Going underground

The deep, rich movements, which produced the Dipylon vase, the Doric column, the Chartres cathedral, the Katsura Detached Palace, all were significant in their youthful vigor and simple creativity. May we return to that spirit. It is not man’s prerogative to destroy himself. We can only believe in the warm golden light in darkness.

Since I am a woodworker, the practical aspects interest me primarily. The materials used, the utility of an object, the forms developed are vital. The necessary skills and the resultant beauty must be there. Arts and Crafts should be based on pure truth, taking materials and techniques from the past to synthesize with the present. We should be content to work on a small scale and integrally with nature and not violate it.

In a personal way my family and I have gone underground, since we have little relationship to contemporary mores, institutions, economy, or systems. Ours is a search for pure truth in the most realistic ways—the making of things.

There was no other way for me but to go alone, secure with my family, placing stone upon stone, seeking kinship with each piece of wood, eventually creating an inward mood of space, then bit by bit finding peace and joy in the shaping of timber into objects of utility and perhaps, when nature smiles, beauty.

George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree (1987), p. 194

Descended from a samurai and a graduate of MIT, it’s hard to square George Nakashima’s rhetoric with the actuality of his achievements. Most of his pieces sell for six figure sums, and are shipped around the globe. This is hardly the small scale local operation he speaks so glowingly about. Yes, his family operates outside of contemporary mores in the sense of its inclusion inside the stratospheric orbit of high dollar collectors, foundations and museums. But somehow, when you read his book you don’t expect that it fronts for such a bourgeois enterprise; the rhetoric is just the opposite.

I’m starting to do more reading in this direction because it seems to me to be a fate common to the explosion in folk arts in the early twentieth century. Gustav Stickley took Morris’s utopian rhetoric and created a huge business empire that went bust; scratch the surface of any of the utopian communities and there is a finely tuned capitalist machine underneath. The sad fact is that not simply that these enterprises are “artisanal capitalism,” but that frequently they are exploitative, oppressive, and imperialist. I don’t want to always reduce things to these terms, but when you’re preaching to the “common man” practices and products that no common man can afford, there’s a rupture.

The narrative always goes something like this: our current age is decadent and we’ve lost the good things in life. We must reject all contemporary forms and revert to some sort of golden age model to base our decisions upon. There’s always an aristocratic overtone, an implication that aristocratic tastes can refine our being if we allow ourselves to be cultivated. We’re supposed to be inspired by are the rude crafts of the ordinary folks, but of course the ordinary folks just aren’t aware of what’s really good— they need the rich consumer to validate them.

I did some research on the Nakashima family and found that yes, Mira still maintains the family business employing about 12 people. The eldest grandchild is a partner in a different shop, and I found a newspaper story from 1990 about another grandchild, who said that the family had gone through a period of crisis when the older generation, including George and his original helpers, died. She was at that time returning to the ashram in India where George found his original insights. I’m not sure if she returned to the firm.

I don’t know why I didn’t take too much note of the fact that the ashram in Pondicherry where Nakashima found his spiritual awakening was also host to President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, which speaks to the elite nature of his spiritual heritage. It’s far easier to renounce culture when you have the means to do so.

Does this erode the populist logic of these craft theories? I suppose it does, and I’m trying to figure out how a coherent approach to tools and materials might be wrought after addressing the gaps left by what they chose not to say. I’m not interested in animism— wood spirits and that sort of thing— but I do believe that their can be such a thing as truth in materials.