A craft is not a hobby to fill our leisure hours. It’s a commitment to a lifelong discipline, to a dialogue with work that deepens over time and takes some unexpected turns. Consider the evolution of celebrated artist Dale Chihuly. In college, he took a weaving class, learning how to insert glass shards into tapestries. After studying interior design, he began to experiment with glassblowing. Once he finished his a masters in sculpture from Rhode Island School of Design, a Fulbright fellowship landed him in Venice. At the Venini factory on the island of Murano, Chihuly learned the team approach to glass blowing that he would use to create stunning, large-scale work — way beyond what anyone thought was possible in this medium. Throughout his career Chihuly has pushed the limits of his discipline, inventing new techniques, and boldly experimenting with new forms. He drew on other cultures to create his Navaho blanket series and was inspired by Japanese flower arranging in his Ikebana series. In his hands, glass has morphed from a useful and decorative object into major public installations—his enormous walk-through sculptures immerse the viewer in a world of color, light, and fantasy.
The artist has pushed the limits in his life, as well, continuing to blow glass even after suffering the loss of an eye in car accident. After he dislocated his shoulder body surfing, he hired others to hold the pipe. Today Chihuly is an entrepreneur with a workshop and a factory to produce his most ambitious projects. If you haven’t already seen his work, the documentary, Chihuly in the Hot Shop, is a good place to start. And if you’re ever in Seattle, be sure to visit the Chihuly Garden of Glass next to the Space Needle, to see glass transformed into an architectural symphony.
The life so short, the craft so long to learn.
Craft is a dialogue between the beautiful and the useful, the known and the unknown, ending in a leap of faith. A maker—no matter what the material—is committed to the process of unfolding, in constant conversation with a medium that engages the mind, the emotions, and the senses. Some say that practicing a craft is like putting your soul on a stretcher—and if you’re survive this process, you will learn a good deal about the art of living. But it is also a matter of paying attention to the most minute details.
As a journalist, I have spent hours wrangling with the structure of a piece, evaluating every sentence for rhythm and flow as if it were a line of music. Following John McPhee’s advice, I return, over and over again, to the dictionary, reviewing my word choices, until I am certain that I have found the most accurate, and most compelling, way to turn a phrase. And, of course, I read incessantly, apprenticing to other writers. My library card is so dogeared, I’ve had to replace it, while over the years, I’ve spent a small fortune on a reference library. I keep my ear tuned to the latest voice in fiction, and enjoy those who break new ground—Orphan Pamuk, Arundati Roy, Dave Eggers. For masters of style I turn to The New Yorker writers like Joseph Mitchell who described the Native Americans who built Manhattan’s skyscrapers then profiled Joe Gould, a quirky but compelling Greenwich Village character who claimed to be working on “an oral history of modern life.” From Mitchell, I learned the value of exploring marginal people and scouting for stories in unexpected places. For sheer economy of style, I go back to two more New Yorker alums: William Maxwell (They Came Like Swallows, the story of a young boy whose mothers dies in the 1918 influenza epidemic) and “Talk of the Town” reporter Lillian Ross whose description of an encounter with Ernest Hemingway is wickedly delicious. There is always more to learn. After more than fifty years at my writing desk, the literary life remains one of endless challenge and discovery.
Not too long ago, someone told me the story of an 88 year-old tatami maker who had made a thousand mats and finally reached that “aha!” moment where he felt he’d got it right. For most people who devote their lives to a craft—painters, poets, dancers, writers and weavers—it’s not the end result that counts. It’s the long pursuit of excellence and what one learns along the way. We expect to fail time and again, and accept that the end result will fall short of our vision. But then there’s the happy accident when we suddenly achieve our ends in a simple and direct manner. The work just feels complete.
And when that moment ends, we return to the practice of experimenting. Of waiting and not-knowing, approaching our craft again with “beginner’s mind.”
Hemingway once said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” And so we just get back to work, remaining grateful for some glimpses of a higher truth. In those moments, we feel deeply grounded in our own being, and what we do connects us to a greater whole.
As Dylan Thomas observed, “The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps…so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.” I’m sure he was onto something. Native American basket weavers always left a break in the pattern so the soul could get out—-and Dutch woodworkers in the Hudson River Valley aligned their mantels, but left a tiny gap—careful not to tempt the devil with perfection. Each craft contains a whole philosophy and gives us some insight as well into the arc of human history.
Years ago, I lived in a 1790 stone farm house with such a mantel and with a fireback so well crafted that allowed me to heat the whole house from the living room hearth. The walls of the building were two feet thick and the floors made from broad oak planks that before the Revolution had been considered contraband, and reserved for the British navy. In this village in upstate New York, comparable to colonial Williamsburg, I learned how masonry and other crafts have played in the shaping of our American democracy.
Glenn Adamson, former director of othe Museum of Arts and Design, New Y o
As Glenn Adamson shows in Craft: An American History, colonists came to the New World with only a few possessions; they had to build their own houses, make their own silverware, pots and dishes, and create their own furniture. The most skilled of these craftsmen became fixtures in our early government—among them the noted Boston silversmith, Paul Revere and the printer, Benjamin Franklin—and their principles of economy, beauty, and balance were central to the formation of our national character.
“Craft has been many things in America,” Adamson writes. “A way of making a living, of expressing creativity, of pushing technology forward. It has a potent symbolic status, one so fundamental that is anchors our everyday speech. We talk about forging links, laying foundations, hammering things out, spinning tales. Conceptually, we knit things together and carve them apart. Craftspeople themselves are often seen as representing the best of America. Capable, trustworthy, and self-sufficient, they are the quiet heroes of our national story.”
Craft, Adamson argues, is crucial to our belief in egalitarianism, in a society where all men are created equal. While that ideal remains to be fully realized, craft has historically been the means for men and women to rise up and achieve new levels of status and security.
“the measures of our actual success must finally lie in the real quality of the work we do, as we understand it, in the relationships we build within the communities of colleagues, patrons and admirers who appreciate and support it, and in whatever satisfaction we derive from its making.”
To me, this reads “professional pride”. And it applies not only to the tangible crafts but also to services. The real tragedy is when we for the sake of profit are forced to provide bad quality items or service and have our souls killed in the process.