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.