Friday, April 30, 2010

losing the past...

Today we had an antiques appraiser helping us to divide my mother's household furnishings, and it seems that this is a sorry time for things from the past. People no longer have a sense of the value of finely crafted things. I asked the appraiser why. She said it had to do with sizzle and steak. People are drawn to sizzle but have no real understanding of steak. The difference between hand-cut and machine-cut dovetails? What's a dovetail? Most people these days haven't a clue.

If kids are not personally and presently engaged in crafting beautiful and useful things, they will likely have no real connection with real things from the past. And so, you can go into antique stores or attend sales, and you can find a few things with real historical significance for too little money. But then, what is the value of history? As they say in the law of geological uniformitarianism, "the present is the key to the past." And so, if children no longer have any connection with their own creativity in the present time, they will have no connection with man's creativity, and no sense of the process through which human culture grew and evolved.

Uniformitarianism and Catastrophism are two distinct, but not mutually exclusive views of how things have evolved. In fact, one could view the sudden loss of history through the sudden rise of virtual reality and concurrent collapse of hands-on creativity as being near catastrophic.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

disdain vs. care

I was talking with my 4th, 5th and 6th grade students on Monday, hoping to inspire greater attention toward quality in their work. They told me that Chinese toys break and that wooden toys are better. "Don't the toys you make in wood shop break?" I asked. "No, we are careful with them," one student replied. Another mentioned, "If we break them, we can fix them ourselves."

Are there special qualities inherent in hand-crafted goods? You see my students' work in the pages of this blog, and can compare what you see with what you get in a happy meal. Robert Keable Row, an associate of John Dewey wrote in The Educational Meaning of Manual Arts and Industries, 1909, "...there is the impulse to, and interest in, personal ownership, which finds it fullest expression in those things we have (personally) produced."

When I mentioned in an earlier post that McDonald's should give tools in place of toys, I was only slightly kidding. Tools empower the imagination. Often toys leave too little to the imagination. Can it be that Chinese toys break because they receive abuse inspired by a quiet disdain from an absence of qualities they fail to represent?

The following is also from Robert Keable Row, 1909:
"The marvelous development of machinery for manufacturing, with all its accompanying advantages has had this disadvantage, that it has deprived the worker of a large part of the personal pride and joy he had in the work of his hands. It is not unreasonable to hope that shorter hours for the factory worker, cheaper and better transportation to suburban homes, training in manual occupations in the schools, growth of the arts and crafts idea, and development of an appreciation of the difference between machine made decoration and the work of the artist-artisan, may restore to civilized man in general, and to the city dweller especially, much of that joy in human production of which machinery has deprived him."
Sadly, that hasn't quite happened yet. Kids these days know so little of what they can create. So, was I joking about fast food restaurants putting tools in their happy meals? While I know they won't do it, no, it was no joke.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Elbert Hubbard

Elbert Hubbard was the author of a number of books and as leader in the Arts and Crafts Movement was an advocate of the manual arts:
"I left school at fifteen, with a fair hold on the three R's, and beyond this my education in 'manual training' had been good. I knew all the forest trees, all wild animals thereabout, every kind of fish, frog, fowl, or bird that swam, ran or flew. I knew every kind of grain or vegetable, and its comparable value. I knew the different breeds of cattle, horse, sheep and swine. I could teach wild cows to stand while being milked, break horse to saddle or harness; could sow, plow and reap; knew the mysteries of apple-butter, pumpkin pie, pickled beef, smoked side-meat and could make lye at a leach and formulate soft soap.

"That is to say, I was a bright, strong, active country boy, who had been brought up to help his father and mother get a living for a large family. "I was not so densely ignorant--don't feel sorry for country boys; God is often on their side."
Elbert Hubbard is best known as founder of the Roycroft Shops. The Roycroft Creed was taken from John Ruskin: "A belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness"."

ban of toys, how about tools instead

Santa Clara County in California has taken action against childhood obesity by banning toys in fast food meals having excessive calories, salt, sugar and fat. I think that the fast food chains should give the kids real tools in place of toys. By giving tools instead of toys, the restaurants can comply with the legislation and make the kid's "really happy meals" instead of offering the same old boring plastic useless stuff. Rather than miniature Barbies and other plastic junk, what if they gave the kids real hammers and saws? It would certainly make me think better of McDonalds. Besides, if we are going to make our kids fat and unhealthy, we should at least give them real tools so that they can learn to be skilled enough to make up for it. Best, however, would be that parents prepare healthy meals and forgo the cheap fast foods that are killing our kids. Maybe the Santa Clara county legislation will make an important point. American corporations should be held accountable for delivery of quality goods.

On the final episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, Oliver targeted the problem of commercially prepared brown bag lunches. Busy parents like to buy things they think their kids will eat, but unfortunately, those "lunchable," plastic packaged prepared lunch items are not good for kids. They offer too much fat, too much sugar, too much salt, and are very expensive relative to the amount of actual nutrition they supply.

toy clocks

Today in the CSS wood shop, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade students are making toy clocks, to use in learning to tell time. This was a project suggested by their teacher, when she noticed that some of the students were not able to read the time from a standard clock. These will be passed along to younger family members as toys when the the lessons are learned, or they may be kept as a great memory of the wood shop experience.

I have been once again reading excerpts from the proceedings of the 1905 and 1906 Eastern Manual Training Teachers Association. I should note that the organization included teachers of both wood shop and domestic science. While one might disagree with the segregation of young men and women into separate tracks based on the stereotypes prevalent in those times, one cannot overlook the value of domestic science as a foundation for learning in all subject areas. It is a great shame that while cooking schools have become popular, cooking in public schools is all but abandoned. And yet, all children really need to know something about it in order to raise healthy families. One of the interesting suggestions made by a teacher at that 1906 conference was that all students be prepared in domestic science as a requirement for university admission. Like those involved in teaching wood shop, teachers of the domestic arts proposed that such training fostered a respect for the dignity of all labor.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fulbright Senior Specialist Program

The Fulbright Senior Specialist Program is sponsored by the US State Department for the purpose of sharing American expertise and scholarship with foreign universities. Having been approved as a "senior specialist," the United States government will pay for costs related to my service and travel for up to 6 weeks duration.

So how does that work? In order for me to serve, a university would have to ask. I was named to the senior specialist roster two years ago, and will remain on the roster for another 3 years, or until a placement has been made. I am still available. There are a number of things I have to offer and there are a number of ways I can serve a host institution. One of these, of course is to share information about the Wisdom of the Hands program. I can participate in such things as curriculum development, conference participation, short term teaching assignments and more. In addition, I have a great deal of experience in teaching box making and furniture design at an adult level. I still have hopes of taking advantage of this position and the opportunity it offers to share what I have learned.

Information about applying to host a "senior specialist" can be found here. You can download the .pdf flyer here. If you are associated with a non-US university and would be interested in taking advantage of this program and my participation please feel free to contact me using the email link at right.

today at CSS

Today in my own workshop, I've been competing with the Chinese, making small boxes for sale. It is an ongoing enterprise... ceaseless. About the time I get one set of boxes done to fill a hole in the inventory, another item is running low in supply. Remember this is a small business, run between making custom furniture, writing articles and keeping up with things at school. Working on small boxes is like going on vacation. Because many of the operations are repetitive, I can think about many interesting things while my trained hands proceed through the milling and assembly of parts. When my attention begins to lag, wandering far from the safety of my fingers, I quit and do something else for a time. Now I have most of the parts milled and am ready to inlay the lids.

The 4th, 5th and 6th grade students returned from their Arkansas travels, having gotten rave reviews on their journals. Their teacher, Michelle, regards their school made journals as an unmitigated success, and she hopes we can make them again next year. If we do so, it will be easier and the students will get even better at it. I also have a few suggestions to add to the refinement of their work.

Today the students wanted a "free day" in the wood shop to do what ever they wanted. I gave them spoon carving knives and some green sycamore, and free access to the scrap box. Some carved spoons, and some made things from their own imaginations.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


I use the word Comatose as an exaggeration to make a point concerning a matter which I will call, the "Sky King state of mind." In the mid 1950's most American children from the middle class were glued to the television on Saturday mornings. No one questioned whether children watching endless hours of TV was good for them... Americans still thought that TV was "educational" and certainly no harm, even though children were exposed to hours of commercials dedicated to the sale of sugary cereals. It was a one-two punch, a double whammy, limiting outdoor playtime and putting on pounds.

Those of us at a certain age watched a whole series of programs culminating with Fury about a horse and Sky King about a cowboy pilot and his airplane, "Songbird". If I made it as far as Sky King before getting up, off the couch and off to play, I noticed a particular curious mental state, fuzzy, disoriented, impatient, agitated as a symptom of my extended TV watching. It was a physiological effect that I could feel in my head.

I am curious whether others feel or have felt the same thing. It is like being drugged, and I begin to sense it these days if I am in a long meeting. It is a clear change of physiological mental condition.

We have become a society of enforced lethargy. Is it any surprise that some might feel agitated, fuzzy, disoriented, impatient. I wonder if the Sky King Effect has now become the current norm, indistinguishable because we no longer have the balancing effect of physical play and productive activity to establish the normative mental state.

Now, back to action. None of us should ever spend more screen time than is absolutely required.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

why anti-depressants don't work

The drug companies won't tell you all the things their research reveals, only those things that lead to the sales of drugs... or at least that's what this article reveals. A closer look at the data may reveal that the effectiveness of anti-depressants has been twisted to sell drugs to unwary consumers.

A better fix for depression might be found in physical labor, hands-on creative endeavors. It's why exercise works. The psychological mechanism is what Randolph-Macon College Ph.D Kelly Lambert calls "effort driven rewards." You do stuff and feel better. As we have become more sedentary, and have become consumers of information, rather than producers of meaningful, useful and beautiful things, we have thrown our natural human balance out the window... and pay the price in how we feel about ourselves and each other. A steady diet of creative, expressive, artistic behavior is a requirement for human psychological health and well-being.

Why Anti-depressants Don't Work by Mark Hyman, M.D. doesn't go into why the hands and creative work does work, but it does illustrate the huge waste of our current methodology. I should point out that all those happy pills are going into our waste stream, having an unspecified effect on our freshwater ecology, something our environmental scientists are beginning to have grave concerns about.

I would scarcely make light of the serious implications of depression. Its effects can be devastating. I can offer this simple advice based on my own experience. Make stuff, feel better.

Interestingly, early psychologists had observed some interesting things on this particular subject which might offer insight. As Henry Maudsley, MD had noted in his 1883 book, Body and Mind, the following:
"Fix the countenance in the patten of a particular emotion--in a look of anger, of wonder, or of scorn--and the emotion whose appearance is thus imitated will not fail to be aroused. And if we try, while the features are fixed in the expression of one passion, to call up in the mind a quite different one, we shall find it impossible to do so.... We perceive, then that the muscles are not alone the machinery by which the mind acts upon the world, but that their actions are essential elements in our mental operations."
Can it be that the act of doing, of making, of creating, may have impact on the emotions? Get busy in the wood shop, or the kitchen or the garden and you may discover a few things for yourself.

Engaging Learners Through Artmaking

Engaging Learners Through Artmaking is a book published by Teachers College Press that describes the use of creative centers to enrich children's self-motivated art learning and expression. The concept is relatively simple. You provide children the means and materials arranged in centers (e.g., woodworking, sewing, clay, painting, cardboard, etc.) through which they can be creative, and give them some training in each center, then turn them loose though not abandoned.

The authors, Katherine Douglas and Diane Jaquith had done an earlier video which I had shared with the head of Clear Spring School as a vision for our future arts center/woodshop.

The image at left is the finished box for my mother's ashes. As with many projects done experimentally, there are some things I would improve in a second effort. It is such an amazing thing to have a wood shop, along with the tools, materials and experience required to make things. Even when they don't turn out to directly compete with the perfection attained by modern manufacturing, there are feelings involved, and opportunities to express and resolve matters of inner landscape. Art is the process through which the self is most clearly revealed. Adults and children all need the opportunity to engage physical and emotional realities through the use of art.

The great ongoing tragedy of American education is that the arts have been repressed for so long. Engaging Learners Through Artmaking offers a formula through which we can get back to what we need most. The use of centers allows the students to make choices of which art materials and methods in which to engage, leading them toward artistic behavior which the authors describe as follows:
Play with materials
Dream and mentally plan
Conceive and expand ideas for artmaking
Risk false starts, abandon failed attempts
Utilize materials in traditional and idiosyncratic ways
Combine materials and genres (e.g.,sculpture with painting)
Complete several pieces in a very short time, or work for weeks on one piece
Pursue multiple works at the same time
Follow a particular line of thinking over time, sometimes repeating a series of similar works
Accept mistakes as the springboard for new directions
Comment on one's life, beliefs, popular culture, politics and history

If you think about it, you might realize that artistic behavior is exactly what the CEO of a multinational corporation might need to respond to changing economic conditions, and what every child must learn in order to be competitive in the 21st century. As we navigate a return to the arts in schools, authors Douglas and Jaquith have provided a useful road map.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Moral implications of craftsmanship

We tend to think of organized religions as the source of human morality, and yet, the crafting of an object is an expression of moral structure that likely predates any commandment or moral precept. Objects are made with care or they are not. Objects are made with an eye toward useful beauty, or they are not. Objects are made to last, or they are not. If we were truly concerned about building a society in which people care for each other, there is no better way than to engage our children in craftsmanship.

I have been reading Fred Taylor's book How to be a Furniture Detective, and find it to be a useful tool for anyone wishing to begin an in depth examination of the objects in their own home. You may find that some things were made with real integrity, and by examining them, you may discover the moral implications of craftsmanship. Some people really do care about themselves, and others, that care being expressed through their own hands.

In the photo above, you see the box I've been working on for burial of my mother's ashes. In the photo below, the box is assembled and ready for finish. A plywood bottom will be screwed in place, sealing it after the box of ashes is installed within.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

making a memorial urn

I was a potter when my father died in 1976, and I made a raku fired box to hold his ashes for burial. Now that I am a woodworker instead, I am making a simple cherry box for my mother's ashes to be buried alongside my father's ashes in Ft. Dodge Iowa.

I published an article on the subject of making boxes to house crematory remains in Woodwork magazine several years ago, but I rarely look back. This cherry box is being made with over-lapping log-cabin corners in a style influenced by Greene and Greene. The use of wider pieces of wood at the base, transitioning to narrower stock at the top will give the box a sense of "uplift," which I believe you will be able to see in the first loosely assembled mock-up in the photo at top. As you can see in the photos that follow, parts were cut in offsetting lengths to form the log cabin joint. Then spacers were used to position parts while they were taped together using package sealing tape. To glue the parts, I opened each joint on the side opposite the tape, spread glue and then clamped the parts together. Now, I am doin gother things while the glue sets.

Earth Day, 40 years later.

As a student at Hastings College in Nebraska I took part in the first Earth Day celebrations, 40 years ago. It seemed such a glorious thing, that my generation was rising to give earth its due... rising to act against the misuse and abuse by earlier generations. And now I look back in horror at what we have allowed to be done. The promise of those earlier days was squandered.

And yet, I have hopes. There is a simple fix. Plant, fix, make simple things that enhance life and reflect craftsmanship. Care for things; care for each other. Make music and dance. Live, love, and create. When your self-esteem arises through your own creative hands, your need to consume thoughtlessly and needlessly diminishes in direct proportion to your rising competence and confidence.

Happy Earth Day. Make something beautiful.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

smart tools assist idiots.

In a lawsuit described in the Boston Globe, table saw manufacturer Ryobi was successfully sued for 1.5 million dollars because they made and sold a table saw without the saw-stop technology. The man using the tablesaw was an untrained idiot, doing all kinds of things on the saw that an experienced woodworker would never do... cutting free hand, without a fence, with the blade raised full height to cut stock only 3/4" thick, and cutting wood while kneeling on the floor. He began the operation with no prior experience or training. The injury he received left his hand disfigured and slightly impaired.

The jury decided that because the manufacturer did not supply flesh-sensing saw-stop technology, which became available in November 2004 they were negligent in that they had sold a "defective" product. The complete idiocy and inexperience of the operator doing all the very wrong things, and the failure of the employer to provide oversight or training were not considered significant to the case.

As I have mentioned in the past, the purpose of various iterations in the development of tools is the transference of intelligence and cognitive function from the brain and hand to the tool, thus allowing greater numbers of inexperienced, untrained, inattentive and less intelligent people effective use (or misuse). This could be described as a shifting of cognitive function to tool to enable fool.

While expression of skill is the foundation of human culture, we are rapidly shifting from a skilled culture to one in which no individual is to be considered at fault for lack of skill and/or experience, or to be blamed when things go wrong. The saw-stop company, owned and operated by a product safety attorney is reportedly thrilled by the successful law suit. I should state that the saw-stop is a marvelous invention, that is saving hands and fingers of American woodworkers that would have been lost to stupid mistakes. But I question a law suit in which an operator and employer are not also held at least partially accountable for their own negligence.

Today in the Clear Spring Wood Shop, 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade students made owls.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Linsey-woolsey is a coarse pioneer cloth woven with linen and wool, the linen forming the warp and the wool the weft or woof. The linen makes the cloth strong and lasting, the wool makes it warm, but because it was usually made from local fibers and dyed with available vegetable dyes, it was not much sought after, until now when a cloth object of linsey-woolsey may have immense historic value.

Today, as I have worked in the shop, I have given some thought to the meaning of living in a small town. Linsey-woolsey is a term that applies. After some long years, you become woven in, warp and weft, the whole of you, with the linen giving strength of community and the wool warmth.

When you first arrived you might have rested upon the surface of community like a patch, and time if you give it and let it has a way of removing your coarse edges and working you in to the depth of the cloth.

As a culture, we are buzzing like electrons, skipping from orbit, from thing to thing, and I would like to offer to my readers a strange notion. We live in a facebook, blogger age in which we can befriend or be befriended by others who will always be unknown to us. But there is a real world out there where encounters can run deep.

Eureka Springs is a linsey-woolsey kind of place. And I would wish the same for each of you.

end grain maple

I am trying to help a friend figure out how to make wooden type for letterpress. The question, "Can end grain maple blocks be easily cut to adequate uniform tolerances .918 using simple technology?" The maple blocks shown are for testing and comparing with old type. I used a table saw with sled and stop block.

Today in the woodshop at CSS, the 7th and 8th grade students worked on incense holders and woodturning, and the 9th grade students worked on their trebuchet as shown.

This afternoon in my woodshop, I continue my friendly competition with the Chinese, by making hundreds of parts for small boxes.

Monday, April 19, 2010

today at CSS

Today in the CSS woodshop we had a visit from John Roberts, head of the Covenant Christian School in St. Louis. Our 4th, 5th and 6th grade students are prepared for their travels in south Arkansas, and today we made a couple things like they would have made for themselves and their families over 100 years ago. Button toys and thread winders. The thread winders are from Gustaf Larsson's book, Elementary Sloyd and Whittling.

Covenant Christian School is adding a woodshop, and so you can see that the idea of hands-on learning is gaining ground.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

effects of technology

Would you rather be skilled and engage dierectly in your work, or stand around watching a machine do it for you? Some love the modern world. We wait at the red light, hoping to go soon. We have surrendered control of our lives to mechanical and electronic processes.

And yet, the true craftsman is never bored. We watch the transformation of materials in our own hands into useful and beautiful objects that we share with others. If life were only about being faster, and more efficient, and not about the growth of skill we would stand around being as bored as the fellow in the advertising photo above.

One thing you will notice in the photo above... the bland nature of the materials being cut by the CNC router. Plywood, particle board, and man-made materials including plastics, eliminate the need for skilled labor by reducing the need for careful selection and intelligent use of materials. A piece of hardwood, random width and length, with the inevitable imperfections that are inherent in real materials requires artistic discernment to discover its best, most efficient, beautiful and harmonious use. Machines don't have that.


Haley Smith and Todd Hoyer will offer a slide presentation and lecture at the Arkansas Art Center, hosted by the Friends of Contemporary Craft. The presentation begins at 6:PM. Haley is currently working on a "hands" series inspired by the hand impressions used in the art of ancient peoples around the world, and particularly in her adopted home state of Arizona. She states,
"Our hands and minds can be our greatest tools, and the artifacts created by those tools, by civilizations both old and new are both prized by our cultural institutions, and taken for granted in our every day world. These artifacts and the rock art I have encountered, communicate much about the people who made them. The language that they speak, transcends the verbal."
Well put, Hayley.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hayley Smith and Todd Hoyer

I spent the day in Little Rock for demonstrations by husband and wife craftsmen Hayley Smith and Todd Hoyer. Todd specializes in turned wood sculpture, weathered and bound in wire, and Hayley does intricately textured work. Both gave thorough and useful explanations of their work and offered techniques I hope to have an opportunity to explore in my own woodworking.

The presentation in Little Rock was similar in content to one offered earlier in North Carolina which you can read about here. Spending a day in a woodshop watching artisans at work makes one itchy to get back in one's own shop. The workshop was held at the UALR Applied Design Center and was sponsored by the Arkansas Arts Center. Hayley's work is shown at left and Todd's below.

Friday, April 16, 2010

tactile mind

The hands have the unique power and utility to compensate for the loss of other senses. What has been billed as "pornography for the blind" by Lisa J. Murphy, Tactile Mind is a book of thermoformed images with braille to allow the blind to explore anatomical shapes.

When Helen Keller had long talks with Mark Twain, she would place her hand on his face so that her thumb would touch his chin, her first finger touch the intersection between upper and lower lip and her second finger where it could touch the nose. She would be able to read his words by sensing the vibrations and movement. She and Mark Twain spent many long hours in conversation with her hands placed just so.

There is a natural intimacy when the hands are engaged in the exploration of physical, cultural and social realities. And the hands are the key.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Clark & Williams Plane Makers

You will find an article about a great personal friend, Larry Williams, in the current issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. Larry and I go way back to the 1970's when we worked together on some projects and competed on others. The planes he makes with partners Bill Clark and Don McConnell are amazing works of useful art. Also, please check out their website.

While in Omaha, My sister Sue and I played furniture detective, examining some of my mother's furniture, trying to learn more about its manufacture and origins. The grandfather clock shown in the photo above is made by New Haven Clock Co. and apparently not uncommon. Fred Taylor of has a book and DVD for those who want to know more about interesting antiques you may own or would like to purchase. Another piece in the collection is a secretary by Eastlake. It was my desk as I was growing up, and I was always intrigued by the pin and cove, or Knapp joint, named after the inventor, Charles B. Knapp of Waterloo, Wisconsin. My students finished their travel journals today and the high school class made great progress today in making an "Ark of the Convenant" for their studies of world religions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

fish out of water

It has been said that the fish will be the last to discover water. I ran across that line in a book by educational psychologist (and more) Jerome Bruner.

What is it like to live in the surrounding sea of a mother's love? Many of us have had that experience, and for me, in the past few days, I can tell you that such seas can surround, even when the water has left the tub.

I have been considering the significance of kindergarten and the teaching of Friedrich Froebel, and a great place to learn about him and his work is Norm Brosterman's book, Inventing Kindergarten. It is a book I highly recommend.

Kindergarten has had a profound influence on the ever changing landscape of American education. Sometimes the school pendulum swings toward the manipulative objects, songs, and finger play that Froebel brought to the world's education, and sometimes it swings severely (and coldly) in the other direction. My mother's classroom at Wakonda Elementary was firmly rooted in Froebel's music and imaginative play, and in my mind if the pendulum ever swings far from what she did in her classroom, (as it has in more recent years, NCLB and all) then we present tragic circumstances for our nation's children.

Froebel's mother died when he was less than one year old, and having lost the sea of love which surrounds many of us, he understood and explained the role that mother's love played in the growth of a child. He recognized and taught that the young mother was the child's first teacher, and through his book, Mother-Play and Nursery Songs, 1844, proposed the means through which mothers might take a more deliberate role in their children's education. Also, while teaching up until the time of Froebel was a masculine occupation, Froebel understood the potential of women as teachers in schools. And so, as my mother chose her career as a teacher, it was to be planted in the grounds prepared by Froebel's kindergarten. As Dorothy Stowe became a young mother, the foundation of her kindergarten training at Iowa State Teacher's College, brought strength and purpose to that as well.

And so, this morning I propose a simple swing in American education. I want to give schools a very gentle nudge. Instead of kindergarten being an early childhood thing, I would like to propose that its spirit prevail in all things. Can you imagine schools from which all young men and women emerge with a clear understanding of their own roles and responsibilities in teaching and nurturing their own children? I was lucky in that regard to have a kindergarten teacher for a mother, who understood the principles of gentle, systematic early childhood development and growth. I am grateful for the calm sea in which I learned to swim and very proud of what my mother did through her long career to still the waters for children and young parents at Wakonda Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska. If you've got kids, teach them to do real stuff. Make time for the virtual world to be put to rest. Cook, care, nourish, make, fix, create, plant, sew, grow, educate, educe, draw forth.

Monday, April 12, 2010

early days

As my readers know, I have been going through my mother's things, and her old photos are a gold mine of memories for my sisters and I. When we lived in Memphis, my dad was continuously involved in fixing up our home. In the back yard we had a old rickety garage which he had dramatically removed through the use of a long rope and a 1946 Hudson. In its place he built us a playhouse with overseas shipping crates from the Memphis General Depot where he was a major at the time. You can see that building things is a very strong part of the Stowe family genome. Shown above with my dad, are my sisters Ann and Sue, with Mary to come a few years later.

At one time in America, this is what families did... We made things. We built things and learned things together. Now, as children are plugged into electronic devices in excess of 11 hours a day (according to a major survey), many other normal engagements in human hands-on creativity have been abandoned or severely curtailed. We suffer for the loss.

Prior to the 21st century, many teachers and administrators knew the value of hands-on learning for all students. As a craftsman with over thirty years experience, having written 6 books and over 60 articles about crafting things from wood, and having been named a "living treasure" in my adopted home state of Arkansas, I do know what I'm talking about. We are smarter, and happier when we are engaged hands-on. We are more deeply appreciative of human culture when we have become engaged in creating at least a part of it. Our human character is given greater depth and purpose when we have through our own experience learned the dignity and value of skilled human labor.

Make, fix, plant, cook, sew, create. Learn, grow, express. Our lives (and yours) will be richer and more meaningful through your labors.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I am here in my mother's home, surrounded by her things and memories of her love. Two of my sisters and I have been going through her things, organizing papers, planning for her memorial service and the distribution of her household goods.

I have mentioned before in the blog, that I am a woodworker for three reasons. My mother, in my earliest years, provided creative opportunities for the making of things. Whether with finger paints, modeling clay or hammers and nails, our hands were kept busy, and our minds as well. Her training as a kindergarten teacher had a profound effect on her role as a mother and gave an understanding of her children's needs for growth, which of necessity involved the hands. Secondly was my father's role of encouraging each of us, including my mother, to be engaged in creativity and the arts. Here in my mother's home, I am surrounded by many things that were made by my mother, my sisters and myself, including clay and bronze sculptures. Each of these objects can be viewed as a symbolic representation of a vast reservoir of encouragement toward growth. I have mentioned before the Shop Smith that my parents gave me on my 14th birthday and which is still in use in my wood shop. While parents today may give powerful consumer electronics to their children to serve as entertainment and distraction, no reasonable comparison can be made with a real tool that gives the capacity of physical creativity. Third in influence would be my great aunt Allene. As a 6th grade school teacher in Ft. Dodge, Iowa, it was Aunt Allene who introduced my mother and father in 1946. In addition, my mother's house was filled with fine things that Aunt Allene had given; art, glassware, furniture, that formed a baseline of quality in our home and inspired my interest in quality craftsmanship.

At this point, it is a comfort to be surrounded by my mom's things. While we are busy sorting, arranging, and disbursing, we feel the love and encouragement she shared with us from her training as a kindergarten teacher. I could only wish that all on this planet might be so blessed. I you have a child or grandchild, put their hands to work in their learning. Cook, plant, make, create. Express your own creativity. Set an example that will keep the wisdom of the hands alive. Blessings will ensue.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Dorothy Stowe

My mother, Dorothy Stowe, passed away on Wednesday night. She was a remarkable woman throughout her 88 years. As a young woman, she sang on the radio in northern Iowa and Minnesota with two friends. They were urged to go to Nashville where they were assured they would make it big. But mom decided that what she really wanted to do was teach kids.

She became a kindergarten teacher with much of her career being spent at Wakonda Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska. She was helped in her classroom by two puppets, Angel and Tutu. Angel was very shy and would only come out when the children were very quiet. And so, she created a magical, mystical kindergarten experience for many hundreds of children in her kindergarten career. I was always mystified that she could know all the names of up to 30 children in her first day of school, and that she then often remembered their names years later when she saw them grown. I was with her a number of times when large grown up black men came running across parking lots crying "Mrs. Stowe!" to give her a hug. The day of her retirement was celebrated throughout the rather large city of Omaha, Nebraska as "Dorothy Stowe Day," so named by the Mayor of Omaha, and proclaimed above the title of of the Omaha World Herald.

Her inspirational kindergarten teaching techniques were celebrated and admired by other many other teachers and one small example is shown in the photo above captured on the front page of the Omaha World Herald.

My mother was an avid story teller, and my sisters and I heard many, hundreds of stories about her school children as we were growing up. She set a wonderful example for each of us, both in our experiences of her as a young mother, and throughout her teaching career.

At the age of 79, she decided to follow one of her earlier ambitions. In school she had devoted a great deal of creative energy in the design of bulletin boards for her classroom. She also had stories circling in her head, a few lines of which she had written as text. Not wanting to be subjected to possible refusal and editorial control by a major publisher, she set up her own company, Versatale Press. Taking torn paper and words about "Little Bear," she wrote, illustrated and self-published her first book and then 6 more over the next 9 years. Her most recent book was finished and published in the last month and she wondered what she would write about next.

Being a published author led her back into classrooms and school assemblies where she encouraged children to read and write. Whereever she went she carried a bag of books to give to the children she met. Her most recent books were not published to sell, but to give away and encourage children to read...

As I said at the start, Dorothy Stowe was a remarkable woman. My own creativity comes from being her son, and I can hardly begin to describe how much she will be missed.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

"It is the hand..."

"It is the hand that enables the mind to realize in a thousand ways its highest imaginings, its profoundest reasonings, and its most practical inventions." --James MacAlister, Superintendent of Schools of the City of Philadelphia, 1882.

This morning, I am continuing my competition with the Chinese and other developing nations by making small boxes. An order from Appalachian Spring depleted my inventory, and so I am put to work replenishing supply. Cutting hundreds of small parts would be considered mindless work. Using a sled on the table saw, I can easily make repetitive cuts to very precise dimensions, but each piece has to be examined for imperfections that would lead to a less than perfect box. But still, trained hand and eye simplify the task to the point that my mind can wander into other things of a more philosophical concern.

The capacity to do such work is dependent on what Sir Charles Bell, in 1864 called "muscle sense," as follows:
"By such arguments I have been in the habit of showing that we possess a muscular sense, and that without it we could have no guidance of the frame. We could not command our muscles in standing, far less in walking, leaping, or running, had we not a perception of the condition of the muscles previous to the exercises of the will. And as for the hand, it is not more the freedom of its action which constitutes its perfection, than the knowledge which we have of these motions, and our consequent ability to direct it with the utmost precision."--The Hand: Its Mechanisms and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design
And so as my hands are trained smart, and the eyes, too, I reflect on the wisdom of the hands... My hands and yours as well. Some get the message easily, as it reflects what they know from their own experience. Some have been taught that labor, even skilled, is a form of denigration, to be escaped through refuge in academic pursuits.

It is easy to explain all this to some. It is much more difficult to explain to some who have not had the joy of creating something with their own hands. If you are one who gets it, join in the expression of these meaningful values to others. Make, Cook, Sew, Fix, Create, Plant, Nurse, Tend, and Care through the creative capacity of your hands. Then talk about it. There are some who will not be inspired to create until you have shared your own joy in the making of real, beautiful and useful things.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Kinesthetic modeling. (holy scrap)

I asked a hand tribe member, John Ward about the use of manipulatives in Ken Blanchard training sessions to see if he did anything similar, and for the same reasons... to get participants into a more creative, relaxed, open and expressive mental state. John sent me this link to his blog, Many Minds, which I know other readers may enjoy. John calls his manipulatives "holy scrap".

It seems that some in corporate America understand the hands, and our need for creative expression better than our schools where too often, hands are expected to be stilled and inexpressive. Think of what you see in the photos above and below as something far more interesting and useful than taking notes.

Free day!

The first, 2nd and 3rd grade students love nothing better than having a "free day" in the wood shop where they make what they want... within reason. No dining sets this year, or things too large to fit safely in the van for the trip back to the elementary school campus.

The photo above shows that if first grade students mix enough colors together, they get brown.
"All the great early Italian masters of painting and sculpture, without exception, began by being goldsmith's apprentices... they felt themselves so indebted to, and formed by the master craftsman which had mainly disciplined their fingers, whether in work on gold or marble that they practically considered him their father, and took his name rather than their own." -John Ruskin

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

junkyard poet, New York Times

Junkyard Poet of Whirligigs and Windmills

Care vs. being good at.

My 8th and 9th grade students started work today on a trebuchet. They had been asking to make one and I agreed that if they came up with the plan and if all in the class was interested, it could be made in woodshop. I wanted the kids to give special attention to precision in the cutting of parts, so we had a discussion before starting. I asked them what someone would see and understand when they saw the quality of their work... The first answer, "that we're good," is not the answer I was looking for. Being good at something may imply that skill is a gift, arrived at without effort. That is almost never the case. More important, I think, is for one's work to express care. Is it "careful" and caring? Was it done thoughtlessly or mindfully with deep concern for the quality of the results?

Being good at something is often perceived as a stopping point in one's growth. Caring is an exercise for which there are no limits.

In the photos above and below, students are fitting intersecting parts, using a saw and chisel to make a lap joint.

Monday, April 05, 2010

civil war game, fox and geese

My 4th, 5th and 6th grade students are preparing for their trip to the diamond mines in Murpheesboro, and to Old Washington State Park where they will take part in Civil War reenactment. They have been making things in the wood shop to prepare for their trip. We finished their travel journals and now, the students just finished making fox and geese games, a game that many soldiers on both sides played as they waited for battle. This idea came from A.J. Hamler's new book Civil War Woodworking: 17 Authentic Projects for Woodworkers and ReenactorsThe image below shows the technique for cutting all the pegs to the same length. Put the pegs through holes in the board, then hold the saw flat to the face of the board as you cut the pegs to length.

working to escape work?

We have created work and working environments to be so oppressive, demeaning, and uninteresting that we have millions working in hopes of escape through retirement.

As an alternative, I highly recommend the life of a self-employed craftsman. It is challenging, engaging, offers the opportunity to develop skills at your own pace in a number of areas, using the full range of your intelligence. You can alleviate boredom, by pushing your own limits at a pace comfortable to your own needs for psychic fulfillment and growth. For the craftsman, work can be wonderful.

The first "hardest part" of being a craftsman is developing work that is distinctive, beautiful, useful, with perceived values that enable your products to be sold at a price that supports making a business of your work. Then the second "hardest part" is that there is no income security in being a craftsman. The uncertainly is near certain. Your income rises and falls on your own effort, creativity, and product sales.

On the other hand, I heard a report on the radio that the average worker will have had 12 jobs in 4 occupations before turning 40. We live in insecure times. By making our technology easy to use, we have made it so that anyone in the world can use it as easily and as effectively as we can. By asking so little of our children, we have given them very little of that which they will need to compete. And so, the future may belong to the makers... the artisans of the world; those who who take on the physical, mental and emotional challenge of creating beautiful useful objects of deeper and greater meaning. It is work worth working hard to capture and keep, to escape not one single minute.

On a related subject, Peter Rhodes sent the following link from Australia. Helicopter parents not doing enough to let children fail by Anna Patty in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

intellect and the use of tools

The following is from Charles H. Ham, Mind and Hand:
Nothing stimulates and quickens the intellect more than the use of mechanical tools. The boy who begins to construct things is compelled at once to begin to think, deliberate, reason and conclude. As he proceeds he is brought in contact with powerful natural forces. If he would control, direct, and apply these forces he must first master the laws by which they are governed; he must investigate the causes of the phenomena of matter, and it will be strange if from this he is not also led to a study of the phenomena of mind. At the very threshold of practical mechanics a thirst for wisdom is engendered, and the student is irresistibly impelled to investigate the mysteries of philosophy. Thus the training of the eye and hand reacts upon the brain, stimulating it to excursions into the realm of scientific discovery in search of facts to be applied in practical form at the bench and the anvil.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

once again

Today I am once again competing with the Chinese, and every other highly productive nation that delivers products for sale to the American people. Boxes! I got a large order from the Washington, DC gallery that sells my work, and when what I have in stock goes out the door, I will have significant holes in my inventory. What you see in the photo above, are strips of walnut and linden in the process of being planed to thickness. I start with 1" stock, rip it wider than finished width and re-saw it down the middle into two strips, approximately 7/16" thick.

From these strips, I will cut parts to finished length after discarding sap wood and defects. I assembled these boxes with mortise and tenon joints and they will be like those shown below.

iPad, ease of use, intuitive technology, easy and why?

What happens when we make things easy for our children? I was told recently of a parent who said, "My husband and I don't ask our son to do anything he doesn't want to do." That would be a fine strategy if for some reason the son was inspired by an overwhelming internal force to push and test his own limits by taking on demanding physical and intellectual challenges. One might hope that could be true. Otherwise, one might be literally frightened for what might come.

I have been reading about the wonderful new iPad, which places the world at your fingertips. Real fingertips, but not exactly the real world.

If you have been watching the relentless march of consumer electronics, the idea behind every introduction of each new device is that it makes things easier. Apple Computer is the world's leader in the design of products whose use is both easy and intuitive. I use a mac desktop computer for all my computing because when the computer became an obvious necessity for business, the mac was the easiest for a non-geek artist type to master.

So here I am typing on my mac and sharing it with you. There is a place for this technology stuff. But can it displace the need we have to do difficult things? Accomplishing difficult, challenging tasks are the building blocks of real self-confidence and genuine self-esteem. Are we doing anything to prepare our children for an uncertain future when we fail to offer them difficult challenges, and when we refuse to ask them to do things they just don't want to do?

Last night I watched another episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. It continues to be compelling and interesting television. In last night's show, Jamie Oliver enlisted a small group of troubled teens to prepare a dinner for their parents, a group of celebrities and local politicians. It was an extreme challenge that the kids met through hard work. One thing one would note about last night's program was the sincere pride the teen cooks felt from their preparation of food. No surprise. It was honest work and they earned it.

What is it about parents that make them think that they are doing their children some kind of great favor by making things easy for their kids?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Ruskin Mill

The value of crafts education is described at Ruskin Mill as follows:
In 1984 Aonghus Gordon discovered that when such students work with craftspeople in natural environments on real-life, purposeful tasks, their personal, emotional and social skills, behavior and health improve dramatically.

going from mindless to mindful

From careless to care... My high school boys have become interested in spoon carving, but I am suspicious that they are just looking for an excuse to sit outside on a beautiful day. A spoon is a relatively small object that would most often be taken for granted, and almost never be regarded as art, though it would fit in the slot shown in the photo below. Part of the challenge in making a spoon is in knowing the use of the tools required. Another challenge is to understand the qualities of the material being used to make it, the grain direction and density of the wood. The third is to understand what a spoon needs to be in the first place... understanding how it needs to be shaped for comfortable and effective use. There are mental images of what a spoon needs to be that are unrelated to its necessary shape. For instance, in carving a spoon, the kids seem to think that the bowl needs to be very deep, but by carving deep they are just making more work for themselves and making the spoon less effectively shaped for some uses.

I have this very strong suspicion that high school students are becoming more difficult to reach. They are engaged in text messaging, the internet, conversations with peers. But to get them physically engaged in the real world, practicing the things that earlier generations practiced with the intention of gaining skill can be a tough sell.

Their teacher tells me that to have a time in which they can relax the mind... doing something of a different mind and relaxing like carving wood is a necessary thing, but I have hopes that by modeling my own carving techniques that their interests will grow toward developing skills of their own. Like nearly anything else, carving wood can be careful and mindful, or something quite different from that.

Does modern technology in which everything is made "easy" and "user friendly" present the level of challenge that children need to develop as resilient and resourceful human beings? As I watch kids in the world, I am beginning to have serious doubts. Many adults have come to discover that doing things that are challenging present the greatest intrinsic rewards, but that is a tough lesson to sell to kids who have never really been expected to do physically demanding work.

The spoon in the image above is one I carved in class yesterday.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

craft as the foundation of art...

Anthony Burgess wrote the following in his book, But do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?:
"Art begins with craft, and there is no art until craft has been mastered. You can't create unless you are willing to subordinate the creative impulse to the constriction of a form. But learning a craft takes time, and we all think we're entitled to short cuts...... Art is rare and sacred and hard work and there ought to be a wall of fire around it".
My thanks to fellow crafthaus member Glen Gardner for the quote. I want to call your attention to the photo below from Ellie Richard's "insert artwork" project at ASU. Is art such that it fits within a box and through a slot of a particular dimension? For those who narrowly define art to exclude certain forms including crafts or particular types of crafts the slots on the boxes below seem an appropriate metaphor. Don't you just wonder what some might put inside?

hand written lists?

To do or not to do? That is the question... Whether it is nobler to sit at the sidelines watching life pass by, or to get one's hands dirty in service of others. Is there really any question here? Start by making a list. What do you want to do today?

Blogger, Jackie in Moxie Works thinks a hand written list is best. Try it, or try it in cursive. You will possibly find that it is more fun to write in cursive now that you are no longer in 2nd grade.

Think of your list as art to be left lying around, or inserted in the slot to be enjoyed by others. The boxes shown above were part of an arts installation at Arizona State University, photo courtesy of arts blogger and sloyd devotee, Ellie Richards from her blog, Play. Build. Make..

Don't like lists? You could take a more direct approach. For instance, in the wood shop, my current project remembers right where I left off. The wood knows exactly what I need to do next.

In theory...

Yogi Berra said, "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." Thus was clearly defined by a great American baseball catcher the difference between common academic studies and what happens when craftsmen engage in shaping real materials into beautiful and useful objects.

I have begun reading Diane Ravitch's new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which she takes on the disastrous No Child Left Behind legislation which she had supported prior to the discovery that people can really screw things up bad. The noble notion of accountability and standards went deeply off kilter when implemented by the last administration, and teaching to the test became the standard method of operation in American Schooling.

You see, there is something you can learn from craftsmanship, outside what has come to suffice as conventional education. It is the need to have in place the preparedness for plan b, with that backed securely by plans c, d, e and f.

Educational Sloyd, originally based on Froebel's methods of teaching, placed crafts at the exact center of learning. At this point in the process, Froebel's no doubt rolled over in his grave as play has been eliminated from many kindergarten, and we have created generations of highly educated individuals who are completely out of touch.

But when there are those who for some reason, truly care about outcomes, as it is clear Diane Ravitch truly does, there is yet reason for hope. She states, with regard to accountability,
"Surely we have more in mind than just bare literacy and numeracy. And when we use the results of tests, with their limitations, as a routine means to fire educators, hand out bonuses, and close schools, then we distort the purpose of schooling altogether."
There is a relatively easy solution. Howard Gardner proposed that humans have a number of operational forms of intelligence, unevenly dispersed, most of which are overlooked in conventional schooling and which due to the filtering effect of higher education, are completely unavailable to most university graduates in education. Every form of intelligence is utilized when children are engaged in crafts... kinesthetic, haptic, musical, number, environmental, go down the long list.

I am sad that we have let education drift so far into theory, and so far from practice. We have a lot to learn, and practice through the use of crafts is the key to getting things right. Don't hold your breath just waiting for things to pop. Make stuff, and teach others to make beautiful and useful stuff. We can whittle the academic and administrative idiots off one at a time, revealing to each their own creative capacity and the true power of schooling.