Sunday, January 16, 2011

plough shares.

Years ago, when I was a professional potter, Ceramics Monthly published an article about a Czechoslovakian potter who was using a 38 caliber pistol in the creation of sculptural forms. He acquired the pistol from the police for temporary use and would take blocks of clay in a plastic state, and blast holes through as a movie camera captured still images in serial progression. A 38 caliber police pistol for shaping clay is similar to using a back hoe to clean your teeth. It provides interesting effects, that may not of been of any real value. When potters finish their work, they fire it in a kiln, but in this case the firing came first and nothing remained of value except the movie images of the bullet passing through the splatter and mist of porcelain clay.

At the time, I was a serious potter and did not see the value of a 38 in my own studio... I was working toward more delicate effects that expressed skill.

I am kind of stuck in my mind on the relationship between tools and weaponry, swords and plowshares, and exploring the fascination our culture has with guns because I think it helps to explain a few things about the hands. I also believe that if we were trained in the use of tools, we would have a safer, saner and more creative culture, with less attraction to guns and gun violence. In a sense, the Czechoslovakian potter's work could be seen as a reaction to artistic and cultural repression. Unlike our situation in the US where he could get his tool for $40.00 from a thirteen year old drug dealer in Detroit, he had to borrow it from the police and return it when his blasting was complete.

There are striking similarities between a well crafted tool and a well crafted gun. They are each appealing to the hand. I have an interesting tool on my desk made by Bridge City Tool works, and although I haven't quite figured how to use it effectively in my work, I love the feel of it, its weight and how well it is crafted. Its working qualities cannot help but impress the mind, the eye and the hand. There are many of the same qualities available to the hand, in holding and handling a fine pistol or knife.

Human beings crave these tactile engagements. Our hands and attentions are captured by them. To have a pistol in your hand tells of a position of power. It can be put to destructive use without any long ritual of training or developed skill. And yes, I do know that many practice to develop skill, but also know that most do not.

Tools on the other hand, offer the same tactile qualities. A fine Lie Nielsen plane offers the same level of craftsmanship one might find in a Glock. And so it is time to compare and contrast. Both engage the hand. With a foundation of acquired skill the plane engages the imagination calling to mind things that can be created. The Glock, even with no skill, pushes the mind toward things that can be destroyed. A 38 fired into a block of porcelain leaves but a splatter and mist of that which was there before. Anything else you want to see in that state? You can do it and not undo it with what you hold in your hand.

All across the US, children have been educated in the tools of destruction. They participate endless hours in computer gaming in which their real fingers pull virtual triggers and their eyes, minds and hearts are compelled toward insensitivity to violence. Our politics tell them that holding and using real weaponry is their right. And on the other hand, our children are isolated from the tools that offer skilled creative engagement in their communities. The urgings of our hands are to engage one or the other. Our minds and imaginations take their cue from what we hold in our hands. The power to create or the power to destroy. I would prefer that our children have saws and hammers in hand, learn things that allow for the development of skill and community rather than tragedy and remorse. That we don't work toward skilled tool use in our nation's schools is a matter of my deepest concern. If what you saw happen in Arizona makes you sick as it does me, make, fix, create and make certain that every child in your own community has the same opportunity to develop skill in the use of real tools.


  1. Today is the first day of our series of slojd carving classes at the American Swedish Institute. There is some apprehension about having 8 year olds using knives. In Swedish schools the use of knives is introduced in 3rd grade. Students learn that knives are tools, not weapons, and care must be taken in their use.

    I am not teaching the class as I believe that professional craftspeople should do the teaching. As an amateur enthusiast, I want to support their paid work.

  2. Faith, I would love to see some photos of your 8 year old woodworkers at work. One of the nice things about being in a class when you are not teaching is having the chance to observe and take photos.If you can send some, I would be pleased to share them with my readers.

  3. Anonymous4:26 PM


    I share your frustration. Knives are (or can be) tools, as they are for my son who is a chef, and you can "shoot" someone with a hot dog roll, as a little kid did to me once.