Sunday, May 06, 2007

The following is the talk I delivered at Books in Bloom this afternoon. It may be too long for anyone to read on the internet where few people have patience for such things, but I promised some people from the audience that it would be posted here.

For those of you who may read here regularly it may not have any new ideas, but let me know what you think...


First, it is unusual for a how-to writer to be invited to speak, and since most of what we write is dependent on visual aids, drawings, and photographs to be clearly understood, for a how-to author to be standing at a microphone is like parading as an emperor down Spring St. without clothes.

Actually I’m using a bit of foreshadowing at the moment since I plan to bring up the emperor’s new clothes later in the talk. Remind me if I forget.

This morning, I want to bring up three old sayings that are in an odd way related. The first is Chinese… that a picture is worth a thousand words. I would add to that saying that a thing of great beauty is worth a thousand pictures, and it is interesting to note that the written Chinese language, unlike our own consists of pictograms based on visual images.

The second saying I want to add is from the Island of Bali in Southeast Asia. When queried about Balinese culture, a man replied, “In Bali, we have no art… we do everything as well as we can.” I offer this quote to inspire some thoughtful reflection on our own culture.

The third saying is one that we’ve all heard time and again from the earliest days of childhood, Practice makes perfect.

Welcome to the May Festival of the Arts, and welcome to Books in Bloom. For some, writing may not seem an art in the same sense that painting is an art, or in the same sense that sculpture is an art. On the other hand, for some, writing is the only art. It is interesting to note, that woodworking has never been traditionally regarded as art but merely a “craft,” so as a woodworker, a craftsman and writer, I would like to address the arts.

I came to be a writer by following a path the Chinese refer to as “happy wanderings.” I am a woodworker who began writing about woodworking and I have since become a teacher as well in order to explain to others the incredible value of grasping and engaging the world through our own hands.

In human existence the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. In happy wanderings, you may go one way for a while and then, “bump,” something happens and you make a meaningful change in another direction.

In 1976 I began woodworking as a career. In 1994 Lin Welford invited a representative from her publisher to visit in Eureka Springs to search for other writers. Lin suggested to my wife Jean Elderwind, our local librarian that I meet with this representative about the possibility of writing a book on woodworking. I looked at the publisher’s catalog and I turned down that opportunity, thinking that I preferred to write a why-to book rather than a how-to book. So, that door being closed (I thought), I began trying to work on my why-to book and found that the subject of woodworking was far too broad to find a convenient starting point.

It was then that David Lewis called from F&W publications. He had walked into Nelson Leather Co. while he had been in town, had been shown my boxes by Jim Nelson, and went back to Cincinnati knowing that he wanted me to write a book. On the phone he said “I want you to write a book for us about boxes.” I said, “I don’t want to write a how-to book, I want to write a “why-to” book.” He said, “Give me 16 projects of how-to and you can put as much why-to in that you want.” In the course of that conversation I became a writer, and I also walked to a threshold of awakening about egotism and the exchange of creative ideas, about writing, the value of words and what it means to offer words that are backed up and illustrated by direct action and that make some effort to empower others in their own direct action and growth.

So now I want to talk about that first old saying: A picture is worth a thousand words. It is easy to see that writing is a form of story telling. It can be said to be narrative in the same sense as the story I just shared. A craftsman’s work is also narrative. Whether making a simple box or a beaded tapestry, the work describes the maker’s life, his or her level of expertise and understanding of the material. It describes the maker’s relationship to others and to him or herself. In fact the work can also be seen as being descriptive of the culture in which it was created. Archeologists have long been aware that the story of a civilization can be told through its artifacts and simple objects created by craftsmen.

There has been a smugness rampant in academia that has been too widely accepted in modern culture… that the written word is of greater significance than the visual image or the well-crafted object. In fact the level of advancement of civilizations has been wrongly measured by such a simple thing as whether or not it has a written alphabet without regard for the beauty of its crafts or the harmony with which it lives with its environment. I turn to the Chinese to remind us that words are not supreme to the visual image despite the state or our current culture.

Now, I want to discuss the second saying. In Bali, they have no art. They do everything as well as they can. In the United States and in the modern world, we have work that we call art in order to distinguish it from the vast quantity of meaningless objects that fill our lives, objects which were created without personal human attention, feeling or aspiration. We fill our lives with objects made by machines, marketed through television advertising, which we buy to fill the void left in our lives by the abandonment of our own creative aspirations. These objects quickly lose our interest and attention only to be deposited in landfills that form a permanent blight on our global environment.

There is merit in repetition. Practice makes perfect. By repeating ourselves we refine what we do. By repeating ourselves we have the opportunity to refine what we say, and if you will allow me the luxury of repeating myself, I consider the concept "art" to reflect the shame of our culture, and yet within "art" is the potential of our redemption. Please listen again and help me with this if you think I could express it more clearly. In Bali they have no art. Here we have the concept "art" because we need terminology through which to distinguish the carelessly made objects devoid of human feeling or emotion from those decorative objects that we buy as luxury items to convey a hollow impression of greater sophistication. (Here I am foreshadowing again. Think of the emperor.)

The important thing about art is that most people make it for most of the right reasons. We create because it is encoded in the character of every human being. If there were an instruction book for the successful operation of a human being, it would state:

Needs water, food, tools, material and creative opportunity in order to maintain mental and physical state of health.

The sad thing about art is that it has been pushed into a corner. Instead of everything being art, art is painting, sculpture, and objects with very little basic utility, and having only decorative use.

The third saying is about practice. Practice Makes Perfect. We may stand before a large white canvas in a museum with a small red dot at one corner, the whole of it masquerading as great art and forget to ask, “Where is the practice in that?” And if there is no practice, can there be perfection? Practice seems to be a relic of the past. The interesting thing about the concept of practice is that it requires both repetition and some level of measurement to which it is compared. It’s about getting better and it also implies that there is an editor, or a listener, or an observer within, taking note at which point corrections or improvements need to be made. We have come to a point in our culture in which art often stands alone as something from which craftsmanship is estranged and irrelevant. And a sad thing someone told me once was as follows…”if you can sell it, it must be art.”

Now I want to go back to the emperor’s new clothes.
Matti Bergström, a professor and neurophysiologist from Finland, said the following:

The density of nerve endings in our fingertips is enormous. Their discrimination is almost as good as that of our eyes. If we don't use our fingers, if in childhood and youth we become "finger-blind " this rich network of nerves is impoverished-which represents a huge loss to the brain and thwarts the individual's all-around development. Such damage may be likened to blindness itself. Perhaps worse, while a blind person may simply not be able to find this or that object, the finger-blind cannot understand its inner meaning and value.

If we neglect to develop and train our children's fingers and the creative form building capacity of their hand muscles, then we neglect to develop their understanding of the unity of things; we thwart their aesthetic and creative powers.

Those who shaped our age-old traditions always understood this. But today, Western civilization, an information-obsessed society that over values science and undervalues true worth, has forgotten it all. We are "value-damaged."

So, the concept of finger blind is easy to get, at least for those of us who work with our hands. What is meant by "values damaged?" A healthy individual or a healthy society works on a broad range of values that must be considered in the process of decision-making. Those values are diverse and often in conflict, but lead to an exchange of ideas resulting in thoughtful action. Those who are "values damaged" see only one side of an issue and act from a perspective that can be best described as narrow minded. Single-issue voting blocks are one example. Sometimes the worst values damage is related to the monetary value of objects. Those who have become fixated on money will look at a beautifully crafted object only in terms of its price, supply vs. demand and scarcity, seeing nothing of its beauty, historical significance or the significant growth that took place in the life of its maker that resulted from his or her efforts to create. They will look at a volume of poetry only in terms of its potential market, missing what it reveals of our shared humanity.

So here we go back to the emperor. He stands in a flight suit on the deck of a carrier in front of a banner proclaiming, “mission accomplished”, but he also stands in the check-out line with us as we shop for cheap things at Walmart.

If Matti Bergström is correct, the loss of the hand's role in education results in flat people, with little depth of real character or aspiration beyond their very narrow range of interest. Those who know nothing of the significance of their own hands won't get what I'm talking about. Those of you who do understand are also empowered to do something about it. Get busy. Write. Make something. Practice. Get better. Spend your time creatively.

What if everything that came to life, delivered by our caring and courageous touch was "art?" As in Bali, It could happen again.

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