Craft, R.I.P?

As you may have read here, I have a master’s degree and some background in the fine arts. Truth is I was one of those art-snobs that pooh-poohed Craft as nothing more than a collection of pretty, skillfully made, utilitarian objects.

As an artist, I made art that was very much about the materials and processes I was using. Now, oh-so-many years later and with a more mature perspective, I understand that I was making art that was very much about “Craft”. And over those same years my appreciation and love of Craft has grown as I’ve had the pleasure to get to know some of the greatest Crafters and Craft objects ever. I’ve come to truly admire and feel a kinship with fine work in the glass arts, ceramics, weaving, quilting, metal-working, tool-making, etc. as well as, of course, furniture-making and fine woodworking.

Brian Newell's Ebony Desk, 2002
Ebony Desk by Brian Newell , 2002

Craft’s role in our day-to-day lives, in art and society is a common topic among my friends and acquaintances. When the topic came up recently during a visit to Brian Newell’s shop, he handed me two CD’s of a lecture by Garth Clark from October, 2008, at the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft. The lecture has the grim title “How Envy Killed the Crafts Movement: An Autopsy in Two Parts” and is indeed a bit grim if you plan on making a living with your craft. But if you do, then you especially need to listen to Mr. Clark explain why you have been selling less and less of your work over the last two decades. The lecture is not without hope, however; as Mr. Clark describes his “autopsy” of the Craft movement with considerable detail and good humor he also attempts to help Craft set a new course for the future. (Are you listening, Portland?)

Clark’s lecture comes in two parts. The first is his formal presentation, followed by a very informative Q&A. The two parts are available as mp3 downloads from the Museum website and I’ve copied them (Part I) (Part II) to make them easier to get to.

I’ve listened Clark’s lecture twice and intend to listen again as the material is dense and provocative and I find myself thinking about what he just said and missing his next point. Linda and I (she was an art major as well) listened on a recent road trip and found a lot to talk about as we drove across the state. Interesting stuff for the aficionados among us.

Bob Baker, 1954-2010, a Big Fish (in this small pond)

With the sad passing of Bob Baker, phenomenal talent and darned nice guy, I am reminded of the one and only time we met. I wrote the following on February 13, 2006 following “Plane Day in Cincinnati”. I’ve posted the PWW photos on my flickr page ( I tried to annotate the photos but I can’t remember all of which plane belonged to which maker, sorry.

Bob Baker at "Plane Day in Cincinnati 2006"



Subject: Big Fish in Cincinatti

Short version:

I hung out with the world’s finest plane makers on Friday.

Long version:

A few months ago John Edwards called about some blade or another and as
we talked (and talked — it’s easy to talk a long time with John) he let
slip about an upcoming gathering of infill makers sponsored by Popular
Woodworking magazine being organized by him and Chris Schwarz (executive
editor of PW). He dropped a couple of names of the proposed participants
and I started hopping up and down in my chair whining “Me too! Me too!
Can I come, huh? Can I? Can I?” and he thought that’d be okay and I
should just contact Chris to be sure. Chris was enthusiastic in his warm
invite to me and I proceeded to book a flight to Porkopolis.

Dig this roster:

Christopher Schwarz, Popular Woodworking Magazine, master craftsman,
eloquent master of ceremonies and gracious host

John Edwards, organizer, woodworker, friend of and patron to the
plane-making arts

Wayne Anderson, Anderson Planes,, the legend,
in person

Bob Baker, plane maker of great talent and antique conservator

Brian Buckner, consummate metal craftsman and darned nice guy

Robin Lee, Lee Valley Tools, a big-businessman who manages to remain
humble, helpful and generous of spirit and with his time all the while
managing a thousand employees(!)

Terry Saunders, Lee Valley’s plane designer — no kidding, he’s the guy
who’s doing all that great work at Veritas

Thomas Lie-Nielsen, needs no introduction but I finally got to meet him
after all these years and he’s as decent and gentlemanly as I would have
expected and he brought his charming and lovely daughter and
photographer, Kirsten

Mark (whose last name escapes me and my cheat-sheet is in my suitcase
which still hasn’t shown up — John, what’s Mark’s last name?!), Lie
Nielsen’s pattern maker (imagine having HIS job! Too cool!) [Mark’s last name is Swanson — rh]

Konrad Sauer, Sauer and Steiner Toolworks
who brought his delightful family (and was, I believe the youngest of
this august group, except for Kirsten…)

Larry Williams and Don McConnell of Clark and Williams, I’ve been talking with these guys for years
and finally got the meet them, too!

John Economaki, Bridge City Toolworks,
who brought his new variable-pitch planes which I’ve been curious about

Clarence Blanchard and Mike Jenkins of the Fine Tool Journal were there to keep everyone honest (and to
show off a few plow planes so rare I was afraid to even touch)

Joel Moskowitz, Tools for Working Wood, I’ve known Joel over the phone for
years but meeting him in person is like peeling an onion — there seemed
to always be another layer to him (and I’m sure he’ll send back my cell
phone today…) An erudite scholar and gentleman, indeed.

Did I leave anyone out, John? If I did, slap me and fill in the blanks.

The meeting was at Popular Woodworking’s shop — you’ve all seen the
shop in the many articles in the magazine — and we started the day with
individual intros about how we got into doing what we do, etc. Even that
part was fun enough to last about twice as long as planned. But the
afternoon was devoted to using everyone’s stuff. Planes from all
participants were tuned up and available as well as an incredible
selection of similar tools from other makers like Karl Holtey, Billy
Carter (I learned he’s NOT the president’s brother) and Ray Isles. We
made shavings with all the planes, popped the blades, looked under the
hood, shared stories, tips, and lies about everything imaginable —
including planemaking and woodworking. I must have handled about a
million dollars worth of infills and woodies. What a day.

Performance bottom line: every plane I tried made thin, lacy shavings
and left a smooth, satiny finish. Bevel up or down, a well made plane
with a sharp blade will perform as intended. Some were easier or harder
to push, some fit my hand better or worse, some handled difficult grain
better, but they all worked remarkably and were a joy to use. And they
were all so beautiful they’ll bring tears to your eyes. Even the new
variable-pitch plane from BCT worked well and completely vanquished my
concerns about its appearance of excessive gizmocity. I, representing
the everyman, brought two #5’s with HC and A2 blades, and three humble
woodies by Michael Burns, Jim Krenov and a HOCK kit. All kept up
admirably and I was proud to be able to swim in this small pond with
these big fish.

The afternoon went too quickly but as evening fell we gathered at Steve
Shanesy’s (PW publisher) house for beer, wine, dinner and more in-depth
conversation. For me the whole day was incredible — warm, friendly,
generous, and cooperative. I know I speak for all participants when I
thank John, Chris, Steve, David, Linda, Megan, Robert and everyone else
at PW for providing the forum for this memorable gathering. It gave me a
sense of community I’ve never felt before.

PW’s David Thiel was busily snapping photos of the planes and us all day
and they’ve promised to send the best to each of us on cd. I’ll post
them on the website unless someone beats me to it and I’ll let you know
when they’re available.

I guess that’s all for now. I had a real good Friday.

John, your turn.