Education of a Woodworker

At the utmost, the active minded young man should ask of his teachers only the mastery of his tools. The young man himself, the subject of education, is a certain form of energy; the object to be gained is economy of his force; the training is partly the clearing away of obstacles, partly by the direct application of effort. Once acquired, the tools and models may be thrown away.

The Education of Henry Adams (2007), xiv

In the author’s preface, Henry Adams sets up a model of the author/narrator as a mannequin, a stand-in that should be discarded once an adequate level of skill is achieved. This device has replicated itself over time, but has frequently been ignored or overlooked. Chris Schwarz, in his first book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, declares his “anarchist” manifesto with the admonition “disobey me.” It is difficult, however, to discard or disobey his assemblage of a tool kit that he substantiates historically, even annotating it across other authors covering centuries. Just what does “disobey me” mean when all paths, apparently, lead to the same conclusions as he has reached?

I think I have read the opening chapters of Schwarz’s book a few dozen times in the past few years. In fact, I am putting the finishing touches on the sort of English tool chest he describes right now, not because I think it’s the best solution to the problem of tool storage but simply because it seemed  like the right thing to do. He’s right of course, this sort of chest makes a lot more sense once you start to use it. It’s rich with the sort of “economy of force” that Henry Adams was on about. The patience and practice that you acquire while pursuing this sort of project is priceless, really. But the fact that Schwarz looms large as a person instead of a persona obscures the “anarchist” agenda that he seeks to pursue. The more I visit the book, the more I see how he got there. Like his basic tool assortment, Schwarz’s anarchist disposition is an easy journey to support historically.

Right about the time of the first publication of The Education of Henry Adams, at the dawn of the twentieth century there was a basic shift in the perception of “craft” among its proponents. William Morris, a devout socialist saw the onslaught of industrial production driven by capitalism as an evil to be defeated by traditional crafts.  Interrogating the social benefits of “hand” crafts versus machines was a the center of a lot of writing in the late nineteenth century (particularly Hawthorne). However, as the Arts and Crafts movement began to falter in the early twentieth century, socialists were replaced by anarchists (and capitalists like the Stickley brothers) with a more machine friendly stance.

The anarchist Herbert Read, writing in Art and Industry (1949) suggests that Morris was simply asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking if the machines are damaging our society, but rather if the machines can give us the art we need. He thought yes. The merits of individualism/anarchism vs. socialism frequently generate ripples across the discussion; they are models that seem to consistently provide a sort of touchstone to rub. Is this really useful in the long run? I have mixed feelings. As Henry Adams remarks, politics as a practice has always been the systematic organization of hatreds (6). However, as the truism goes, the personal is always political.

For myself, perhaps the strongest urge is always what I’ve come to call the “hunter gatherer” impulse. The draw of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is its well researched set of tools; most people reading the book, I suspect, use it as a starting point to figure out what tools they should be proficient with. It’s much easier to hunt and gather tools than it is to develop skills, so we gather them up and then and only then attempt to use them. Overcoming the frustration when they don’t work the way we think they should, well, that’s a problem.

Schwarz is really no help there; he and most of the dons of the the woodworking forums online suggest that you simply must have the best tool. There is no substitute. Schwarz, as he so succinctly points out in his book, due to the circumstances of his profession, found himself buried alive in tools. His book is about stripping away those things that he found he didn’t need, including “tool-resembling objects.” For most, readers they’re gathering tools, not getting rid of them.

For some reason though, I just keep coming back to Schwarz’s first book. I’ve read and enjoyed his latest book, Campaign Furniture, and there is much to say about it. But the more I read around, the more I can see why that first book had to happen for him.

Manifestos usually bore me, but for some reason this one doesn’t; it irritates me in the best sense of the word. I constantly wonder if there is a better way to get there. The path that his education follows is fairly straightforward, and in its own way traditional. But I do not think that you can cast away your tools and models once you get there, which makes it flirt dangerously with dogma.


Durable Goods reprise

I once wrote long ago about being interested in “composition” in the broadest sense. At the time, I was thinking in terms of words and images rather than objects. Surrounding the period when my mother died, I began to really consider the concepts surrounding “durable goods” because when confronting just what is important when faced with mortality. Like most people, I suppose, I hadn’t really thought much about the objects that fill our lives, and as my mother’s life was stripped down to the essential goods, I began to wonder about the matter of matter (as opposed to words/images, or more descriptively, eidolons).

In 2010 I came pretty close to putting some perspective on things when I tried to theorize about the relationship of craft to words, images, and woodworking (my latest sidetrack). To bring this decade long obsessive/compulsive spasm up to date, lately I’ve been building and thinking about furniture and household items (treen). I’ve thought several times that I should be compiling a bibliography of sources about this latest phase, which has moved far outside my usual comfort zone of art and literature. Thankfully, my wife has been teaching a seminar on rhetorics of craft which has brought new levels of focus to my scattered thoughts on the subject. We’ve been talking about craft a lot.

It dawned on me a few days ago that one of the reasons for the shift in subject areas (though not in methodology, strangely enough) is because I figured out a while ago that I am happiest when I am where I am. The place I live now was central to the Arts and Crafts movement in America during the early twentieth century. The original Stickley factory is just down the street from me. Consequently, it is all too natural to become obsessed with furniture history. After reading deeply on Arts and Crafts, the last month or so my attention has shifted to the Shakers (the original settlements are not far from me in the Hudson valley). In that shift, there’s been an interesting twist.

I’ve been pretty appalled the constant shilling for products by most writers on woodworking, even those who claim to be free from commercial interest. To acquire the best tools, seems to be a matter of constant worry for contemporary woodworkers. That attitude of connoisseur is pretty pervasive, particularly when boutique capitalism masquerades as anarchism. I haven’t been able to even consider building a thousand dollar workbench in expensive hardwood, or saw benches made of cherry wood, etc.. I really want to build furniture, not a collection of pretty tools. Visiting the workshops at Hancock Shaker Village revealed some unusual things– scrollsaws and lathes in every shop, for one thing. The scrollsaw has become a tool for fretwork alone, these days. But the shakers (who eschewed excessive ornament) still found solid uses for the tool, apparently. And most things in the Shaker shops seemed to be made of dull pine and poplar, not fancy hardwoods.

Shaker furniture used hardwoods when appropriate, but was not shy about using softwoods or paint when they would be suitable as well. Reading about some elements of furniture design in the UK in the early twentieth century, the phrase “fit for purpose” as a slogan appears. The language, taken from consumer protection law in the 19th century, makes sense. That’s a driving element behind twentieth century design in America as well, though it isn’t so clearly stated. I found myself wondering just why the idea of a cherry saw bench bothered me so much. After all, hardwoods are certainly “fit for purpose” for shop fixtures, they’re just expensive. Then it came to me— they are just plain ostentatious— conspicuous consumption of scarce resources for commonplace use. So “fit for purpose” isn’t the only factor in selecting material, it’s also important to me that there me some degree of humility.

Stickley furniture, with its quarter-sawn oak and heft is interesting to me but as a consumer product, it seems unsustainable. Only a select few can afford it. I like the philosophy behind some of it, and its solidness, but I’m afraid I’m slowly drifting away from it. I keep building Stickley style small pieces because they are nicely joined and economical in material for the most part, but I can’t see myself building the major pieces. My heart is headed somewhere else.

Heraclitus Shrugged

Writing always seems to be a reconstructive enterprise. My old friend Slim had a song about it: The Story of How It Got That Way. The fun thing about the song is that each time the chorus repeats, key descriptions become their opposites. I think it’s common to construct most messages as stories. Lists make for a boring read. The core problem is the shifting nature of description and emphasis that makes storytelling a constant stream of reinvention. The postmodern mode of thinking casts this as a feature, not a flaw: it’s simply the play of language.

The difficulty comes when you try to imagine a message transcending context. I remember one of the great problems I had when I first started writing in public was my strong tendency to get lost in writing an introduction to whatever message I was composing. At some point, I figured out that I’d been introducing myself – or, more accurately, aspects of myself- for several years. It’s hard to get much done at that rate. Hello- out of time and energy now-I must be going. Approaching writing as a craft, it becomes a core skill to simply throw those introductory “throat-clearing” pages away. Everyone writes them, and it seems cruel to expect others to read them. The real test of the writer as a craftsman is developing the stamina/patience to plow through that part to get to the good stuff.

Ahem. I didn’t start out as a writer. I started as a sorter; much like the early Internet fad “hot or not”, more often than not I found myself sorting things into piles: this is more interesting than that. The curious thing about this practice is that it insists on things to sort. Stories don’t sort easily; they are slippery. Images, at first glance, are much easier. I think that becoming a photographer seemed like the right move for me around the age of thirteen because it made sense to sort out the world. Photography is a curious vocation. The words art and craft tend to come up a lot. I was always a little uncomfortable with the label “artist” because it made the whole affair seem a lot more mystical and impractical than it really was. It was always more pragmatic than that. But craft makes it seem technical and less human somehow. There’s a tension here between unabashed subjectivity (“hot or not”) and genuine investigation. When I began, I was a child of Walter Cronkite. I really wanted to believe that if a photographer did their job well, you could say with some certainty “that’s the way it is” (or at least was).

One of the key things that I took for granted, as I pursued photography as a vocation for the first 25 years or so, was the idea that I was making objects. Photographs were, at least for the first 150 years or so, physical things. As things, they could be invested with a tangible sense of wonder and mystery- I wonder how that was made? Surface character is what always differentiated photographs from printed reproductions, though in a key sense photography is simply a different reproductive process than printing. Melding the two, bringing them together as ink-jet was for me perhaps the beginning of the end of thinking what I did was somehow “special.” The craft of photography, though it became many times more expensive (my current digital camera cost about 15 times as much as my favorite film camera), felt cheaper. The metaphoric shift really cements it though: instead of making photographs I just update my photo stream. Often, it feels as if I might as well pee in it for the difference it makes.

In a decidedly non-digital moment around 1996 in Arkansas, I reached pretty much the same conclusion. When I lived in California, I felt like what I did photographically had worth. People bought prints occasionally, and often asked me to photograph things they felt needed documenting. I had tried to pursue the same sort of documentary work after some major life changes that brought me to Little Rock. I felt privileged to see and photograph a local tribute concert raising funds for a Louis Jordan memorial. Jordan’s widow was there, and I had made a lovely photo of her holding Louis’ high school marching band coronet. It seemed like a beautiful thing on many levels. I printed it 16×20, and mounted it with several other pieces. The owner of the venue had expressed an interest in showing them, and I returned to show him and the promoter. He didn’t show up to see them. Neither did the promoter. In fact, no one there in the microbrewery had the slightest interest. I found myself standing on a street corner in downtown Little Rock holding images in a high wind buffeting around like sails. Even people walking by on the street didn’t glance at them. They were not worthy of even a moment’s interest. I think that’s when I started to identify myself as a retired photographer.

Inevitably, it might have been productive to recognize that I wasn’t special sooner. It took a long time to get that through my skull. One of my final experiences in California was closely documenting Slim, who eventually attempted suicide. My pictures had made no difference in his feelings of self-worth. I documented the scars of the attempt, just as I had so many other moments before, but I just couldn’t admit to myself that what I did was worthless. It took the episode in Little Rock to really drive the point home.

Worthless is of course too strong a word. Ineffectual, perhaps. I picked up my first digital camera a year or so later- a super cheap pen camera with the resolution of a web cam. I had broken my ankle and entertained myself by shooting pictures out the windows of my apartment. Then there was a little Fuji 2mp job. These things were never serious to me. The only things I saved were from a trip to San Antonio with Krista. An internet friend gave me a membership to Flickr a while after that, and I started “streaming” my travel glances. The innocence I once had is long gone, though.

I figured out a few of the problems along the way. My interest in art and craft has less to do with self-importance and more to do with durability. Art, as Walker Evans famously quipped, is useless. Some claim that art endures. On the other hand, craft has utility but is ultimately ephemeral— at least inThomas DeQuincy’s opinion. To me, though, durability seems to be a separate matter entirely. That’s where much of my research has focused these last two or three years. The death of my mother was a more recent catalyst. Death always leads you to question what matters.

I am resistant to identification as either a writer or a photographer these days because I think that both of these pursuits seldom lead to durable goods. I still want to understand the world better, to sort it out— but I harbor no illusions about writing or photographing my way there.