Process: A Dozen Pewter Cups

I frequently encounter a crisis of identity when I try to describe myself with certain terminology: designer, craftsman, artist—they all seem alternately applicable to the nature of my career. I know this is mostly a self-inflicted conundrum. It’s not as though anyone ever insists that I define my work in narrow, exclusive or absolute terms. I hope that in time I will simply care less, but at this moment it’s something I mull over often, partly out of insecurity, but also in an effort understand and define my goals and values as a maker of things. I don’t actually believe there are divisions between these terms or that they are fixed in relation to one and other, but to me each word has the power to connote a different emphasis on how one is engaged in a creative act.

Certainly a defining aspect of my work (one that I attribute to my craft training) is that in addition to being concerned with the aesthetics of an object, I am equally attendant to the“beauty” of process. I mean this in the same way one might describe a beautiful equation or piece of computer code—not really an aesthetic experience so much the idea that I have done something in the best possible way. In my case I am speaking about a synergetic combination of speed, economy, cleverness and pleasantness of actions that combine to create grace in process. This may not have an apparent visual impact on the object, but is at least an avenue for rigorous, striving engagement. I do also believe that a beautiful process tends to generate objects that have a clear, un-muddied quality, regardless of whether they are beheld as pretty or tasteless.

Most of my projects leave limited room for deeply exploring the beauty of process. Though it is on my mind all the time, I am usually making a single, one-off piece, and there’s no opportunity to go back and redo steps unless I have really screwed up. However, once in a while I take on a project in which my goal is to deeply explore and refine my sequence and efficiency of actions. This simple pewter cup design is one such project. I have made it a few dozen times over the last three years in order to home in on a process that works within my limited tooling and design parameters, which are that it must be a versatile size, impart the perceived value of a hand-formed metal cup, be impeccably crafted and sell for less than $100 retail. Well, so far I cannot get below $160 without taking a pretty big pay cut (perhaps with scale the price could drop but I would be super grouchy making more than a dozen of these at a time). Otherwise, I am satisfied with how I am making these cups, as well as with their look and functionality.

Here’s a run down of my process in pictures. This is intended as a show-and-tell more than a set of instructions, but if you are interested in pewter-smithing and have any questions please shoot me an email. Click the first image to pull up a slide show with descriptions of each step.

Penland, Spring 2017

I recently returned to Boston after teaching a two-month long woodworking concentration at the Penland School of Crafts in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time at Penland in other capacities—as a work-study student and Core Fellow—and although I had a new role this time, the experience of living and working among a group of talented, creative and unusual artists was as seminal and moving as always. Teaching is a new endeavor for me, and I am beginning to see it as an excellent compliment studio work. For one, it encourages me to synthesize and articulate my often scattered knowledge and skill-set and, of course, points out the deficits therein. It also offers me a rare opportunity to inhabit a role in which my success is contingent on communicating and connecting with people rather than producing an object. As an instructor I called on aspects of my personality that are unnecessary and dormant in my solitary studio practice, and am glad to remember that I can (for two months, at least) be an affable person.

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The course—an intensive, full-time survey of woodworking and furniture-making techniques—was by far the most ambitious and challenging teaching position I have yet had. Titled Woodworking, It’s a Process, the class sought to give students a foundational understanding of the properties of wood as a material and the most common and useful ways of manipulating it. It also touched on some esoteric techniques such as marquetry and metal inlay. The first week was dedicated to working with hand tools which gave students an understanding of the challenge and importance of accounting for grain direction in their design and workmanship. Students completed at least one carved spoon and one bandsaw box. Following that they learned about mortise and tenon joinery by making a small side table or coffee table. We moved on to study the basics of carcass construction with a wall-hung cabinet project and reserved the final two weeks for a self-directed, independent project.

 

Although the primary focus of this class was on the technical aspects woodworking, we took time each Friday morning to step away from the tools and consider some of the often overlooked psychological and emotional processes inherent to any creative endeavor. Through readings by Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Robert Grudin, David Pye and Aldo Leopold we inquired into how our nascent, nebulous visions manifest as tangible objects; the tortuous dance between creative achievement and time; the increasing disunity of design and craftsmanship, and whether there is such a thing as manual intelligence; and the conceptual implications of manipulating a material that is a historical record (of sorts). These are lines of inquiry that—for me, anyway—spark curiosity and engagement in my process and blaze the trail to new creations. Thankfully my students were willing to indulge me in taking them down this path.

 

There’s always some risk in signing up to spend two months in close quarters with a group of individuals you’ve never met. I’ve been in classes that to no one’s fault were plagued by a discordant combination of personalities. You can imagine my relief and gratitude as I discovered that my students were truly one of the most engaged, dynamic and joyful groups of people I’ve had the pleasure to know. Although my demonstrations occasionally bordered on farcical due to the quantity of banter and inside-joking, a culture of good humor and camaraderie was evident always—like that evening when I returned to the shop to find every single item on my workbench (even a nickel) adhered down with powerful double-stick tape, a prank I found both hilarious and impressively thorough.

 

But most impressive was the furniture that my students made. I was somewhat awestruck at our end-of-session show and tell, because even though I was witness to the process, it was hard to believe that eight weeks prior these woodworkers were mostly total beginners. Please take a look at some of their creations:

Six Around One—The Movie!

I recently delivered and installed a project that has occupied most of my attention and virtually all of my floor space for many months. Six Around One is a 6’ x 7’ interior sliding door I made to see if the intricate parquetry patterns I have been exploring would scale up to cover a huge surface, and as somewhat a of self-inflicted endurance test. It was late February when I set about the work of manually slicing around 4,000 5/8” wide x 6” long strips of butternut veneer, then burning the tip of each one in hot sand, then fastidiously taping them together into diamonds, then hexagons, then groups of hexagons. It’s just the sort of work that a romantic craft appreciator would effuse as “meditative”, and it was, in the moments when I would bring some presence of attention to those peaceful, repetitive actions. Of course, the reality is that most of the time I was staving off boredom or neurotic obsession with an armament of tricks and rewards—“just stick it out through one more Fresh Air podcast and then you can eat the last three chocolate covered biscotti.”

One thing, however, that brought some fun and novelty to these otherwise monotonous days was that my friend Jesse had taken it upon himself to produce a short film about the making of the door. Jesse works for a documentary film company just a few blocks from my studio and often comes over for an afternoon coffee. When I told him about my plans for this project he decided to start bringing a camera over and filming bits of the process, thinking it was strange enough to document. I obviously could not have been more thrilled than to have a professional filmmaker offering to document my process for the price of a reheated cup of coffee and a chocolate biscotti (if there were any left).

Jesse and I have been friends since childhood, and one of our main activities as kids was to make gratuitously gory live action and animated short films, which later progressed into a fairly serious interest in claymation that we pursued into our early 20’s. For this reason, having Jesse in my studio filming me at work was actually a familiar and stress-free process. Originally, we both thought this would be more of a typical “how it’s made” video with an explanatory narration over footage of me at work, but after one session of filming, it was clear that there was something in the austerely dim environment, and the way the small sounds of my work cut through the cave-like silence of my basement studio that warranted a different approach. Jesse decided to home in on the strange, percussive soundtrack of my endlessly repetitive actions—the slicing of veneer, the peeling of tape.

Jesse brought as much craftsmanship to the video and sound editing as I did to the door, and I’m so glad that both these projects are now complete and out there in the world. You can see more of Jesse’s films on his website or Vimeo page, and you can see more images of the finished door by clicking here.