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.

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