Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Book Report: "Why We Make Things and Why It Matters"

 At the start of the summer I shared with you the stack of reading I hoped to do.  I actually have managed to finish most of the books, but the one that has made the biggest impression on me is Peter Korn's Why We Make Things and Why It Matters:  The Education of a Craftsman.  Korn is a woodworker who hoped to make a living from designing and constructing one-off pieces of finely crafted furniture.  After a time, he found that he would have to supplement his income with teaching, as many artists and artisans do.  He discovered he loved teaching and loved working in a school community, and eventually he founded the non-profit Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine, where he is Executive Director.

Why am I running on about a woodworker, you may ask, in a blog called "talking textiles"?  Well, making a living in craft offers the same rewards--and raises the same issues--no matter what your medium.  I think the best path here is to let Peter's words speak for themselves.   Here are a few of the passages that really spoke to me:
[W]e practice contemporary craft as a process of self-transformation . . . .  The simple truth is that people who engage in creative practice go into the studio first and foremost because they expect to emerge from the other end of the creative gauntlet as different people. 
Peter writes of how he hoped to cultivate integrity in himself, to create heirloom pieces and thus a connection with future generations, and to develop competence and excellence in a given discipline.  For myself, one reason I fell in love with making textiles--while working as an English teacher at the time--was I wanted a way to say a joyful YES more often in my life, rather than simply wielding the red pen as a critic.  I wanted to see if I could develop the skills to make a beautiful, functional object.  Here's Peter Korn again:
[D]esign is a skill like any other.  As with sharpening a chisel or handling a drawknife, anyone can improve through education, practice, and reflection.  To be sure, some individuals are more innately gifted at design than others. . . But there is no reason why the rest of us should not also enjoy the trials and rewards of creative engagement with reasonable success and genuine pleasure, and perhaps an occasional flash of serendipitous brilliance.
All I can say about this is, Amen, brother!  Everyone can enjoy making visual art, given enough encouragement, guidance, and the chance to practice.  As with any other learned skill, the more you do it, the better you get.  Most of us will never see our work hang in a major museum--that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the exciting challenges and immense satisfaction of crafting the best work we can.  Peter again:
I discovered within myself the capacity to transform a wisp of thought into an enduring, beautiful object.  I see this same empowering revelation take place in my students today as they perform the miracle of creation.  This, I would suggest, is precisely what makes creative practice such a generous source of fulfillment, beyond the pleasure of engaging heart, head and hand in unison.  It exercises one's innate capacity to re-form the given world in ways that matter.
I recall vividly the joy I felt when it slowly dawned on me that making textile art draws on everything I have and know--from my liberal arts education to my spirituality to the basic sewing skills I learned as a kid in 4-H.  When we work with our hands to make something that exists in the physical world, we are participating in the larger mystery of creation.  Powerful stuff!  And if that work connects somehow with someone else, well, it doesn't get any better than that. 

If you are an artist or craftsperson who regularly makes things, you know what Peter Korn is talking about.  If you're not--why not try your hand? 

 A Light Shines, bead embroidery by Molly Elkind


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