Philosopher on the Lathe

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Reflections on a life devoted to craftsmanship.

By Peter Korn | Not long ago I made a new dining table for myself. I was finally done with the rickety antique hutch table that had been rattling plates, sloshing water, and disquieting guests for decades. My design consisted of four turned legs, unadorned aprons, and a thick top made from heavy planks of straight-grained white oak. It’s my own take on a traditional form that I hoped would come out sturdy, graceful, unassuming, and, in some undefinable way, generous.

Although I have been a professional woodworker for four decades, turning legs out of three-inch-thick oak was a challenge. I designed them with a bead butted tight under the top block. A more experienced turner would have knocked out the detail without hesitation, but I had to make seven legs just to get four good ones. A moment’s inattention, an unpracticed hand, and my skew chisel was shredding splinters faster than I could react.

As I destroyed expensive billets of clear white oak through my own incapacity, one after another, I felt frustrated, incompetent, and anxious about what disaster I might unleash next. But, at the same time, my will was one hundred percent engaged. My senses were fully attuned to the action of the skew, as unpredictable as a wild animal in my hand; to the rough texture of wood chips as I brushed them off my shirt; to the primal scent of freshly cut oak; to the telltale squeal of end grain spinning against the tailstock, friction-hot. I wasn’t radiant with happiness. No choirs of angels were singing. Yet I was in a place of creative challenge and grace that has nurtured a reliable sense of meaning and fulfillment throughout my adult life.

There is nothing startling in the observation that creative work can be a source of meaning and fulfillment. But when I have asked just what meaning and fulfillment are, and just why and how creative work generates them, I have found myself exploring terrain that is mined with surprise.

Seventeen years into my woodworking career I realized that my long-held aesthetic goals as a furniture maker—simplicity, integrity, and grace—were qualities that I had unwittingly hoped to cultivate within myself through the skilled practice of craft. Since then I have come to believe that all people who engage in creative, self-expressive work—visual artists, craftspeople, writers, composers, and others—are engaged in similar processes of self-transformation. None of us enter our studios because the world desperately demands another painting, symphony, or chair. But none of us take the work lightly, either, because it entails too much commitment, discipline, and risk of failure. Those who choose to do it professionally, except for the very few who reach the top, could find more effective ways to earn decent livings. 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.

Exploring this insight has forced me to unearth and revise what preconceptions I had about the nature of the human mind. In writing Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman,I have come to see mankind’s defining quality as the construction of stories about who we are and how the world works. Each of us navigates life by a singular, fluid “mental map” that determines our goals, strategies, and tactics, ideas of selfhood and truth. Furthermore, I have come to see that the effort to maintain a psychically acceptable story of who one is and how the world works is unremitting, difficult, and deeply exhausting work, however much it may take place out of conscious sight. The world bristles with contradictory facts and competing narratives that we must, of necessity, assimilate, counter, or ignore.

Most of the time we take the path of least resistance, which is to assemble our mental maps from off-the-shelf beliefs for which the social environment supplies ready confirmation. This, it appears to me, is the everyday nature of being a sports fan or a political partisan, of watching a favorite television show or religiously reading The New York Times, of following the latest clothing fashions or attending church. By immersing the mind in received narratives, we keep it comfortably occupied, eyes-averted from an indifferent (and ultimately deadly) universe. Unfortunately, settling for such psychic comfort does not make for a vibrant, fulfilling life.

Creative practice, on the other hand, is a process of proactively challenging and refining one’s beliefs. I think this is what Socrates meant by the examined life. A creative individual sets out to bring something new and meaningful into the world. He manipulates his medium—be it wood, paint, sound, language, the human body, or anything else—in previously untried ways to tease that meaning into being. The result is novel, first-person experience that, inevitably, redraws the boundaries of his mental map.

When I became a furniture maker, I was searching for a good life and a rewarding identity, but, crucially, I didn’t know what a good life would look like or who I would become. This, I think, gets at the heart of creative engagement—it is an experiment through which the maker seeks new ways to envision human potential, using himself as the laboratory. This may sound too grandiose to describe daubing a landscape, pecking out free verse for next month’s writers’ group, or, for that matter, making a dining table. Nonetheless, however minutely we may be absorbed in our own “stuff,” through creative practice we investigate existential questions such as “Who can I become?” and “How should I live?” However humbly, we participate in the ongoing, communal project of mankind to narrate what it means to be human, how our universe works, and how we should live.If meaning is the feeling that one’s thoughts and actions make a difference within a larger moral sphere, this is its true compass.

I may not have been happy turning those seven table legs, but that was no bar to fulfillment. Happiness and fulfillment feel like two distinct states of mind to me, and of the two, I find happiness greatly overrated by those who present it as life’s ultimate goal. Whatever it may have meant to philosophers in the past, or to the Founding Fathers who were so intent on pursuing it, the glow we label happiness today seems relatively inconsequential. We get it if we buy the right car, fall in love with the right person, take the right job, win the lottery, become famous, or eat our favorite candy bar. But then we grow accustomed to our car or lover or job or candy bar … and happiness seeps into the sands of the ordinary. Soon we’re hungry for it all over again, and not sure where to find it. Fulfillment, on the other hand, seems to be self-generated through the exercise of our own creative capacities. However recalcitrant the universe may be, when I am creatively engaged I have a sense of purpose and fulfillment that makes happiness seem like a bauble. Ask me if I’m happy when I’m making something in the workshop and I have to stop and think about it. It’s not an important variable in the equation.

As a child and teenager I longed for competence, for the ability to do something well in a way that mattered in the grownup world. As a woodworker I found that ordinary competence and something more. I discovered within myself the capacity to transform a wisp of thought into an enduring, beautiful object. I see the 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.

In ninth-grade anthropology class, I was taught that the capacity to make and use tools was mankind’s defining characteristic. Forty-plus years later, I have arrived at a different conclusion. Mankind’s defining characteristic is the construction of narratives that explain who we are and how the world works. These mental maps do not only frame our experience of reality; they actually shape reality, because they guide us as we interact with the world. Meaning and fulfillment, as I’ve experienced them, come through the independent exercise of this capacity, and creative practice is a powerful way to do so. I could never have imagined, half-listening from the third row, just how transformational the use of tools would be.

Peter Korn C’72 is the author of Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman (David R. Godine, 2013), from which this essay is adapted. He is the founder and executive director of the non-profit Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine.

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    1 Response

    1. Jim Perelman

      Hi Peter. My brother C’68 saw this and passed it on to me. Hope that this finds you well. Jim Perelman, Nantucket County Sheriff

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