Wednesday, November 17, 2010

every tool leaves it mark, every material has substance

Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade students continued work on toy cars for holiday distribution. When they arrive at the woodshop, they always ask, "can we have a creative day?" which in their parlance means, "can we do anything we want?" They love to let their imaginations and creative inclinations run wild.

Every day is creative day in the wood shop. Kids don't really just get to do what they want, as the tools and materials have qualities that must be learned, and that impose limitations on what the mind can conceive, and that provide the real foundation of creativity. Real tools, real materials, direct the creative effort into real challenges and failures and ultimate success. One of the things that can  be hard for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade students is the idea of generosity. Some get it easily, and some find it more challenging. First grader Alena told me, "I have lots of toys at home. I want to give all that I make to children who don't have so many toys."

Yesterday Richard Bazeley  in response to Emily Pilloton's Ted talk commented on the teaching of design, which is often taught independent of teaching of skill, and knowledgeable use of tools. It is easy to design things on paper, and to bring fine lines to perfect intersections, but in the real world, things have thickness and take shape from the tools we have available to give them that shape. On the lathe, the skew gives one shape, the bowl gouge another, unless of course you are so skilled, attentive and steady in the use of the skew or gouge, that you can do what you want with it. And then of course there is sanding for the rest of us. But hours of sanding surfaces to submission to eliminate tools marks is senseless agony when skill and proper tools could be put to work instead, and the results are never the same.

So how can one possibly teach design, without students having experience in the use of tools? It is what we face now in engineering schools, and what was faced by Calvin Woodward at Washington University and John Runkle at MIT when manual arts were first introduced as a necessary precursor to any form of engineering or design. There is always a greater perception of value in"design" because it is perceived as a higher point in an egotistical pecking order. But design without the understanding that hands-on making imparts to it, is lacking important ingredients.

Last night I went to a presentation on the new Crystal Bridges Museum which is being built in Bentonville, Arkansas about 50 miles from Eureka Springs.  It started as architectural renderings of lines laid on a landscape, and in reality a great architectural design is one that presents challenges for craftsmen to resolve. It can be seen more as a question than as an answer, and designers often get all the credit for posing the right questions. In the case of Crystal Bridges some of the questions have been an immense challenge.

There is a hope amongst locals that the emphasis on the arts in Arkansas brought by Crystal Bridges will have direct economic effect on our community. What it has done most so far, has been to help the local business people to finally get their hands on the value of our own relationship to the arts... that arts and artists are immense resources to a community. We are a long neglected economic engine that brings prosperity. And yet it is all framed in the very personal relationship we have with our tools, and the materials that take their shape within our own hands.


  1. Love the comments about design/designing. I have been involved with a gallery who works on large public commissions. They have "designed" projects for me to make and I find it frustrating to have to make someone else's design when I could have come up with a better solution on my own. They don't know and don't think about the details of constructing something so make decisions that make "making" more difficult than it would be if I designed myself.

  2. Ed, unfortunately because many designers don't understand the materials or tools, they make things complicated for the maker as you describe. The current emphasis on design in universities often fails to understand the importance of intelligent use of materials that derives from intelligent craftsmanship.

    Our current system of education derives little understanding from our hands.