Sunday, February 26, 2012

So what's the goal?

For the past month or two I've been posting a variety of philosophical musings on how to lay out a shop, how to handle mistakes, and how to approach the learning process with persistence and attention to progress. But somehow in the course description I completely failed to mention what the ultimate goal of all of this work is supposed to be. The goal, in a word, is to become an artisan.

But what exactly is an artisan? And really, hasn't that just become another buzz word that's getting beaten to death? Artisanal bread, artisanal cheese, or wine, or hardware, or whatever else... it feels like the advertising industry has seized on the word as yet another way to imbue mass-manufactured objects with an aura of quality that is purely in the mind of the beholder. A factory-custom, limited- edition model car is still not the same thing as something that's really been overhauled and customized, and taken to a level of detail that a factory can't economically provide. And something that's made by a true artisan will stand out from the objects that are made by machine operators or assembly line workers.

But back to the point... what is an artisan? What are the distinguishing characteristics?

The short, romantic-sounding answer, is that an artisan is someone who makes a difficult, skilled procedure look deceptively easy. Fast but not hurried, incisive and insightful in a way that makes it seem like he has x-ray vision that sees right past the satellite issues and into the heart of a problem. In short, and more practically, an artisan is a skilled practitioner of a craft, as well as a thoughtful philosopher and artist. To be creative is not enough. To be skilled is not enough. And to have an understanding of what works and what doesn't, and why, is not enough. Even having two out of the three is not enough. An artisan is an artist, possessed of sufficient technical know-how to move a thought or idea into manifest existence, with grace and beauty.

The word Sloyd, according to Gustaf Larsson, derives roughly from the Swedish adjective Slög, which translates roughly as skillful or handy. But there's a lot more to it than simple hand skills. Sloyd as a program is/was characterized by both planning and execution: A project starts with a detailed drawing, and finishes with a skilfully executed end product, that is possessed of a refined aesthetic. That's what makes Sloyd such a great point of departure. It's important to begin with a solid grasp of both theory and practice. It's the difference between someone who came up with design, procedure, and stock list on their own, and someone who complains that "I followed the instructions to the letter, I don't know how the hell this went wrong!"

That's the point of departure. The rest is a matter of effort. In short, there's a clear need to spend a lot of time in the shop, planning, building, learning, and growing.

A true artisan is the product of years of thoughtfully designing and executing, and refining both practice and theory in accordance as a result of their experience. In other words, an artisan is someone who's been there, done it, learned his (or her) lessons well, and evolved into someone more capable. An artisan will have the humility and intent to grow and evolve in the face of those lessons, instead of sticking to familiar, obsolete habits.

The whole object behind organizing a productive shop, and documenting your process, is to help facilitate the process of growth, so you're not wasting time with clearing off the bench, and trying to remember what you were doing, the last time you were in there.

The ongoing goal is to spend your time productively creating, instead of endlessly maintaining a monument to (not yet fulfilled) potential.

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