If not golden, silence can be precious, especially when trying to find a way out of a bad design problem. As they like to say – “back in the day” – we used to layout lettering by hand. I was never good at it, and it was the part of carving that I least liked. As soon as computers came on the scene, I eagerly discarded the tracing and graph paper for a nice word processing application. But as I said back when it was by hand.
One particular week I was laying out a transom banner with a flowing font; the letters joined by graceful ligatures and flourishes. I had tried explaining to the client that the banner would be an illegible scrawl from any distance. But he was firm in his resolve. So there I sat, attempting to make the unintelligible both readable and stylish with my very inadequate skills. At that moment into my shop walked my nephew ( by marriage) Douglas. In the vernacular used by an English friend of mine Douglas was a “carker” – a whiney little brat who couldn’t shut up ( actually the term “bloody” usually preceded carker if Douglas was not around).
About eleven, precociously bright and with a mouth that was always moving, he was annoying. Today I was his babysitter, so I had the pleasure of his company while the rest of the family was in Portland shopping. I distracted him for almost an hour with a piece of wood and a plane as he practiced some plane craft. But now he was bored, and wanted to know more about what I was doing. It was not a good time.
Into the shop walked the client, spying the layout on the bench he started asking about progress. While we were talking, Douglas walked over and, grabbing the drawing, proceeded to turn it upside down and then back right side up. Smiling, the client asked Douglas what he thought of it. I was now flinching. Douglas was eleven, a motor mouth, and small for his age, but he was bright and didn’t like condescension. Flipping the drawing around, he plainly stated the obvious: ” This font is terrible. For identification purposes, the Coast Guard won’t like it. But if you turn it upside down, it’s a nice abstract design. I’d go with a nice font like Palatino on this, simple, elegant, and very legible.” The client was flustered; having your illusions shattered by a plain-speaking eleven-year-old was never pleasant. The client stormed out of the shop, and I had lost the job.
Sitting there, I took in the design I had sweated over, thought about the balance in the checking account, and pulled out my wallet and handed a dollar to Douglas. Douglas stammered out: “Uncle Wes…I am so sorry. What’s the dollar for?” Douglas had absorbed all my idle chatter over the past week about the design. He had also unknowingly relieved me of one hell of an unpleasant commission. ” Douglas, you did well – simple and elegant is good. I loved the way you capsized the design to look for a balance.” the kid seemed to glow, and for once was he was silent.
Another carver got the job after me and had similar issues. Sometimes you are just lucky when clients walk away. Douglas enjoyed an ice cream cone on me when we saw the completed banner gracing the client’s boat down at the harbor.
We can easily get lost in the weeds talking about tradition in crafts. It’s just hard to avoid observing that technology casts long shadows when you make something and call it traditional. The majority of shops that work with wood use bandsaws, table saws, and jointers. These tools have been around long enough not to ignite a vendetta among purists looking for “traditionally crafted goods.” But the technological landscape is always changing for the craftsperson.
Recently I have been nosing about on the borders. A few years ago, a series of eye surgeries compromised my ability to do certain types of woodcarving, mostly lettering. After surgery, I began to explore what I could and couldn’t conveniently do. The vision changes prompted the carving shop’s move from the old basement workshop into the greenhouse – I needed lots of light. Last year I also began to play around incorporating laser engraving and cutting as an adjunct to my carving.
Some things worked well, and others fell flat. Frankly, it’s all a work in progress. The small sign shown above is one of the projects that worked. Some of the others wound up feeding the woodstove.
Is it traditional? Well, was it traditional when craftspeople and artists began using acrylic paints or using computers to assist them in design?
Years ago, when I worked as an anthropologist, I knew a woman who crafted the most incredible Ukrainian Easter eggs. One afternoon over coffee Elizabeth introduced me to the history of technological innovation in the world of decorated Easter eggs. Over the centuries, dies and methods of preparation changed. But the community accepted the eggs because of the continuity of design and meaning in the community.
Back in the ’80’s colleagues were musing about Cambodian kite makers shifting from traditional fabrics used in Cambodia to the ripstop nylon available to them here in the United States. The maker of traditional Cambodian dance costumes received mention also. One of them had adopted the hot glue gun and factory-made jewelry findings to construct elaborate headdresses and other costume bits. They looked like the old style, but the components and techniques had evolved.
On one project I worked on years ago with boatbuilders, I asked builders what they thought was the central concept that defined the traditional boat. I had expected them to talk about materials, construction techniques, and design. I wasn’t disappointed because they all mentioned those things to one degree or another, but as a group, they said the value placed on the boat by the community that used them was central. One well-known figure I interviewed ( Lance Lee) suggested the term “cherish” as the central concept – the boats were cherished and valued by the community. It was the community of users that made something traditional.
The laser engraver that sits in the basement, and my visual handicap, got me thinking about these things. The concept of craft, especially when labeled traditional, has some minefields laid in it for the artisan. Look beyond technology to intent, the community’s acceptance of the product, and the continuation of design tradition. Sometimes we might be daunted by what we see, but the first carver who moved from a stone or bone tipped tool to one of metal started us on the moving process of technology in arts and craft.