Standing at a Vice and Teaching Craft

Jules Amar, The Human Motor;or the Scientific Foundations of Labor and Industry, London: George Routledge & Sons, LTD., 1920 (p. 418)

Amar’s The Human Motor is extraordinarily precise in dictating how a worker should position themselves while working. After all, this was the era of Frederick Winslow Tayler and scientific management. Such dogmatic instruction now seems a little crazy — position your feet at exactly 68 degrees! — and it would certainly put a damper on worker motivation and engagement. However, there are corollaries in teaching and learning craft technique.

Most people hate to be told how to accomplish a task in such excruciating detail, yet several bookbinding teachers I’ve encountered have a dictatorial style which embodied this “one right way” approach. Is our musculature (and ability to manipulate it) so much the same that there is only one right technique to accomplish a specific task? Traditional craft does usually have a very specific end product ideal, so it makes sense to follow exact procedures to achieve exact results. Considered optimistically, traditional techniques have undergone a Darwinian type evolution, resulting in efficient production. The downside of this results in people unthinkingly replicating the techniques they were taught, irrespective of the results.

There is a difference between being told how to do something, and learning how to do something. Learning styles vary: some of us are experiential learners, some didactic learners, and sometimes it varies with the task to be learned. Trying and possibly failing with a variety of techniques can teach us a lot about craft, and often not just the project at hand.

Granted, there are easier and harder ways of doing most craft actions. This is possibly one of the most common reasons for taking a class or workshop: to learn easier ways of accomplishing a craft action. Learning one successful way, then branching out and experimenting with others, is often a good foundation. A constant challenge is balancing the workload in able to continue learning with the pecuniary pressures of working efficiently.

 

A Picnic Table as Art

An art picnic table in Inwood Hill Park, NYC.

I’m always interested in artwork that references tools or functional objects. This artwork is located in Inwood Hill Park, NYC , and interrogates a common functional object, the wooden picnic table with attached bench seats. An all too common approach when creating an artwork referencing a functional object is to do one of two things; somehow make the object non-functional, or make a replica of the object out of a material that cannot function (such as making a wrench out of clay).  Here, however, the artist considers the history of the wood, so instead knots left in the wood, the branches are left on. The result looks quite tortured, much like the making of this object must have been. It reminds me of W.S. Merwin’s poem, “Unchopping a Tree”.

Some of my other posts on tools and art.

Unchopping a Tree

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?