Tuesday, May 31, 2011

maker's guilt

over the last few months I have started in on a side project making musical instruments, the beginnings of which I wrote about here.   I have started a side blog about this project, which I am calling "Salt City Found-Object Instrument Works" and which can be accessed at that link.  Syracuse got its start because of the salt flats here and so is informally known as Salt City, which I really like.  It is gritty, just like the town is, and utilitarian, just like the town is.  The new blog is really just a place for me to chronicle the instruments that I make, it is not too terribly deep an exploration into what they are conceptually, but that is okay, that is the kind of thing I reserve for this blog.

As I have been making more and more of these found object instruments out of tins and cans and sticks, I have been trying to approach the whole process by applying an absolute minimum of "woodworkeriness."  Whenever I pick up a hand plane I stop and try to come up with a different way to accomplish what I am doing.  Before I go to the table saw I ask if that is really necessary.  The idea is that I want to make these instruments as accessible as possible, right down to the manufacturing of them.  If I can really make a twenty dollar guitar using only the most rudimentary hand tools, then anyone can.  Which means (I hope) that the ability to make music could be at anyone's fingertips.  I have been working lately on a commission for a banjo, which I will write about over at the Instrument Works at some point, I think, that has turned into quite a wood working project, and I feel myself slipping away from the original roots of this endeavor.  The next one will be  more direct, I hope, and a little more basic.

The part of these that I have not tried to make yet is the tuning pegs.  There are friction-fit pegs in fiddles and dulcimers, of course, but I have not yet broached that, instead going to the local music store to buy tuners that actually I can get on line.  I have a couple of problems with this:  one, that I should probably just order these, since it would be cheaper and more convenient, and two, that I am just buying pre-packaged tuners and that feels like cheating.

I have been noticing this phenomenon occurring more and more in my life lately:  what I have started to call maker's guilt.  Whenever the subject of buying something comes up, I have started to instinctively recoil and think "but I could make that!"  It has started to seem counterintuitive to me to buy something that I could make myself.  This is a relatively new phenomenon in my life and it has not started suddenly.  Rather, it has been a slow washing in of a tide over several years as I learn the processes behind bringing objects in to being.  Not too many years ago I thought nothing at all of buying Ikea furniture, as I like the ├Žsthetic and it was cheap.  Now the thought of doing that really gets under my skin, even though there is no way I could ever make it as cheaply or get it into our lives as quickly.  Knowing that I know how to do it and that it is only a lack of will or desire that stands in the way of me making everything in our house sits poorly with me.

Obviously this is unrealistic.  Obviously I can not make everything in our lives.  It would take the fervor of an extremist to try to do so, and even then, I would not make very good shoes, probably, or particularly flattering clothes.  Or a car that works.  Or a stove or a computer or a bike.  Or even guitar tuning pegs, really.  There are things that it has to be okay to have other people do, there are objects that it has to be okay for other people to make for me or do for me.  I have no trouble, for example, hiring electricians to do electrical work on the house, or plumbers either.  And doing so keeps money in the local economy and allows those people to help provide support for their families.  So it is not reprehensible, it might even be socially and economically necessary.

That knowledge does not change how I feel, though.  I have felt maker's guilt rising more and more strongly in me in the last few months, and I have had to be pretty thoughtful about quelling it.  It takes a real effort to let go, to not cringe when I buy something that I could make if I tried, even if I could not do it very well.

None of this is intended to be an apology for being a consumer.  I think it is more that I am trying to figure out where I sit relative to the things that I consume and more importantly how to talk to my sons about that.  They are coming in to a world on a precipice, and their generation will have to be so much more thoughtful about what and how they consume and about their responsibilities as denizens of an extremely rich country.  I hope that I can help them find a meaningful and less damaging way to negotiate their world by thinking about how I negotiate mine.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

birth. day.

birthdays have always seemed more or less nominal to me.  They are a marker in time that often does not have a lot to do with accomplishment of deed or of a meaningful place-marker in one's life.  Twenty-one, for example, is supposed to be a big deal, but I turned twenty-one three days after starting a new job in a town where I knew no-one and spent the day completely uncelebrated.  That rankled me a lot at the time.  Now, eighteen years later to the day, it matters not at all.

That said, it is a useful way to take stock and to acknowledge that many ways I am fortunate.  I use that word - "fortunate" - advisedly (or as advisedly as possible).  I am not a fan of "lucky."  Luck is arbitrary, the face value of cards dealt you after a shuffle, and I have to say that I feel that life is structured in a more meaningful way.  Fortune, on the other hand, has more of a crafted implication, one makes one's own fortune, sometimes.  My facebook page today is a massive list of well-wishers, and each one makes me smile and reminds me of stories and of a particular time or times in my life, like counting back the rings of a tree and seeing years of plenty and years of drought, moments of joy or sadness or love.  Lots of love.  I believe it was true when that person said that we come into the world with nothing and we leave it the same and what makes our lives matter is the people we impact along the way.

Given that rubric, I am massively rich.  Today I have heard from people I knew twenty years ago and people I have met in the last month.  FaceBook is good like that.  I have had the good fortune to pass through the lives of a lot of people, and I am thankful for you all.  I am thankful for  your patience, your perseverance, your heavy-handedness when it was called for, your light touch when that was needed.  I am thankful for students that heard what I said and for teachers that said what I needed to hear.  I am thankful for musicians that played new chords and for singers that sang the words I knew.  I am thankful for family and friends and for the fact that I am able to say today that I am making a difference in the way that I live my life, even if that difference is small.

I spent today exhausted and joyful and still learning, and I ate well and drank a lot and had a surprise cake and finished the day with family and a kiss from my son and a kiss from my wife.  That is a good day.

I used to yearn for age and experience.  I spent a lot of time wishing that I was older and knew more and had the cache that experience and wisdom bring.  I know a lot of people that spend a lot of time and money trying to look or seem younger, thinner, sexier.  Tonight, I am ecstatic to be just exactly where I am, who I am, as old as I am.  If this is the beginning of 38, it is going to be a hell of a year.

Friday, May 20, 2011

in defense of a theater education (did I really just write that?)

i remember very little about the beginning of high school.  I am sure I was scared and I am sure that I tried to find my way in this new world.  What I do remember is that early on I got involved with the theater crowd.  In a high school that mostly served poor rural white kids and bussed in poor urban black kids, it is not much of a stretch to understand that drama was not a particularly high priority.  The drama classes and drama club then were run by a singular person named Maggie Griffen.  Maybe another time I will write about her, today I have been thinking about all that ensued.

Suffice it to say that she welcomed me and (along with the other drama club folks) nurtured me and brought me along.  Eventually I started volunteering at the local community theater (beginning a relationship that lasted until I finally got out of the entertainment biz entirely almost twenty years later), where I was taken under the wing of the technical staff and trained in what would later become my vocation.  This training was not, at first, a classroom training, but rather an apprenticeship of sorts.  We worked in the shop two nights a week, and when we got closer to show time we worked more and more until we were basically there whenever we were not at work or at school.  Then the show would come down and we would start the process all over again.

It was a magic time.

My jobs within that community started out as menial jobs, and as I learned more by watching and by doing and by being shepherded by very patient people I was given increasingly complicated tasks.  These culminated in being in charge of whole groups of people and large projects by the time I was a senior.  A senior in high school.  I had apprenticed and learned on the job management skills, carpentry, electrician work, plumbing, upholstery, painting, rigging, all manner of jobs.  I had learned these skills by doing, by using my hands alongside the hands of people who had been doing this since before I was born, by watching as much as by being told.

I went on to college, first at a state university and then at the recently re-named University of North Carolina School of the Arts (many of my peers are as unimpressed by the name change as I am, but there it is.  Times change).  At these schools I honed my skills, learning the "why" behind the "what."  I grew up a little, I learned a little more respect (not enough, but it is a slow process for a 20 year old boy).  Then on to New York to work in the field; cocky like a lot of young people, narrow minded like a lot of young people, self-absorbed like a lot of young people.  Though it would be some years before I started to hone in on what was missing (a socially active component, and ecologically sound component), a lot of how I move through the world was already in place:  a desire to work and work a lot, a need to use my hands, a passion for working with a group of people, the inability to sit in an office alone.

This all came to a head yesterday morning when I came in to the shop.  A colleague had asked me to make something for him.  A small project, very easy for me, just not as possible for him as he has a different skill set and does not have the equipment that we do.  So first thing in the morning I started in on this little job.  It was only after I was done an hour later that I realised that I had just reaped the benefits of my theater education:  I had worked quickly but precisely, thinking on the fly and planning as I went  - not in a haphazard way, in a very considered way but also very rapidly - I had moved material through the shop and executed the project at as high a level of craft as I could (which is certainly good enough for this project) and had, in an hour, finished and could move on to the next project.

This was only possible because of my theater training, and it was very satisfying.  It made me grateful for my early apprenticeship and for my later formal education, for my journeyman phase in the City, for all of the teachers and mentors along the way.  So I started to make a list of what I learned in the late eighties and early nineties in the course of all of this, the beginning of which is below.  This is an incomplete list, but pretty impressive:

Manual Skills:  carpentry, welding/brazing/soldering, upholstery, plumbing, electrics, tile work, furniture construction, painting, faux finishes, stitching, patterning, embroidery, rigging, leather work

Managerial skills:  group dynamics, time management, interpersonal communication, budgeting (okay, I don't use this a lot, but I know how to do it if forced as I have been over the years occasionally), adherence to a deadline.

Life Skills:  basic physics, basic geometry, problem solving, teaching, work ethic, finding joy and pride in my craft, respect for others, respect for and a love of history

There is more to the list, but that is a good start.  This post has turned self-congratulatory, which is a little grating to read, I know.  But this is meant to be less about me personally and more about the education itself.  There is a lot wrong with the entertainment industry, as there is with just about every industry, but the education has a lot about it that is right, too.  I have a zero desire to return to that field, but if either of my sons said to me that they wanted to pursue a theatrical education I would encourage that completely.  And as they grow and develop, I think it will be important to me that making and using their hands constantly will continue to be central to their learning.  

There is a bit of misdirection involved in this kind of education.  The focus is often on completing the task at hand, the skills that are being learned may not be acknowledged or even obvious.  But the deeper learning that comes from, for example, using a saw to cut twenty platform legs all to the same length does not leave one, even decades later.  I am very fortunate for the education I have received.  I am fortunate that I had the legions of caring and dedicated and patient teachers.  And I am profoundly thankful for all of it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

making and community

the State University of New York (SUNY) school of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) has been working on a biomass project with willow trees for about twenty years now.  Shrub willow, it turns out, is a pretty amazing plant.  Rapidly renewable, a good source of heat, a great candidate for phytoremediation, there is a lot to recommend it.  It also grows long and straight, and is very supple, which makes it a great candidate for weaving into furniture and other things, which is what I spent yesterday morning doing.

We have an event on campus called S U Showcase, which showcases student work from all over the college that has happened this year.  Last year, there was also an official opening of a rain garden that had just been completed on campus, that had been designed by ESF students.  It happened to co-incide with the time of year that the Willow Project folks are cutting down, or "coppicing" all of the willow plants, so that they will grow back the following year.  So we got some of the willow up here and I worked with faculty and staff and students to make a hollow form to celebrate the garden.  We all had fun (though it was cold and rainy), and the end result was pretty good.

Alexandra Fiust and I getting the basic structure in place.
This year, Dr. Rachel May, who ran the Showcase, asked me to do another structure, this time on the quad.  Of course I leaped at the chance to play with twigs again.  I went down and got three thousand or so stalks of purpurea, a species that grows long and straight and makes great furniture as well as sculptural objects, and then found a willing student to come down and help me start weaving them together.

One of the things that happens when you are doing something weird in public (like on the quad of a university) is that passersby fall in to one of three general categories: 1) too cool to even acknowledge that anything is going on; 2) interested but unwilling to engage, afraid that they will be tainted somehow by the weirdness; or 3) interested and engaged and willing to jump in and be weird as well.  It is interesting to me how many people fall in to category 2.  We had a bunch of people who stopped and watched, but when I asked them to weave a twig in they backed away as if I were handing them a basketful of slugs.  These folks are the well-trained products of a system and culture that teaches us that we can not be makers, that we have somehow been divested of permission to be a part of a creative experience unless we are specifically trained to do so.

But then there were fair number of people who fell in to category 3, who grabbed a twig and added it to the form.  One only needs hands to make this kind of thing, so no knowledge of special tools or techniques is required.  I tell folks that the only rule is that they weave the twig in , and if it stays, they have done it right.  They usually laugh and say something about how they will probably ruin the structure, to which I usually crack wise and try to get them to laugh, so that they are more at ease.  Some people actually get into the process and start to weave more and more twigs in, which is when I really feel like things are progressing well.  I got to meet a lot of people on the quad yesterday morning, people I would never have met otherwise.  I met a Spanish teacher, an art historian, a grad student who is the assistant coach for the cross-country track and field team, the administrative assistant of the math department.  Once they understood that there were no rules, that the twigs just get woven in and that is that, they were a lot more likely to join in.  Which was the point, after all.

This kind of project is always about community to me.  The individual twigs are very supple and have very little inherent structural integrity.  But as they get woven together, they start to support each other, just like people in a successful community.  Like people in a successful community, the twigs come together to create something that is very stable, and that is stronger by far than any of the individual twigs.  Like people, they all have to bend a little, but not break.  They all have to interact with the other twigs to hold them up and be held up by them.  And the material really dictates the finished form.  Though I start out with a basic idea about what I want it to be, each stick adds its own voice, its own pressure, altering the whole a little bit.  The finished form is actually quite strong, and may be close to the original idea, but is shaped by the multitude of voices of the twigs that make it up.  Beautiful, really.

The finished structure.