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Sustainable workmanship – shifting sands

The art of work as I have known it these past 50 years has drastically shifted I know. When Henry Ford launched his first conveyor-belt assembly plant even as a visionary of mass manufactured goods as advanced as motor cars, it’s unlikely that he could have understood how demoralizing and degrading those baby steps of line production would be. The ensuing phases that leapfrogged what we today unwittingly call progress, changed not only how things would be made forever, but the way people would think, act, work and play. Today we live in a culture that defines how we view craft.

Most people are hardwired to think only one way. That craft is past. Skill is gone and that we have no need to ensure the future of craftwork as anything more than a hobbyist pastime. Strangely enough, hand work is still admired. People come to my workshop every day and watch me. Many of them are my age. (early 60s) They stand for 20 minutes watching me move a board, flip it, make notes in my notebook and draw a line or two. We exchange pleasantries about my perfect working environment, the wonderful smell of wood and the tools and workbenches that create that sort of ephemeral reminder that places them momentarily back in the school woodshop of their youth. Such is the power of wood and youth-filled experiential knowledge they mostly long for with affection.

The hardwiring I am talking about is the art and craft of what we once knew face to face in the every day of life. This was what I knew quite simply as workmanship. It was the way men and women worked at their craft. They worked progressively, competently, gracefully, easily and smoothly; operating if you will with perfect economy of movement within that sphere of creativity they knew so intimately. This sphere of workmanship was so defined by them that it didn’t merely suit them, but, more exactly, it actually fit them. They possessed their environment by virtue of this one fact: They, what they were, defined exactly where the tools and materials were placed, where they worked for them and so they unconsciously customized their sphere in an unfolding evolutionary process that occurred over a number of hours, days, weeks, months and years.
I have in times past walked into the workshops of others where the owners have died. By invitation I have been invited to buy the tools and equipment. The new owner had no concept of what it meant to me to walk into the creative sphere of another and survey his life. The hammer on the anvil, the post vise with a brass rod still held in place; freezing the workman’s last day of life is indeed ephemeral. I piece those closing hours together as we all would and feel the sad loss of another artisan working raw metal, perhaps wood or clay and wonder where is the next generation of workmanship? Need it be in the Chinese factories, or perhaps Bangladesh? Should we continue to sell our inheritance and the future of our children? Is it even possible to revive what we once knew as life in a sustainable culture without merely knowing that fancy name?

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