In Praise of The Makers
In his new book "Material: Making and the Art of Transformation", master furniture maker and designer Nick Kary explores the roots of craft, and what it all means.
By WILLIAM BRYANT LOGAN
A review of “Material: Making and the Art of Transformation,” by Nick Kary (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020)
Way back in 1508, the Scottish poet William Dunbar wrote “Lament for the Makers.” In ancient Greek, the word poet means “maker,” and Dunbar bewailed in verse the deaths of Chaucer, Gower, and other poets who had transformed words—the raw material for spoken sounds and meaning—into unforgettable poems, himself making such a poem in the process. Maker was also a word for the creator God, and for the people who transformed matter into human comforts and tools.
In crafted, direct and luminous prose, furniture maker Nick Kary celebrates today’s material poets—foresters, boat builders, potters, weavers, basketmakers, riddlers (yes, riddle makers!), wheelwrights, and writers—asserting their centrality to a full, sane life even in what he calls our “algorithmic times.” It is a bold claim and one he nearly proves. By transforming the material of this earth—be it the matter of words, the lump of clay or the grain of wood—Kary suggests that a person becomes more fully human.
In Material, Kary goes visiting, watching craftspeople at their work. He takes us with him, because he believes that from their attachment to their home place, to the materials it supplies, and to their own practice, his hosts fashion a way of knowing and living. The fine makers, he claims, are “at once decisive and submissive.” They forge a relationship with the material of their craft. At one moment, they assert their right to transform it, at another they let it guide them. The world around them is alive, and they are among its actors.
Emblematic of Kary’s approach is an observation about his own craft. Farmers near his home in Devon, England, call sycamore the “Devon weed.” It pops up everywhere, unbidden. It is not thought of as a high-quality wood for furniture. Kary begs to differ. “When harvested in the autumn and cut not long after felling,” he writes, “its cut face is creamy white and its texture soft and smooth. Dried with care, vertically and not horizontally, it will preserve its color and reveal its subtle beauty ever more when the artisan works it.” Here is a learned lesson that only hand, heart and brain together could have taught him, a clear example of the dance between decision and submission. If you treat the wood wrong, he goes on, it turns grey and worthless, fit for immediate compost.
Kary begins his book with a material history of his own place, a subtly Blakean reflection on its industrial past. Devon was the home of the English china clay industry and nearby Cornwall of tin and copper mining. At the outset, though the extraction of the kaolin for making fine Wedgewood china represented the beginning of industrial process, it still worked as an assembly of its various crafts, one Kary admires. The mining, on the other hand, ruined lives, homes and family. To make this point, Kary walks into a tunnel four feet tall, the workplace of generations of miners whose average lifespan was 30 years. The women, who with their children worked at the surface, often were widowed three times. He imagines his own body tunneled and excavated until only bones remain, just as the veins of tin and copper were mined. There were once 300 mines in Cornwall. Now, none remain, although there are plans to reopen one or two.
It is not machinery but our approach to industrial progress that he abhors: Whatever reduces human skills to routine repetition, whatever changes work into labor.
Kary is no Luddite. He loves ingenious machines, describing them with the same care and pleasure with which a painter sketches a face. Among the first portraits of makers is one of a tinsmith, who collects eroded stones on the beach and extracts their tin, using a rebuilt water wheel and stamping press, working the stone into human objects. Later, Kary delights in the stereopticon he inherited from his Viennese Jewish grandmother—who survived a concentration camp—a machine whose cogs were cut by hand and whose ingenious mechanism eats and displays box after box of the stereoscopic slides that bring back to life his grandparents’ place in the early years of the 20th century. He is equally happy about all kinds of lathes, from the simple impulse-driven pole lathes of chair bodgers, to the machines that let a furniture maker form dozens of slats at once, or the wheelwright he meets to make the whole whorl of spokes for a spinning wheel.
It is not machinery but our approach to industrial progress that he abhors: Whatever reduces human skills to routine repetition, whatever changes work into labor. The loss occurs not only in the factory or on the robotic lathe, but wherever a worker simply seeks to repeat a pattern exactly, not in the name of a tradition or a way of work (he loves how the identical spill marks on a piece of pottery show the rhythm with which the potter sloshed glaze from a bucket) but simply to make it ever the same.
If there is any paradise of making for Kary, it is likely Michoacán’s Santa Clara del Cobre, whose coppersmiths he and his family visited when they lived for a decade in Mexico. There, the making of copper vessels involved groups of men and boys, their hammers sounding one after another on the flattening ingot, one hammer rising as another fell, the women bringing water and food and minding the younger children who ranged around the workshop. The relationships here are central, and not only with the material but also with family and home.
Etymologically, the word “maintain” means “to hold in the hand”, a practice that begins with the newborn’s first grip. Kary loves this word, as he does many almost forgotten craft words that he lifts up in the light of the making they name, and then uses as symbols of the way he hopes we may go. Selvedge is one, the “self edge” that closes the weaving of a basket, giving it strength to hold its shape and do its job. It takes a practiced hand, its muscles developed to do this work, to close the circle: “The strength of the basket, he writes, “is reliant on the strength of the hands, the attunement of the maker to the utility of the basket.”
Another rich word he resurrects is “tillering.” In my practice in horticulture, we know the word as how a blade of grass continually sends up new blades around it, making a colony of stems. This is what makes your lawn thick and makes wheat yield so abundantly. Among archery’s bowmakers (called bowyers), it means the opposite. It refers to the way the bowyer slices away slender strip after strip of a virgin pole to make the bow strong in the fiber but able to bend evenly and rebound. It is a lovely image to think of both, as though what nature adds, we by an analogous process winnow to make a beautiful tool. Kary envisions the word metaphorically as the increase of self-knowledge through our lives.
Over the centuries, industrial culture has always prized the strongest metals. Its historians tell the tale of a past that was red in tooth and claw, with hunters spearing ferocious prey to make a place for human beings. Kary sides rather with Ursula LeGuin, who thought human culture was more indebted to the carrying basket—a tool for gatherers—than to the arrowhead and spear. There is good reason to believe that LeGuin and Kary are both right, yet we turned to our hard, long-lasting objects to name humanity’s major epochs: the Stone, the Iron, and the Bronze Ages.
Running through these ages, and the prehistoric times before them, stone and metal were not the only or even the best materials at hand. Why, then, did we use the hard stuff to mark our evolutionary ages? The reason, it seems, is that the objects made of stone, iron, and bronze survived, while the equally valuable but softer stuff—the tools made from bone; the vessels made of clay; the homes and canoes fashioned from bark; the arrows and adornments composed of feathers; the blankets, clothing, shoes and so much more made from skins; and the baskets made possible by simple blades of grass—all these composted back to earth, leaving only faint traces behind.
Through the millenia, however, it was wood that led the way in human making. Here is one example: For thousands of years, California’s indigenous tribes burned and cultivated woodlands, harvesting the resprouts for everything from basketry to clothing, bows, and arrows. At the same time, the burning helped to prosper their staple, plant-based food, especially acorn. Wood stood at the very center of their making lives. An average family had more than 40 baskets; tribes even cooked in baskets. A village needed several hundred thousand sticks per year to keep up with its myriad needs for storage, for sifting, for sandals, for carrying, for babies, and for serving daily meals.
“Wood is the unclaimed hero of all times,” Nick Kary writes.
“Wood is the unclaimed hero of all times,” Kary writes, noting that much is made from it or with it. Even his potters depend on it to fire their kilns. One of them loves the unpredictable way that ash and even leaf veins mark clay in the kiln. Another only takes her glazes from wood ash. Both are horrified by the biomass burning schemes in the UK that, in the name of ecological propriety, substitute biomass burning for coal and other fuels, sucking up the wood that the potters need for their kilns. Kary would be pleased to know that on the Somerset Levels, not far from his home, John and Bryony Coles and their colleagues have spent decades uncovering a Neolithic culture made largely of wood, much of which has been preserved in the peat. In light of their discoveries, it might be well to rename the Neolithic the Age of Wood.
Kary loves the culture of these perishables. Indeed, their very impermanence shows how the world works. His own calling card includes furniture he has made for celebrities, but the craftspeople he profiles here are often not making for the rich at all. The baskets may be lamp shades, the wagon wheels for cadets to use in cannon races, the pots for gardens. Among the most moving portraits is that of a riddle maker. (I did not know what that was until he explained it.) This is a man who in the midst of an ordinary life with a full-time job decided to learn how to make the kind of grading sieves (riddles) that allow us to separate sizes of sand and seeds. Not exactly a collectible craft, but a loving practice with a useful end.
“Material,” for me, is convincing in its examples. The makers are connected to the land around them, to its history, and to a calm and centered kind of knowledge that can only be acquired through the hand. As an arborist, my own business is with living trees, with wood still on the hoof, and my aim is to keep them alive and kicking. Pruning, pollarding (cutting branches in a tree’s crown), coppicing (pruning down to ground level)—all are ways to enter into a long conversation with trees. I constantly learn from them, as they graciously give me the wood, the shade and the beauty that I ask of them. But neither Kary nor his exemplars nor I now live in a world where our making is the stuff of daily life.
For thousands of years, coppice woodlands supported human beings around the world, but today not one in a hundred people even knows what they are. When Pete Fordham began the restoration of a thousand-year-old English coppice at Bradfield Wood by cutting many trees to the ground, the neighbors asked what he was going to plant instead. He had to explain that the point was for the existing trees to sprout again. Half a century later, the woodland is again supplying everything from bean poles to thatch, hedge stakes, small building wood, and firewood. It is also beautiful to walk in. A millennium ago, these products were the stuff of which places were made. Today, they are nice to have, but not vitally necessary. So why should we continue to practice these crafts?
Teaching seems important to Kary, and he is plenty ready with answers; there is even an odor of therapy about some of his writing. We can awaken others to a fuller humanity, he argues, by giving them a taste of the making. Near the end of the book, he visits the long-running Pyrites Summer Craft Camp in England. It is the nearest thing he has found to his Mexican village. There, people who largely come from cities spend a few days living together and learning how to make stools, bowls, cups, platters, shoes, blades, bows, and baskets, from those who are deeply skilled in their making. A community grows in the woodland around the sites each group has staked out for its work; meanwhile, the younger children play around them. All share meals. The hands learn from what the woodland gives them. For a change, no one is afraid to give a child a knife for whittling or a hammer to beat heated copper. For a moment, we might be in Santa Clara del Cobre.
By revaluing home, we can begin to bring craft back to us again.
This is good, as far as it goes, but closer than camp or classroom is an expanded definition of home. “Home for me is safety, family and belonging,” Kary writes. It is the place we are from, the place we belong. Yet it is more than that, I believe, and I think he would agree. By revaluing home, we can begin to bring craft back to us again. Home is likely the wildest place we will ever know. There occur all the ungovernable human events: being born, making love, raising children, sending the grown ones out into the world, ageing and dying. The place we make to hold this wildness has been and might be again the centerpiece of our lives, rather than a locus of consumption and a base from which to go out for entertainment.
Most of Kary’s makers find their material and their pleasure close to home. Though the workshop is usually a prized, separate space, it still exists within the family domain. One benefit of the COVID pandemic is that, for months, it has made the frantic culture of advancement, ambition, travel, and entertainment grind to a screeching halt. And what has happened as a result? Almost without realizing it, we have started to make at home again.
Gardens have been planted. Benches have been made. Screen doors have been fixed. Locks have been disassembled, understood, and put back together again. Stews have been spiced. People have remembered songs and sung them to one another. I for one have learned how to properly boil an egg. And the King Arthur Company ran out of flour.
It has been decades since many people were home long enough to bake anything. During COVID-19, they have been, and they have baked up a storm. March is usually a slow month for flour makers, but last March, flour sales almost tripled. The executives didn’t see this surge coming, and when they did, it was too late to catch up. They had the flour, but they couldn’t keep up with bagging and delivery. This is a hopeful kind of shortage. It means we have not lost the taste for learning and making, for the love that spreads by hand from home.
Think about it: for a goodly while, King Arthur, a company with $150 million dollars in sales in 2019, couldn’t meet shoppers’ demand for flour. People weren’t hoarding it. As one exhausted executive said with delight, “People were actually baking.”
If we can get home, who knows how much our hands can teach us again?
RELATED ARTICLES FROM CRAFTSMANSHIP MAGAZINE:
- For more on Santa Clara del Cobre, see Craftsmanship Magazine’s article about a collection of towns in Mexico founded in the 1500s to constitute a regional center of craftsmanship.
- For more on selvedge traditions, especially in the world of textiles where it is more commonly applied today, see Craftsmanship Magazine’s article, “The Secret to Vintage Jeans.”
- And for Craftsmanship Magazine’s attempt to aid and enlighten the Covid-inspired home-baking explosion, see “Artisanal Homemade Bread Made Simple.”