Work of the eye, the hand, the mind

This morning, we begin a two-week exploration of people in the North Country who still pursue what we’re calling traditional work.

The truth is, I’m still not quite sure what “traditional work” means.  We’ll talk with a blacksmith, a clock repairer, a taxidermist, and on and on.

All of these are practical arts that have their roots somewhere before the industrial revolution, before automation and standardization got together and gave birth to mass production.

In a fuzzy sort of way, I think of this as work — once a deep part of the human experience — that unified the eye, the hand, and the mind.  It was practical labor, for the most part, but also creative.

The artisans I’ve interviewed all talk about their process as an exploration.  They take risks.  They’re not making widgets, after all.

My feelings about this kind of abor is complicated by the fact that it’s a club I can’t join.  I have always had what I call “stupid hands.”

My father could do anything with his hands, from milking a cow to repairing the PTO on a tractor to stringing a barbwire fence.  He had an instinct for it.   I get befuddled trying to turn on a vacuum cleaner.

(My one distinctly uncool hand-eye skill is that I can type like a house on fire.)

Which is why I think it’s so remarkable that many of the folks we’ll be profiling over the next couple of weeks are self-taught.  They’ve revived and mastered arts that were fading away, or already consigned to dusty old books.

There is, in fact, a healthy tradition in New York of reviving traditional arts.

The Byrdcliffe Colony near Woostock was established in 1902, with an eye toward resisting the uniformity and tedium and ugliness that often comes with industrialization.

A century and more later, some of us are still swimming against the tide.

I suppose it’s an open question how much this kind of work actually contributes to our modern economy here in the North Country.

How many of our neighbors make part of their living with a pottery wheel or by making lumber in their barn or by rebuilding antique clocks?  Maybe more than we think.

Whatever the dollar value, it’s heartening, especially to those like myself who can only admire, that so many people in our small towns take up these traditional labors.

There is a rootedness in it that lies beyond romanticism.  It is a form of memory that is muscular and practical and beautiful all at the same time.

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17 Responses to “Work of the eye, the hand, the mind”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    It is a bit confusing because even the “traditional arts” have changed.
    I once worked for a blacksmith in Blue Mnt. Lake. He was a serious, full-time blacksmith who used both traditional and modern methods and tools. This was and is necessary if one is to produce products on demand within a reasonable time frame at a reasonable cost and make a decent living at it.
    But hasn’t this always been true? Methods evolve. What we now call traditional was once upon a time “cutting edge.”
    So I view traditional as little more than drawing a line in the sand of a time line.

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  2. Deb Evans says:

    The question is:
    is there a next generation of these crafters?
    What’s the age group in your reports?
    part time or full time?

    Have you talked w/ The Adk Folk School ?

    is there a next ” Bill Smith”? can there be?

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  3. Paul says:

    One of my favorite Adirondack characters is Jim Latour. He ran a saw mill for years out in Onchiota. His family also at one point owned a fuel company in SL. You might recognize him as the “poster child” (his words) for Adirondack Faces:

    Here is a picture of him in his mill:

    http://www.adkmuseum.org/about_us/adirondack_journal/?id=216

    You might also recognize his name from the lakeside park across from the hospital in SL. His family donated the land it is built on. Or as Jim would say we sold it to them for F*****g buck! he died about ten years ago so he won’t make this years list.

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  4. Kathy says:

    There is a rootedness in it that lies beyond romanticism. It is a form of memory that is muscular and practical and beautiful all at the same time.

    I find myself holding onto some of the old ways in a desperate kind of way since I truly wonder what society will look like in 10 -20 years if we don’t preserve the practical, tried and true methods and beauty of craftsmanship. Granted, I don’t like change. Yet, my feelings are based on something more … like a “holy ground” kind of mindset; up there with the sadness of losing the WWII generation.

    We are 3rd generation maple syrup producers and still use buckets. The horses were traded in for a tractor and the old evaporator was traded for a stainless steel one system that makes syrup in half the time. Last year when we heard the neighbor made double what we made with the new, improved tubing/pipeline, well dang it doesn’t take a rocket scientist! It would be nice to pay for the operational costs and property taxes and have some extra for home improvements!

    That said, as optimistic as I am, the traditional work you speak of will only be a story of “what was”, handed down to the next generation. I don’t care how hard we try to maintain or even create – technology, impatience, and the Walmart generation is here to stay.

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  5. Paul says:

    My prediction:

    What the next generation produces as far as technology will make it look like we did nothing for the last 250 years.

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  6. Jim Bullard says:

    “There is a rootedness in it that lies beyond romanticism. It is a form of memory that is muscular and practical and beautiful all at the same time.”

    At least their children can see what it means to earn a living at an occupation that provides something of value. It beats the heck out of selling derivatives for a living.

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  7. Paul says:

    Jim, as I am sure you are aware the success of even the smallest farm depends on the futures market. Those guys selling and buying “derivatives” gives those other folks the ability to do their job as well. We have been brainwashed to think that all activity in the capital markets, despite our dependance on them, is evil. Some of the hardest working people I have ever seen work on Wall Street. They make the hours of a farmer look like a part-time job.

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  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I can’t wait for the day in the very near future when we hear a bunch of old Wall Street traders complaining that advances in technology and mathematics has put them out of a job, replaced by a computer program.

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  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think the phrase “traditional work” throws this discussion down a wrong path. I would substitute a discussion about Craft, about the “Nature and Art of Craftsmanship” (david Pye).

    Though Brian professes no hand skill there is a craft of writing, of preparing an audio report. Doing a thing well, honing a skill, perfecting a craft gives insight into humanness.

    We are not in danger of losing just the “traditional” arts in this country, we are in danger of losing the understanding of Craft, of the sense of humanity and purpose that working a hand-trade provides that a steady paycheck can’t replace. Or I should say we WERE in danger of it. My sense is that younger generations feel a yearning to discover what Craftsmanship is about.

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  10. Paul says:

    knuck, I agree (I think?). I think that younger generations are going to be the champions of the new “crafts”. The anvil has been replaced by the CPU and other “tools” and the results could be astounding.

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  11. Paul says:

    Also, I agree, Brian does posses another kind of “craft” that can help make the world a better place.

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  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I wouldn’t say that the anvil has been replaced, I would say that all tools have a value for their purpose.

    Also, I mis-quoted the title of Pye’s book, “the Nature and Art of Workmanship”
    in which Pye argues (and I am simplifying) that the distinction to be made in evaluating workmanship is not about “quality” but in the workmanship of risk vs the workmanship of certainty. An example Pye uses is of a quill type pen vs a typewriter (it’s an old book). With a quill pen the result is at risk at every moment while the typewriter provides greater certainty of a well printed page. The Declaration of Independence, for example, is the same written either way but the print version lacks the character of the hand-written copy.

    In an age where a 3D CNC machine can prototype virtually any object with an extremely high degree of precision and can replicate the piece a million times we have to question the intrinsic nature of an objects’ value. The same object made by hand wouldn’t be as precise and would probably cost more to produce so where does value lie?

    Some will say that the widget made in China for less money is the better deal. Others will say that the locally made, or hand made object is the better deal.

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  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Evaluate. How do we value things? Why is a Gustav Stickley chair of greater value than a box that you can sit on if they both perform the same function?

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  14. Paul says:

    “I wouldn’t say that the anvil has been replaced” knuck, I was speaking metaphorically. Apparently not very well!

    “Why is a Gustav Stickley chair of greater value than a box that you can sit on if they both perform the same function?”

    A big part is marketing.

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  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    There is no doubt that marketing plays a huge role in the perceived value of objects, but I suspect Stickley and other proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement would have a more nuanced view. They were interested in the nobility and humanity of the object and how that is caught up in the methods of production.

    There are a lot of people who feel that there is a loss of soul in what has become of our society that can be connected to our economic system that values consolidation of capital at the expense of virtually everything else.

    Capitalists like to talk about risk but if fact they are solidly in the camp of the workmanship of certainty.

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  16. Paul says:

    “They were interested in the nobility and humanity of the object and how that is caught up in the methods of production.”

    They probably also wanted to crush the competition.

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  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “So long as the system of competition in the production and exchange of the means of life goes on, the degradation of the arts will go on; and if that system is to last for ever, then art is doomed, and will surely die; that is to say, civilization will die.”

    William Morris

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