Life Without the Chair

In 1852, an English colonialist working in India voiced his complaints about the local workmen. He was particularly irritated and offended that blacksmiths, carpenters, and Masons squatted to work, complaining indignantly, “All work with their knees nearly on a level with their chin: the left hand—when not used as the kangaroo uses his tail to form a tripod–grasps the left knee and binds the trunk to the doubled limbs.” This man was not the first, or the last, to liken people who sit on floors to animals. He was more explicit than many about why he found the posture inferior: it suggested “indolence and inefficiency… especially irritating to an Englishman,” but even more so to one who hires and pays such workmen.

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Villa Maybeck, My Cabinet of Curiosity

An old house has an old soul, and you get the sense that all the souls that have passed through its doors since its construction are speaking to you, the current beneficiary of its many gifts—and, sometimes, its troubles. They speak to you every time you decide to alter the house in some fundamental way—and especially vocal is the architect. You wonder, “How would he or she react if I add this, remove that, or cover over this?” The responses are heard deep within.

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The Art of Looking

Through my photography, I delight in the discovery of perspective, a new relationship between light and shadow, the dialogue between the man-made and the natural. And if I am lucky, I get a glimpse into the unseen whole. This is how you, too, can pursue the art of looking.

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A Video Guide to Craft

The word craft indicates strength or skill. It also means “to make something with one’s hands.” In this issue of Reinventing Home, we’ve heard makers describe their process. Now it’s time to show you how they do it.

We begin with a trip to The American Folk Art Museum in New York which showcases work by people whose skills are self-taught or whose craft was passed on through the generations. Their medium ranges from cloth, wood, and paper to clay and metal. Folk art expresses the identity of a community rather than the individuals. This five-minute film gives an overview of the museum’s collection and shows the range of items–from samplers to hand-carved whirligigs, flags and quilts to decoys and weathervanes, that we have come to think of as uniquely American.

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The English Folksong

I know there is an art in the singing of folk songs, but I’m not sure that I can explain it. One night a singer sings a song and gets great applause, the next night, the same singer sings the same song, in the same way, but gets, at best, a muted reception. On the second night, the singer failed to connect with the audience. Why? It is one of the intangibles of performance.

My own story of how I fell in love with folksong began at school, right after World War II. One of the songs we sang was “Barbara Allan.”

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As Good as I Can

My town dump has a used book shed. I take a quick look after my weekly dump run. It is mostly an assortment of romance novels, self-help, and diet books. There are a few gems. I once found a large format book with excellent photographs and historical text about the canyon lands near the four corners of the American southwest. It was written by a geologist and published in 1962. He first hiked and camped in this area with his father in the 1930s. The acknowledgment page was a single sentence: “To my father who taught me not just to look but to see.” If I ever publish a book, I would add, “To my father who taught me to not just build, but build as good as I can.”

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Hand-forging Decorative Ironwork

My career as a blacksmith began with my decision to attend trade school after college instead of going to graduate school. As a student majoring in anthropology, I romantically imagined myself conducting fieldwork among exotic cultures in foreign lands. To do that, I would have to earn a PhD and become a professor, which I fully in- tended to do — I was genuinely interested in the subject matter, and it seemed like a good way to travel, to see the world, and to have a comfortable life. By the time I graduated, however, I felt I needed a break from academia, so I enrolled in a trade school program to learn farriery in my home state of New Mexico. It was a bit of an obscure trade, especially since I had not spent much time around horses up to that point in my life, but the decision didn’t seem too outlandish at the time. I honestly didn’t really think I would stick with it for more than a year or two before resuming my studies and going on to graduate school.

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Ringing the Far-off Bell

I’ve always said I don’t have a narrative bone in my body; hence my leaning towards poetry. But I have a fraught relationship to the act of writing itself — how deaf I can be; how often words scurry for cover just when I need them most. I seem never to be able to exert mastery over my materials, no matter how much I study the craft. I want to communicate to a reader, but I also want to explore the ineffable. In my opinion, poetry does this best, by pointing itself towards the deep structures of our meaning- making. Sound, rhythm, syntax, diction — these are tools at the poet’s disposal to enact experience and to create reality.

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Painting and Illustrating

When thinking of why I paint, and draw, and paint tiles — and generally enjoy making things, I am reminded of the dialog in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison between Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Climpson, the head of his faux secretarial outfit:

“Well now,” said Wimsey, “why do people kill people?”. . .

“I don’t know,” she said, apparently taking the problem as a psychological one, “it is so dangerous, as well as so terribly wicked, one wonders that anybody has the effrontery to undertake it. And very often they gain so little by it.”

I could say the same about why I paint.

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