Why We Build by David Evans
Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful. ~Shaker dictum
A furniture-making friend and teacher named Peter thinks about his craft in a way that is new to me. He sees the object he plans to build clearly in his head before he starts. But he also sees something else. He approaches each new project as an opportunity to challenge what he thinks he knows. He wants his imagination to soar. He’s seeking a fresh look at what he thinks is true, what is embedded in his own narratives. He tries to instill in his students the driving desire to rethink their worlds in their own special ways.
When I sat in his classroom for the first time, I had a glimmer of what he meant. But I needed more. I needed a hammer to hold onto, a saw to push and pull. He wanted to talk about mind/body wholeness. Equally amorphous offshoots linking craftsmanship with spirituality started sneaking into the discussion. I knew I wanted to make things as well as possible, but I wasn’t yet able to wrap my mind around how working with our hands related to our humanity and self-transformation. I had spent considerable money and traveled hundreds of miles to enroll in his class where I hoped to learn how to make a small night stand in the Shaker style.
I had had the good fortune a year earlier to make some Shaker boxes in a weekend-class taught by a serious man named Chris at the John C. Campbell Folk School in far western North Carolina. In the short time at Campbell, a special place of “big magic” as my friend Robin describes it, a small band of us nestled around another instructor to learn a bit about the Shakers and their belief in living their lives in the simplest ways. They were traditional people who saw more value in forming community ties than in promoting their individual selves.
Seven of us signed up for this short class, four men and three women. Two Catholics and a Buddhist declared their religion. The rest of us were noncommittal. Most of us had some woodworking skills, but Laurie was by far the best. Chris called on her and Betty Sue, two former students, to demonstrate what we would be doing first thing Saturday morning. Laurie pulled a box-knife from her apron pocket and used it like a surgeon, cutting distinct swallowtail “fingers” in one end of the thin band of maple that was eventually steamed and wrapped around a form. Her safety glasses hid some of the sparkle of the enthusiasm in her eyes she showed us the next day. She then drilled holes for the tacks to secure the band once it was moulded into an oval shape. She proceeded to taper the other end of the band to provide a smooth transition where the veneer overlaps. At this point, Betty Sue took over. She had her hair tied back and told us to remove all jewelry from our hands and around our neck before working with any of the machines. Saws and sanders and drill presses were only so happy to reach out and grab loose ends and bits and pull hands and heads into their sharp teeth. She had a natural grace in the shop and demonstrated how to soak the strips in the steamer to make them bend without breaking. It all looked so easy.
As the ladies talked us through the steps, Chris weaved in stories of the Shakers, one of several religious groups that formed in eighteenth-century England. They were part of the new communities of “charismatic Christians” and were officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Begun in 1747, the Shakers believed that they served God by approaching every task with care. This care resulted in a distinctive Shaker style of furniture and everyday tools and kitchenware such as bowls, spoons, and churn buckets. All reveal the traditional Shaker values of simplicity, utility, and fine craftsmanship.
With Peter, I hoped to learn about more than just making precise cuts to make practical objects. His catalog reached out to me since I wanted to go deeper into Shaker thought. He supplemented the photos and descriptions of the classes with narratives about the Shaker way of life. I was curious about the meaning and rewards of their sustained creative effort. I wanted to explore his ideas about putting our minds as well as our hands to work making a lovely table with precise joinery. I was drawn to the school not just to learn to design curved pieces of hardwood that need to meet in perfect joints, but also to think about what art is and why it matters. I was looking forward to him not just guiding my hands to sharpen a chisel but also showing me a better way to live.
After breakfast the next morning, the six of us donned our aprons and found our work stations. The shop was not all that large but big enough not to be cramped. Various table and band saws, planers, sanders, and joiners were sited for efficiency. Tools poised from hangers along the wall. The well-lighted room invited us in.
Peter greeted us and immediately asked if anyone had ever heard of the Great Cartesian Divide. The lawyers among us, Lucy and Robert, kept looking down at their work station; George, the retired teacher, started fiddling with a chisel; and Alexi, the musician, began humming. I had no answer, either, and started to think that we were all the dunces in the third grade.
Peter sat at a high stool with a white screen to his back. He’s in his sixties now, tall, thin, and balding. We discovered later that he’s a cancer survivor. Twice in his life he came close to dying from the disease. Once as a young man and a second time just a few years ago. As he pointed to details on the slides, he explained that right through the late Middle Ages there had been no historical distinction between fine and applied arts. All the trades were accorded relatively equal merit. Only when the Renaissance began to elevate the life of the mind over the life of the body, approximately six-hundred years ago, did hierarchical distinctions begin to emerge.
The imposing wall between the fine and applied arts that nineteenth-century English reformer, poet, and designer William Morris confronted was long in the making. The Arts and Crafts Movement that was born under Morris’ attentive eye flourished for a while, but faced stiff challenges. Three-hundred years after Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, the Enlightenment finally erected a seemingly invincible barrier between the mind and the body. The ideas of Cartesian dualism, a label that originated from the Latinized name relating to the early seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes, made its mark and formally divided mind and matter into separate and unequal camps. Painting and sculpture happily snuggled into the category of mind while all other types of object-making were associated with the body, branded as “applied arts,” and banished to much lower rungs on the ladder.
“That little distinction, ladies and gentlemen, is why we’re here this week,” Peter boomed. “Before we go any further, we must agree that we’re no longer going to live in a lesser world.” Thus began the days that raced quickly into the evenings. Breaks for lunch and dinner did not just find us sitting down making small talk as we ate. We feasted at a massive round table with Peter and his two assistants, Katherine and Stephen. We munched salad served in homemade bowls, feasted on main courses heaped onto sculpted plates of wood, and drank water and tea that flowed from hand-crafted mugs. We spent part of the week at the lathe, too, making more bowls, mugs, and plates. The last class had made these for us and we would make the same for those to follow. No plastic knives or forks, no paper plates. The food and drink were especially delicious served in the wooden platters and vessels.
After meals, we all marched back into the clean-up area—Peter, Katherine, and Stephen included—and washed what we had dirtied. Everything was cleaned by hand. No wooden objects ever came close to a dishwasher.
I found myself jabbering to strangers about what I had begun, where I was going with it, and what it all meant to me. Alexi had a lighter hand than all of us. The tapered legs of her table were elegant. Stephen was rigidly orderly and took pride in his precision. Only later in the week did he break loose from his self-imposed restrictions and let himself follow a new direction. We peeked at what each other was doing. Before long, Katherine was showing me a better way to sand the underside of a drawer. George was quick to learn how to negotiate wood through the bandsaw and gathered us by his side to share some tips.
I was learning that the creative crafts harmonize intellect, manual skills, and character. They all underscore the artificiality of the Cartesian divide between mind and body. When you add the creative component of design, craft becomes a fully integrated application of one’s capability.
Over the next two weeks, I discovered the delight and satisfaction of designing my own small table. I first sketched my lines according to a plan that I followed step by step in an orderly sequence. A couple of days later, Peter came by, picked up my carefully drawn design, smiled, and tore it up. He then told me to draw it again from memory and embellish where I thought I might improve it. He kept smiling as he told me, “Seize the freedom to discover another way. You can do it, I know.”
Before arriving at the school, I thought I was already enjoying a full life, almost like a well-plotted novel that was reaching a satisfying conclusion. I had known deep friendships, true love, loss, and sorrow. I was learning to feel at one with myself in my new rural life, while still at home in urban settings. What satisfied me most now was discovering both a creative capacity within myself and an inner discipline to put it to work. As I thought of where I was, I understood my good fortune. Throughout my life I have escaped serious illness and injury, but know how thin the wall is between sickness and health. Health is just a continuum, and I am fortunate to be among the living.
It was at this point that I asked myself the critical question: What do I want to do with whatever time I have left?
I was learning that the creative crafts harmonize intellect, manual skills, and character. They all underscore the artificiality of the Cartesian divide between mind and body. When you add the creative component of design, craft becomes a fully integrated application of one’s capability. As I absorbed the message, I took my plane out of my tool bag, removed the blade, and began sharpening it with my own oil and stone. I felt the deep centeredness in trusting my hands, mind, and imagination to work as a single, well-tuned instrument, a centeredness that touches upon the essence of fulfillment. The blade went back in the plane. I adjusted it and turned the lever to tighten it in place. The plane and I then proceeded to remove thin ribbons of hard maple. I thought what better way to inhabit one’s selfhood to the maximum than to exercise one’s innate human capability productively and powerfully. I was learning what Peter had talked about on our first day.
Our class rushed ahead as though it were only a day rather than two weeks. Too quickly, it came to its inevitable conclusion. We all succeeded in one way or another and were leaving as friends and fellow craftsmen. Most importantly, we inherited a bit of the Shaker creed of respect for the value of simplicity, integrity, and grace. Shakers relied on each other and knew they were better people because they worked together, not one against the other. And like them, we five people, who were strangers two weeks earlier with considerable differences in background, came together as a whole to appreciate that we were learning more in this short time than just making a beautiful and graceful small table. We covered ourselves in sawdust, bore some wounds, stubbed our toes, and suffered nicks to our pride. We also opened up, laughed, and learned from one another.
The Shaker philosophy of life rings true in the words of the twentieth-century professor and philosopher Karl Popper, who said: “We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being. The notion that one can begin anything at all from scratch, free from the past, or not indebted to others, could not conceivably be more wrong.”
Each table we made articulated a point of view about life on many levels. Most of all, our efforts oriented us, consciously or not, to the Shaker view that domestic life and work should be lived as sacraments. Each detail transported its silent freight of information. Each implied, by what it is and what it is not, an orientation toward workmanship, nature, beauty, tradition, and human character. The details revealed an extraordinary investment of time, care, and skill in a functional object intended for the home. They read as an argument for the value and dignity of what it means to be human.
Peter has a sign above his studio door that quotes the poet Stanley Kunitz: “It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self.”
I can live happily in that narrative.