels in the other. Not only is it likely that the products of both shops would be bizarre and impractical, but time and energy has been wasted. A funny, unlikely picture, and yet, in life we all engage in corresponding enterprises of both a personal and political nature. On the other hand, craft approaches its difficulties practically and precisely, handling a saw in order to make a joint-- each aspect supporting the whole. The glues are kept fresh and the blades always sharp. The mastery of a craft is concrete and relational--not abstract or argumentative. Yes, there are highly critical choices to be made, but they seem to be driven by something more nimble. For the craftsman all tools are needed and ready, but each decisive moment has its own requirement. The craftsman honors action and contemplation equally. The moment activity becomes thoughtless is seen just as readily as the moment when contemplation becomes evasive. The thread of honest craft guides one through these moments.

During the process of imagining and building a table out of the tough, fibrous heart of an old tree , a craftsman manages despair, evasion, anger, obsession, and all the other fractured psychic and spiritual materials of life. When the hand plane is brought to the wood, the craftsman can literally taste the flux of despair and aggression obscuring the process. The hardest lesson is that difficult, scrupulous work pretty much always begins this way and that it is helpful to see these clumsy forces at work in your own self. The public doesn't realize that, far from sailing merrily through these difficulties, the veteran craftsman has endured this ugly lesson many, many times and accepts it as a condition of mastery. There is, of course, an opposing element--a strong hope that the wood might be transformed without violence into the start of a table. This element of hope must be firm but not emotional. If the hope is too passionate the craftsman will talk himself out of important facts that must be seen accurately. The natural, very human, disinclination to suffer the truth in each moment of craft, on every level, is a shadowy thing that haunts the path along the way. In the development of a craftsman--from beginning disasters to patchy accomplishments to excellence and beyond--the surface issues change as time and experience change. Even excellence is only a means. The inner question remains. A willingness to endure the truth (above all about oneself, but also about one's circumstance and product) may ultimately erode this notion of excellence to allow for something even more elusive--something that has been called a "transparency to Being." But we have gotten ahead of ourselves.

What is needed are moments when both the frustration on the one side and the hope on the other are reconciled in an unswerving dedication to the actual situation. With a little attention, the craftsman may witness the specific sequence of inner struggle and relaxation that prepares the way. There has been a necessary struggle and a necessary giving up of the struggle, maybe back-and-forth several times. Finally there is a movement, a kinesthesia of thinking, feeling, and physical action, which is inwardly gentle and fluid regardless of whether the craftsman wields a ten-pound sledgehammer or tiny camelhair brush. This in turn seems to persuade the wood itself to relax its beautiful but contrary structure--just enough. Sometimes in using a traditional hand plane it has seemed that microscopic gaps became perceptible so that the particles nearly slipped apart. Before the table is complete, this exchange of energies has been endured and witnessed many times.

Over the course of ten years the craftsman witnesses other versions of the same exchange as he works toward technical mastery. Aesthetic mastery may take longer to play out. We have moved over on the keyboard and the same difficult notes will be played in another octave. With the right emulsion of honesty and desire, the transformations become subtler. As the craftsman learns to manipulate wood, he slowly relaxes to the inner beauty and fractal intelligence of the wood. The craftsman is increasingly impressed by the character of the spaces of a room to be filled and by the human need to be met. The engineer and the poet in him are usually at odds, but in this moment they seem to calm themselves and turn respectfully toward each other. Now new projects are engaged and the results seem a little more truthful and a little more helpful.

Why do we make tables? Why do we value decorous, carefully made tables? Why not a couple of sawhorses and a piece of plywood? In part, the answer must be that a table is a significant place of work and gathering. However, it is also much more. I believe the table embodies the vertical and horizontal elements of life itself. This is suggested not only by the table's obvious vertical and horizontal structural aspect, but also by its final culmination in a plane that is at once parallel to the earth and shifted toward the sky. It is earth ever so slightly displaced--the x-axis ratcheted up the y. A table is the geometric sum of up, down, and sideways. The tabletop is accessible and yet somehow up and out. It represents a place between heaven and earth, a place where the things below may come into contact with the things above--a place of magic and miracle. Like a theater stage, the table defines a smaller, more intense space where we might observe life more closely. To set something on a table is to bring it up out of the dark earth to the light of attention. The table in structure, form, and function sustains the fragile moments of inner and outer attention. It does this not only by helping us pay attention to the things brought to the table, but more importantly, by ceremonially demonstrating the invisible act of contemplation.

This is part of an inner way rarely taught in schools of design, and, when finally stumbled upon, creativity seems less like a work of imagination and more like a grace of discovery. Any table's function , structure , form, or imagery are only resultant elements which, after a time, have cooled and precipitated out of an original, primeval heat. It is the unseen work of the craftsman to hold the cold material of their own culture and their own imagination once again to the fire . For more than 50 years, itinerant basket maker Hiroshima Kazuo worked his way back and forth across an isolated area of rural Japan. All his many and varied baskets are highly functional and exquisite. Recently, I wandered through a museum hall full of his life's work. By the end of the first display case, I was under a marvelous spell. Virtually every element of every basket was at once functional, structural, and formal. After I had made my way around I actually walked back through the entire exhibit, basket-by-basket, mischievously bent on finding something decorative that was not also structural or something structural that was not thoroughly charmed. I had absolutely no success and this fact shook me to my craftsman's core. I do not believe we can even say that Hiroshima blends these elements seamlessly--for him I will say the separation between function and form or structure and ceremony does not even exist.

The amazing and clever assemblages of visual fun and function which fill so many gift shops and magazine pages pale before such raw, organic alchemy. Every day I face these questions--often without a clue. I think we might each (craftsman, collector, and aficionado) begin as we can to examine the rash of distracting devices on all fronts of the current scene. I believe that among these distractions may be an unprecedented focus on irony, visual slapstick, private narrative, illustration, surface, the dysfunctional, the clever, the alluring, and the historical reference. Do not these devices, though interesting and savvy, distract us from the real and direct work of alchemy?   I do not mean to suggest that irony or depiction is always wrong-headed but that we might develop in ourselves a slowly escalating question about gratuitous form, reference, and cleverness. Perhaps we would benefit ourselves by taking a more respectful look at the anonymous artisans of the world who continue to meet physical and spiritual needs in their own communities--sometimes roughly, sometimes elegantly.

The examined life is confined to a narrow path that winds carefully between contentment and discouragement. The good craftsman endures this in a way that is utterly physical and expansively metaphorical. On the one hand, craftwork affronts us with danger, failure, and corruption--subverting our innate denial and grandiosity. On the other, it awakens memories of Arcadia, a Garden--subverting the accumulated despair. Every apprentice must begin by recognizing the alternate violence and avoidance in his or her way of working. Task by task, the early errors of too hard or too soft, too little care and (yes) too much care, give way to a completely new thing. This new thing is not halfway between this and that, or an average of anything. It is something alive with its own sap and current.

In my walking search through nearby museums, I pass numerous exquisitely crafted objects. Many evoke both the gross and subtle dimensions of my life. A few things actually shimmer as if straddling a threshold between this world and that. My inner argument and grief subside. The simplest thoughtfully executed bowl reveals a sly alternative. My breathing slows. A candle is lit. I am reminded that maybe, after all, there is a way in life.

Photo Credit:
Creel Basket by Hiroshima Kazuo
National Museum of Natural History



| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |
6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 |


© 2004 Far West Editions