Handcraft as Relationship

In my most recent newsletter email sent out last Friday, I explained that the end of this year has encouraged me into an even deeper reflection than usual about the work done in the past 12 months and what I hope to accomplish in the next 12. I mentioned that there are so many different motivations people have in taking up a handcraft, and I submitted a query. “With all the trinkets of mass production only one-clickTM away, why would a person take up tools to make their own things?” I asked. “Why bother? Why are you going to pick up tools in 2023? And how are you going to fit it into your life?”

On Monday morning, Mike and I spent a several hours replying to all of the answers. As predicted, we got quite a variety of responses. Some have recently found a new freedom in their retirement, and they’ve decided to reestablish a commitment to the craft they had long put aside for career and family needs. Others described the relief they find in their shop time – they find it to provide a counterbalance to the drudgery of their day-to-day employment. I greatly appreciated all these responses and can sympathize with so many of their considerations. But the replies that still hang with me are those who set specific goals for handcraft as relationship. One father expressed his desire to improve his own skills, but told me that, in all honesty, he mostly wanted to pass the inspiration on to his small children. Another explained his plans to make furniture for a group of newly arrived immigrants in his city. This desire to deploy craft as a bridge for sociality is one of the most exciting things I see in the woodworking world. While much of the craft discussion revolves around self-improvement or one-upmanship, folks like this know that another kind of work is possible.

Craft scholar Glenn Adamson in his recent book, Craft: An American History compellingly pleads for this much-needed course correction in today’s “maker movement.” Adamson writes, “It is great to see artisans flourishing again, but it is dismaying to see the myth of the ‘self-made man’ – formulated so effectively by Benjamin Franklin, then popularized throughout the nineteenth century – returning in force. . . . Craft has frequently been positioned as a quintessential expression of this spirit of independence. . . . Yet, just as often, craft has been understood as the fabric of communal memory, a wellspring of tradition that each generation can draw from. At its most compelling, craft marks the intersection of these two principles.” 

The egocentricity of modern individualism fails to commend such things as “communal memory” or “wellspring of tradition.” Instead, we swim in an ocean of self-improvement books and TED Talks about the secrets to personal success and fulfillment. And we enter our shops to leave the world behind. To get away from the hassle of dealing with the people whose lives we are enmeshed with.

And there are many ways to deploy craft as a bridge to relationship. We can make gifts. We can take a youngster under our wing in the shop. We can invite some buddies over for a “shop night.” We can teach, inspire, and share in so many ways. I am beginning to work up a list of ideas of my own. So, to build on my initial “why bother” question, I am now wondering how many different ways a person can use his or her skills to engage with others.

What do you think? How have you – or how could you – built relationships through handcraft? 



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