Sunday, December 27, 2009


for Christmas my sister Sara gave me the gift shown above. It is one of my favorite gifts this year. When I opened it I laughed out loud as a swell of memories hit me right across the chest. These are, of course, action figures that I played with for hours upon hours as a youth re-contextualised for presentation in a grown-up world. I am really excited to hang this in our house, and to have these little objects in my life again after 25 years or so.

But of course, this got me to thinking. On the surface, of course, these are exactly the kind of thing that I rail about on a regular basis: Foreign-made plastic gewgaws manufactured and sold to make a profit for a big toy company (Kenner). Rubbish! But these objects contain the kind of emotional weight that pushes me back and back into childhood in ways that are only good. So how do those contrary experiences reconcile?

They don’t, really, of course. All dogma breaks down at some point, some sooner than others. These particular three action figures have many layers and many facets of memory:

-Star Wars itself was the closest thing to a religion in my childhood. My first imaginary friends were the cast of the movie, and I have a memory of laying in bed in our first house in North Carolina (I lived there from age 4 to age 7) and talking to them and really imagining I saw them. I grew as the movies came out, and the religious fervor grew deeper and deer. I was a Jawa for Halloween one year, in a brown cloak that my mom made for me and mirrored aviator sunglasses to be the light-up eyes of the movie character. After we moved to the new house, my friends and I played the parts of the characters out in the woods until it was almost too dark to find our way home.

-The toys themselves were status symbols, in their way, especially with me and my friend Sasha Clapper. When a new set of them was released, we would save our allowances to scrape together the $2.19 (not a small sum to a seven-year-old in 1980) to buy the Bespin Han Solo, or the X-Wing-Fighter Luke. Birthday and Christmas called for lengthy strategy sessions as to which of us would ask for the X-Wing fighter (me, because I had the Luke that went with it) and which would ask for the AT-ST (him, so that they could fight). All these years later, the names and styles of the toys come back effortlessly, the ritual symbology not at all distant, burned as it was into my memory by repetition.

-The action figures themselves were incredibly important to my making as a child: Block buildings and sand castles out in the sand box and improvised tree house villages built in dogwood trees out of twigs and vines. Spaceships built out of toilet paper tubes or scraps of wood. I spent countless hours fabricating worlds or components of worlds for these figures, often spending more time on making the toys than I did playing with them. I still have some photos of the intensely elaborate sand castles and villages that I made, often alone, but occasionally with friends.

-As I grew older, the toys finally became a marker of adolescence, when I finally stopped playing with them all together. I did take a choice couple to college with me, but they became tchotchkes, knick-knacks to remind me of a former time, not toys to play with, per se.

As is true for many people of my generation, Star Wars helps us to identify others in our tribe. One is either a disciple of the movies or one is not, and knowing which side of that line one falls on helps us to make decisions about how we interact. It is one of the things I nerd out on, like wood and American History and old Union songs. I don’t nerd out on it enough to dress up, any more, or go to conventions or play the video games. For me, there is a purity to the original three movies and the toys that accompanied them. They live in a time and a place in my life, sacrosanct, unmoving and unmovable. The newer stuff is just that, the “new stuff,” and does not have the same fuzzy filter over it that the original three movies do.

Given all of that, how does one reconcile the plastic, mass produced toys with the general theme of what I write here? How do they exist so heavily in the same world in which making brings us closer to the world we move through? I am not sure at all.

What I am glad about, though, is that my sister has brought these three back into my life. Mostly because they are such important objects of memory and joy and childhood, totems of no small power. But also because it is important, I think, to stop and realize that there are no absolutes. That mass-produced foreign-made plastic toys can be objects of great creativity, can foster enduring friendships and meaningful world views, even thought they are made halfway across the world from petroleum products ripped from the ground in extremely polluting ways. Lots to think about there, especially as our own son grows and has toys of his own.

Ah, the holidays. Hope yours were as good.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

in other words

one of the colleges at SU is the Newhouse School of Journalism. William Safire and Bob Costas are alums, along with a bunch of other folk. One of the grad students in the Arts Journalism program saw my artist talk and contacted me a couple of months ago asking if she could use me to fulfill a project. The students in the class were told to find a working artist and to do a three minute multi-media piece about them and their work. She did a great job of editing, I think, and managed to sift through all of my words to get at the heart of what I am trying to do and say. Here is what she ended up with:

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


the proprietress of Waypoints wrote about artists operating at a remove, and it got me to thinking again about my relationship to the material I use and how I work. She was writing about the conductor’s remove from the music, in the sense that the conductor uses musicians who use instruments to make the music, and that there is a remove there that is not present for, say, a writer, who crafts words directly to give shape to thought.

What we are talking about, of course, is what filters we use to touch the divine, What lenses we employ to refract capital-T Truth, to portray capital-B beauty in a meaningful and honest way.

This conversation bubbles up frequently in the woodworking world as the conversation about dovetails. It is a conversation about the relevance of what is referred to as “hand work” in a machine age. One camp says that it is more honest and pure to use traditional hand tools and to lay out and cut the dovetails one by one, the implication being that because the tools are not plugged in they are more honest, more direct, and that they speak more about craftsmanship. The other camp says that the tools used are irrelevant , that as long as the end product fits tightly the methodologies used to produce it shouldn’t be questioned.

Both camps are right, of course.

The underlying question that is relevant to what Cheyenna was writing about is the question of operating at a remove from our work. How many tools have to be involved before the integrity of the work is compromised? If I use a table saw (which was invented in the 1850’s by a Shaker woman) am I at more of a remove from my work than if I write with a ball point pen (first patented in 1888)? How about if I use a computer to write, which is a device that is not only so complicated that I have no idea at all how it works, it stores the words I write in a way that without another computer they can not be accessed at all? If I cut my dovetails with using a marking gauge, a bevel gauge, a handsaw and a chisel, am I closer to the work than if I use a routing jig and an electric router? The electric methodology actually requires fewer tools, but is typically seen as being less “pure” somehow (especially by me).

This question of being at a remove, of operating from a distance, is central in my own studio work. The more we are aware of the origins of the things we make and their place in the “enormous long river” of history, the more thoughtful we can be about our own place in the same river. But it is interesting to me how selective I tend to be when choosing in which arenas I can be distant and in which I must be directly involved in all steps.

When I use a guitar to play notes and sing words that some one else wrote I do not feel at all that I am operating at a remove from the beauty of the song. Nor do I feel that I am not somehow making the song. In fact the sense of ownership over singing that song as beautifully as possible in that moment is incredibly raw, and comrades joining in the moment are bound very closely to me as the singer and musician, with them as fellow makers in a very real and relevant way. The fact that none of the craft involved is necessarily mine, that I neither wrote the music or the words, nor made the guitar, does not diminish at all the profundity of the moment nor my sense of ownership of and participation in it.

What, then, makes using non-electric (“olde-timey”) tools allow me to feel closer to my work? What is more “honest” about having to think about every saw stroke than about having to be thoughtful about how I set up a routing jig to make routed dovetails?

Part of it is that it is easier for me to connect to craftspeople that have come before me if I use the tools that they used. This is a limited view, though, as it is thinking about making in a physical sense only. Consider instead the modern cabinet maker whose livelihood is cranking out cabinets: This is a craftsman that has a clear and present need to produce as many cabinets as possible in as short a time possible, which connects him philosophically and practically to his forbears in a pretty direct way, which not only necessitates using power tools, it encourages it. My romantic attitudes about craft and its place in society is actually divergent from the day to day thought processes of the very craftspeople in the 19th century that I wax so lyrical about.

Yet again, we are at an impasse. What it comes down to is value systems, and about continuums of honesty and where we make a stand relative to where others make a stand. And the landscape on which we make that stand is constantly shifting, making it hard to plant a flag anywhere with absolute conviction.

What is important as an outcome of this rather circular thought process is that as makers we have an obligation to continue to be thoughtful about what we make and how we make it. Though these are questions without answers, they are important as questions, and the act of constant questioning is what, in the end, makes possible the most relevant making.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


here at Syracuse University there is a college called the iSchool. It is officially called the College of Information Technology, but iSchool sounds cooler, so that is how it brands itself. Yesterday they had a get-together for people from their school and from ours ("art and design people"). It was organised by a Ph. D. student with a background in art who is looking at communication in ways that doing doctoral work in information technology makes sense.

She said to us that the iSchool deals with the place that “people, information, and technology intersect.” The assumption is that the technology is digital, which of course I find off-putting. As many of you know, my relationship with digital technology tends to be contentious at best, and there are many things about digital technology that I find downright offensive.

But then she said that phrase about “people, information, and technology.” Which got me to thinking about technology. After all, a hand saw is technology, in the common understanding of what technology is. The root of “technology” is the Greek word “techne,” which means “art” or “skill.”

Well, I am interested in art and in skill, that goes without saying. “Techne” is also the root of “technique.” And of “technical,” which describes a lot of things that also interest me.

So now I am intrigued. Because when seen in that light, technology becomes something altogether different. If it is about using art and skill to manipulate objects or materials or data, well, that is what I do too, isn’t it? As a maker I apply art (I hope) and skills (which I am still learning, of course) to materials to make objects that resonate in some way with the end user. That is an intersection of people and information and technology in some way, of course. As an educator, I apply art and skill to leading my students towards a larger understanding of the world around them and of the field into which they are going to go when they graduate. Which is absolutely the intersection of information and people and techne-ology.

I still find the interface difficult. The screen is off-putting. I worry that we as a culture are spending too much time living life at a remove, that we have lost sight of where things come from, how they get to us, and what happens when they leave our immediate sphere. I worry about relationships that exist only digitally, in which two people may seldom or never meet face-to-face, and what that means with regards to interpersonal interaction. But then one of my best friends lives in New York City, and I only see her regularly through the computer, and many of the conversations we have in the digital sphere greatly influence the way I make and teach. So even as I fret about the implications of an increasingly digital existence, it does enhance my immediate life as a maker and a teacher in (what I think to be) positive ways.

One of my jobs now seems to be to figure out how to reconcile my Great-Grandfather’s handsaw with my Macbook Pro. And how do I help my students navigate a world in which the effects of the first are just as relevant as the effects of the second in a way that is not tinged with Luddite rhetoric?

Matthew Crawford wrote somewhat glibly that if you are in the U.S., and need a wall built, you are going to have to hire a local tradesperson, because “you can’t hammer a nail from India.” In his defense of the manual arts, it was impossible for him to separate craft from making, but the implication in that book is that there is somehow less craft in the digital side of making than there is in, say, plumbing. I share that view in the broader sense, but conversations that I have been having here over the past few months have started me thinking more and more about the craft of manipulating data, and the close corollaries that can have to manipulating anything else, whether it is wood or steel or stone or plumbing pipes or a car engine. In the end, it is using tools to manipulate a raw material and provide a finished product. No difference.

This may seem self-evident. It is not, I fully understand, a ground-breaking realization. But it represents a huge step for me, somewhere in the realm of the Catholic Church finally grudgingly admitting that, okay, maybe the sun does not, in fact, orbit the Earth. There is a great deal of thinking that I will need to do now about making and about craft, about the relationship of all craftspeople to their tools and to each other, and how we can all work together to effect positive change.

New bridges all the time, here, and new boats landing on well worn shores, bringing emissaries from a larger world. How lucky to be here now.