Category Archives: craft

Wooden Spoons and the Price of Craft

I had a sudden and strong compulsion to make wooden spoons around nine months ago.

Part of it was a way to avoid some extremely tedious conservation work. Part of it was a desire to emulate the beauty, at least in spirit, of traditional Swedish wooden spoons. Part of it was an excuse to buy some new tools.

I also wanted to test out some longstanding questions; primarily, as where does technique reside? Traditionally Western craft technique is taught by close contact and imitation of a skilled practitioner. Now it is common to learn by reading a how-to-manual, watching a video, or maybe taking some classes. Technique is often regarded as solely residing in the practicioner.

Many aspects of technique may also reside in the tools themselves. Since I didn’t know anything about spoon carving, this might be a good test: How much could I learn by letting the tools teach me how to make a wood spoon?

spoons

It only takes a few simple tools to start making wooden spoons. On the top, a small vintage (ca. 1970’s) Norlund hatchet with my handle, which split when mounting the head. Grrrr. Still, it works fine. Under it, on the left, a Mora knife, next to it a sweep knife made by Robin Wood, and a hook knife made by Pinewood Forge.

Of course, I had to start with the best quality tools I could find. The odd thing was, after I made a dozen or so spoons, the compulsion disappeared almost as quickly as it came on. This may be explained by the thrill of accomplishment when beginning to learn a new craft: mastering the final 20% can take a 1000% more time than the original 80%. One reason many people jump around to different crafts; jonesing for a new quick rush, weary of the long path towards mastery.

This was not a true test of technique completely residing in a tool.  I have been whittling since I was a kid (ball in cage!), professionally make and sharpen knives, and use axes quite a bit. Nevertheless, it does speak to the relatively easy transference of tool based knowledge, rather than traditional object based craft education. Does the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” serve to warn against tool based knowledge? Could it be dangerous?

spoons1

A wooden spoon I made out of Swiss pear wood.

I still use the spoons I made and didn’t give away, they are serviceable and some ended up quite elegant, in my opinion. The one above sees the most use in my kitchen. The handle is comfortable in a variety of grips, and I intended the shallow bowl to be good for tasting while cooking. Wood feels weirdly sticky in my mouth though, like a tongue depressor, so I don’t do this.

*****

I’d forgotten about this episode until a couple of days ago, when I received a blog post from a professional wooden spoon maker, Jarrod Stone Dhal.  The Trouble with The Green Woodworking Community or I Don’t Want to be Poor.

There are many aspects of his post that anyone involved with crafts will find of interest. One of his questions revolves around the almost impossible desire to make quality handmade objects at an affordable price. When craft objects get too expensive, people put them on a shelf and are afraid to use them. This might also be part of the reason many craftspeople sell their wares absurdly cheap, and are regarded as failures at business.  I doubt that large companies like Walmart care if what they sell is used. People who make functional items want them to be used.

But how many handmade books — including etsy style blank books, seeming sold for less than the cost of materials — actually end up getting used?  many books get read?  When I worked in an academic research library, I bet almost 10% of the books I recased had never been read.

Much modern craft philosophy emphasizes the making of something as the primary fulfillment. Being in the moment when making, zen like, and so on. This romantic attitude might have inadvertently contributed to public reluctance to pay for the time and skill of craft. “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be doing it for the love? You want to get paid too!?”

unchopping

“Tree Down!”   Jeff Peachey, 2013.

“Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nests that have been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places. It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed or mutilated. If the fall was carefully and correctly planned, the chances of anything of the kind happening will have been reduced. Again, much depends upon the size, age, shape, and species of the tree. Still, you will be lucky if you can get through this stages without having to use machinery. Even in the best of circumstances it is a labor that will make you wish often that you had won the favor of the universe of ants, the empire of mice, … .” (the rest of the poem)

W. S. Merwin’s “Unchopping a Tree” is a wonderfully meditative poem/essay that will resonate with anyone in craft, conservation, technology, or environmentalism. It articulates the hubris of humans when working with natural materials by emphasizing the complex and one-directional time-bound nature of growth and craft.

There is not a backspace key for craft. Only starting over, or more rarely, working around a mistake. A second of inattention can create hours or days of extra work when dealing with physical materials. Possibly even failure. Chopping is quick. Unchopping takes a long time.

We can all appreciate the section on the structural inappropriateness of trying to glue back the severed fibers of the tree, which will never function as the original. It is as futile as gluing a spinal cord nerve.

The poem ends by zeroing in on the insecurity at the heart of all art and craft. How can any human construct even begin to compare to Nature?

On Rushing

rushing

 

Rushing is an insidious demon in craft work. Its lures are many. It occludes the memory of its last appearence, trapping you once again. Resist with constant vigilance!

A Passion for Perfection: Two Recent Movies About Craft

jay

Deceptive Practice

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/36319857″>Jiro Dreams Of Sushi – Trailer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/curiousdistribution”>curious</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Traditionally craft is learned through close contact with skilled practitioners. Currently most professionals I know have cobbled together an autodiadactic path that often consists of reading, experimenting, practice, formal classes, weekend workshops, and hanging out with others in the field. But what happens when a craft is “mastered”—however you define the term— and how do practitioners keep learning, refining and performing at peak levels? And why do they keep doing it? Both Deceptive Practice and Jiro Dreams of Sushi explore this question.

At an age when most are ready to retire, Jiro cannot stop making sushi. When interviewed, he candidly admits his family and life outside of work have suffered because of his obsession of crafting the most prefect sushi he is capable of. His Tokyo restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars. But he can’t stop, and still doesn’t feel his son, who is 50 years old and who has worked by his side most of his adult life, is ready to take over. The act of crafting is rewarding to him, but it has become such a large part of him, that he can’t let go of it. Jiro’s story bypasses much of his formative experiences, but instead concentrates on a perhaps inevitable paradox: many enter into crafts in order to reestablish some kind of physical/ mental balance in their lives, yet craft at the highest levels becomes singular and obsessive.

Ricky Jay began performing at the age of 4 (there is home movie footage to prove it!), and much of this film discusses his influences and mentors. Most of his education was informal and his skills learned through intensive practice.  He mentions he still practices card handling seven hours a day, though I wondered if this might be a bit of magicians patter. Yet Jay is not only one of the most accomplished sleight of hand magicians (he can pierce a watermelon with a playing card), he a scholar of the history of magic, writer, and actor. His books, such as Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women or Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, are facinating and well written. I had the chance to watch him perform a couple of years ago, and left more impressed than ever. I was picked from the audience to play poker with him on stage; for the finale I shuffled, cut and dealt the cards. He didn’t touch them except to turn them over. He had four aces and I had nothing.

Both films feature photography that verges on pornography in their larger than life closeups. An excusite piece of sushi glistening with a brush of shoyu that fills the screen, Jay’s incessant fondling of cards which he watches his hands by using three mirrors. Again the separation of the hand and the head is emphasized. Together these films give an unusually revealing view of the work that craft involves. Attentive practice, trying to improve and trying to maintain one’s skills are never ending. For Jay and Jiro there is no rest. There is only the need to do something very, very well. And do it again, and again, and again. Ars long, vita brevis.

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.

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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.

Centrale Montemartini Museum, Addendum

Three years ago I visited the Capitaline Montemartini Museum in Rome, Italy. In August 2012, I had a chance to revisit it; once again, it blew my mind. I wrote a post about my first visit, but wanted to add some new impressions and images.

Briefly, the Montemartini Museum is an art nouveau electrical power plant that retains its original architectural details, and now functions as a museum which displays Roman sculptures alongside the defunct machinery.  Montemartini originally used both diesel and steam engines to create electricity. The largest one is a 7,500 Hp diesel engine which was installed in 1933, and is about 20 feet high and 40 feet long.  The sculptures belong to the Capitoline Museums (Museo del Palazzo die Conservatori, Museo Nuovo and Brassio Nuovo) and were installed in 1997 as a temporary exhibition. The exhibition proved popular and was made permanent.  It is a uniquely powerful, stimulating and intriguing place.

This museum does not just contain, display, and interpret art: it is art.

Montemartini is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. Frankly, I often find it more rewarding to spend time looking at industrial artifacts, craft objects, machines and tools rather than art. Quite likely this is why I am attracted to books: a few books are art, some contain art, but most are products of technology. Montemartini challenges the traditional divide between technology and art: here, we are not quite sure which is which. From some viewpoints, the statues visually merge with the engines. The functional and aesthetic aspects are in constant flux; at times becoming inverted, at times irrelevant, but always interesting.

Despite the omnipresent engines, machines and turbines, it is easy to forget you are in a factory. It is a beautiful space with elaborately tiled floors, symmetrically aligned turbines, lovely light fixtures, and elegant cast iron stairs and handrails.  Massive windows on two sides of the engine room make it a clean and bright place, in stark contrast to the matt black engines. The statues are arranged around the engines as if they are guarding them.

The machines and statues feel like they belong together; equally portentous and aesthetically rewarding. This is perhaps the oddest thing about the museum. These objects, which come from radically different cultures and intended functions, exist naturally and peacefully together. Art is conflated with the Machine—perhaps the most unholy union imaginable—but it works.

Montemartini is a museum of fragments, not complete arguments or a comprehensive history. The paring of these machines and statues creates many entry points for inquiry: Art vs. Machine, blackness vs. whiteness, functionality vs. representation, art vs. craft, applied vs. abstract, technical vs. aesthetic, and possibly most importantly, body vs. machine. Machinery becomes aesthetically endowed; the statues appear as workers from the past tending the machines, not art. The statues are almost all damaged: torsos without arms, half a head, most with a nose or ear missing. The machines themselves are dysfunctional and only their shells remain. They are now disconnected from the grid, as mute and powerless as the damaged statues. Is this museum of pieces reflective of an unpleasant essence of all museums?  Artifacts on display stripped of their original functions and significance? Is Montemartini a critique of musemification in general?

Although the machines and sculptures are visually balanced, primordially, the smell of the machines predominate. They smell of dark earthy oil, grease, and metal filings. They seem to have stopped only moments ago. The sculptures emit no smell. These white, etherial ghosts have been clawed from eternal repose only to be redeposited into an eternal waiting to begin work once again.

Superficially, there are corollaries with the Barnes Foundation. But in the Barnes the Art seems to dominate, while the smaller objects around the art function as a decorative frame, albeit a stimulating one. I need to think more about this.

For some reason, Montemartini also reminded of the temple complex of Angkor Wat, Cambodia. There is an analogous tension in Angkor, not of Machine and Art, but of architecture and nature. In Angkor, the stones of the temples are carved and decorated, slowly overtaken by the ficus tree roots and limbs, which both destroy and support the massive constructions. It is the peaceful coexistence of two extremes that form their commonalities between these unique sites.

“Expressions of power” was the essence of my first response to this place three years ago.  This time, however, I was more struck by the fragility of the machines and sculptures. They both seemed delicate, as if a loud voice could disturb their equipoise. A handful of other visitors to the museum spoke in subdued voices, and walked quietly. No one wanted to disturb this postmodern tableau. Or was this mashup so disturbing in its conflation of traditional categories that we did not want our presence noticed—perhaps, so that we would not be obligated to recall it?

The Centrale Montemartini Museum is a complex, contradictory place. It raises many questions. If the ability for a work of art to generate varying interpretations with repeated encounters over time is a mark of quality, Montemartini is not only art, it is great art.

Eat Craft

Soba kiri, or soba-giri bocho, a Soba cutting knife. 

There are many noodle restaurants near me in the East Village of Manhattan. What is different about Sobakoh is that the noodles are cut by hand. And you can watch them being cut by a master soba maker, Hiromitsu Takahashi.  Japanese food + handcraft = I’m there.

Sobakoh has been making hand cut soba, from organically grown sobakoh (buckwheat flour), since the mid 2000’s. Nozaki’s book on Japanese kitchen knives mentions soba was originaly a kind of fast food in Japan, beginning about 300 years ago. [1] Hand cut soba is called Teuchi-Soba to differentiate it from the machine cut variety.

A special purpose knife is used to cut the soba: a Soka Kiri. Takahashi’s knife, above, is a beautiful example. Note the straightforward contour of the scales as they transition to the blade and graceful curves on the blade. If you look at the two spots of light reflection towards the left of the blade, you can see the secondary bevel where it is sharpened.  The knife is not over finished, or excessively polished in one area or another, but is well integrated, especially with the functional, lightly varnished (?) handle. [2]  I’m becoming more and more a fan of wood handles with little or no finish on them: although they get a dirty, stained or develop a patina quickly, the feel of the uncoated wood provides unparalleled tactile feedback and comfort. Any surface coating changes this, to a degree.  Obviously, different woods feel quite different,  from silky smooth swiss pear wood to a almost rough feeling burl. The handle on this knife knife is similar to a bearded axe; an old form, supposedly dating from the 6th century. This handle position allows a high degree of control of this hefty knife which weighs about two pounds and has a blade length of about 12 inches, since the placement is directly behind the blade. The weight of the knife does most of the work: the soba master places it and slides it downward in a diagonal. Slicing in a diagonal, like a guillotine, lowers the effective cutting angle of the blade, giving a cleaner cut. A clean cut preserves more of the food’s visual integrity and umami.

But as I was inexpertly slurping my soba, occasionally with the noodles slapping up onto my glasses, I wondered if these hand cut soba noodles tasted better because they were hand cut, or if it were due to other factors:  the broth, the fresh buckwheat, the slightly irregular size, the knife used, the cutting board,  etc….  Or is it because I naturally value the work of the hand more than that of a machine.  Was I subscribing to a cultish adulation of  handwork?  What I respect in David Pye’s work is his refusal fetishize handwork. [3]  Pye has a craftsman’s take on the philosophy of handwork that lead him to emphasize the rational, aesthetic and practical advantages over machine production. But Pye also has a great respect for well designed machine craft.  Soetsu Yanagi, who is Pye’s more romantic Japanese craft/philosopher counterpart, has a more dichotomous view, linking machine work – science – the head, in opposition to hand work – religion – the heart. “Moreover, the nature of machine work is such that its products are standardized and thus monotonous and cold, ill-fitted to serve as man’s companions in his daily life.” [4]  Some of the heart, in this case, is reflected in the small variation of noodle width and thickness. Yanagi has an entire chapter on the beauty of irregularity.

Sobakoh – Soba Master

So to return to my question; why does handout soba taste ‘better’ than machine cut, other factors aside? I think it does, although I haven’t done a rigorous, side by side blind taste test.  Is it only the subtle irregularities in size of the noodles (sabi?) that identify them as handmade, and therefore are perceived as better than a machine made noodle?  These variations in size are extremely small. If you watch the video of Takahashi cutting the soba, he works in a highly methodical, almost machinelike manner, moving the wood cutting guide (komaita) a small amount with each precise cut.  His foot positions steady his entire body and notice the way he holds the knife: it is not his arm the guides it downward, but his shoulder and upper torso.  Even his surroundings emphasize his machine like nature. He enclosed in his small soba room, like a motor encased in a machine, on display.  He is the first thing you see from the street as you walk into the restaurant, so you know these noodles are handmade.

Or could it actually be that this physical action of his hand, done with a careful movement by a skilled master who has trained in the tradition of the soba craft, that somehow affects, almost inexplicably, their taste in a way that no machine can replicate? Is this the taste of craft?

…………………

[1] Nozaki, Hiromitsu. Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodanasha, 2009), 131.  There is also a nice closeup showing hand and body position while cutting soba on page 130.

[2] Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Bethel, CT: Cambium Press, 1995), see Chapter 9.

[3] Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship,  23-29.

[4] Yanagi, Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodansha International, 1978), 107.

[5] Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman, 108.