A Book Review of David Esterly’s “The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making”

Confession number one: I’m a sucker for reading books about working in craft. I’d read one a month if they were available. Confession number two: I devoured David Esterly’s “The Lost Carving” in two sittings.[1] Likely because of the essentially solitary nature of craft work, I find reading about someone else’s experiences irresistible. Esterly is a wood carver, and the details of his specific craft are fascinating, but not critical to appreciating this book. The commonalities of the craft experience transcend the boundaries of specific disciplines.

In A Theory of Craft, Howard Risatti summarizes two radically different of ways of thinking that Heidegger originally proposed: calculative thinking and meditative thinking.[2] Calculative thinking is the pragmatic, craft-like approach: working for specific purposes, accepting limitations, dealing with the conditions and materials given. Meditative thinking is contemplative, a questioning of meaning and value with no boundries.  Craftsmen generally think calculatively, so it is a rare to find one that is able to perform a craft and investigate philosophic concerns. Esterly is a rare, nimble mind that can alternate between both of these modes.

Personal memoirs about craft are not new. David Pye’s, The Nature and Art of Workmanship is a foundational exploration of craft phenomenology and philosophy. [3] It is required reading for anyone interested in craft. His conception of “the workmanship of certainty” and “the workmanship of risk” have percolated into most of craft discussions, which can become heated when methods of mechanical regularity brush up against the boundaries of freer working techniques.  Books by Needleman, Krenov and Wilcox have explored what it means to make a craft object.[4]  All are deeply curious about the nature of craft, and investigate this in a personal memoir style. Krenov, a woodworker like Pye, profusely illustrates his book with photographs of his work. Needleman, a potter, opts for a more stream of conscious verbal rumination. Wilcox, a bookbinder, details the often arduous modern day apprenticeship she served with Bill Anthony. More recently—and more similar to Esterly’s book—is Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft.[5] Both writers were trainned as academics, then left the academy to live a life in craft. Both are proud of their non-traditional choices for a lifestyle, though Crawford tends to write more about technical education. Also, there is Richard Sennett’s hybrid academic—personal approach in The Craftsmanwhich I wrote about in a previous blog post. [6]

Esterly’s book is not only a personal record of the meaning of working in craft; it has a strong narrative drive as well. As a self taught carver, he learned from immitating the master carvings he most admired, those of Grinling Gibbons. He considered himself to be his apprentice, the apprentice of a phantom master. This book records an amazing commission he recieved once he was an established carver. After a fire at Hampton Court Palace, London, much of the ceiling carving which was done by Gibbons was damaged and needed to be replaced. Esterly (an American!) was hired to carve a replacement. The book follows his work on the ceiling over the course of a year, what he learned, and relearned. There were also a team of British conservators working on the project and their overlapping boundaries between their work and Esterly’s is briefly covered, though he was hired as a part of the overall conservation plan.

The book moves gently from reflections on the act of carving, back to the story of his learning to carve, to observations on specific techniques. He mentions his carving tools quite a bit, and while he loves owning and using them, he doesn’t fetishize them. Tools are tools. “In the usual way of thinking, you have ideas, and then you learn technical skill so you can express them. In reality it’s often the reverse: skill gives you ides. The hand guides the brain nearly as much as the brain guides the hand.” [7] He carefully describes his  favorite medium (lime wood), offers general reflections on the struggles in crafting, and even meditates on the difference between sculpture and ornamentation. Esterly lives in a world where Art and Craft are inseparable; a pre-nineteenth century mentality. Craft, for him, becomes a metaphor and framework for interpreting the world.

Making things—and the escape from the everyday consciousness that craft provides— is a universal human activity, possibly boardering on a need. Esterly is dismissive of CAD carving as lifeless, and I suppose he would be equally offended by even newer forms of making, such as 3D printers like the Makerbot. I see them as a new tools, however. Different tools can produce different results, and tools also influence the maker, which Esterly mentions and I discussed in an article I wrote titled “Conservation and Tools: An Inquiry Into Nature and Meaning“. [8] Craft changes, but the urge to make and shape material objects is constant. Esterly has a poetic, but not romanticized view of craft. The writing is straightforward and honest; similar to the craft objects he makes. Exploring the meaning and essence of craft, like the activity of craft, is an endlessly fascinating pursuit.

_________________

1. David Esterly, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making (New York: Viking, 2012)

2. Howard Risatti. A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression (Chapel Hill: The University of North Caroline Press, 2007) 264-265.

3. David Pye. The Nature and Art of Workmanship (London: Studio Vista, 1971)

4. Carla Needleman. The Work of Craft: An Inquiry into the Nature of Crafts and Craftsmanship (New York: Avon Books, 1981)  Krenov, James. A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1991) [Reprint, Originally published: New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Col, 1976.] Annie Tremmel Wilcox. A Degree of Mastery: A Journey Through Book Arts Apprenticeship (Minneapolis, MN: New Rivers Press, 1999)

5. Matthew B. Crawford. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin Press, 2009)

6. Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008)

7. Esterly, Lost Carving, 84.

8. Peachey, Jeffrey S. “Conservation and Tools: An Inquiry into Nature and Meaning” in The Bonefolder, Vol. 1 No. 1, 2004, 19-22.

6 thoughts on “A Book Review of David Esterly’s “The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making”

  1. Pingback: A Book Review from Jeff Peachey « The Sharpening Blog

  2. Justin Williams

    Teriffic review. As an aspiring academic who always dabbles in craft of some sort, I’m inspired by, intimidated by, and curious about those who move fluidly between the two paths (or abandon one in favor of the other). Thomas Moser likewise fits plainly in this category.

    For me, both doing and thinking are important parts of who I am. At different moments, I emphasize one or the other; sometimes, this ambivalence makes me think that I should walk away from grad school and get serious about woodworking/sewing/bookbinding/cooking/robotics. Yet I always conclude with a banally practical consideration: I might get paid for meditative thinking (I’m a political theorist) and it’s hard to do well in your spare time; crafting, on the other hand, is hard to get paid for and amenable to being kept up on the side.

    These days, I’m trying to bring the energy of craft to my meditative thinking. I’m asking myself: how can I think of my dissertation as an exercise in craft? Can I bring that same sense of purpose, design, and concreteness to a very abstract product? Can I bring my obsessive, enthusiastic, process-driven craftiness to my written work? It’s a nice goal, anyway.

    Thanks for the thoughtful rumination on craft.

  3. David Esterly

    I must say how appreciative I am of this preceptive and generous account of my book. You have acutely positioned it in the tradition of writing about craft, and you are (I think) absolutely correct to cite Heidegger as the fountainhead of much of this. Some of the books you and your commentators mention are not familiar to me and I’ll certainly check them out.

    You’ll have noticed that the word craft or craftsmanship is almost never mentioned in my book. The old craft vs. art discussion, or even the what is craft discussion, has grown sterile, to my mind. So the word I use is making, which I take to be an essential thing that the arts (let’s leave aside certain kinds of conceptualist art) and crafts and many activities in ordinary life have in common. (The making can be of unphysical things like novels.) And the word skill, which equally crosses borders. In using this kind of vocabulary I’ve tried to broaden the old discussion and extend it out from the workshop.

    I’m so happy to have come across this blog (and to have met you recently, Jeff). This site has acquired another follower.

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