Acts of Creation: Prologue and Praise

Prologue: The Craftsman’s Way

I’m the last guy you’d expect to find traveling the country trying to figure out the rites and ways of America’s finest craftsmen. I got a battery-powered screwdriver for Christmas years ago, and it’s still in the wrapper. My tool bag hasn’t had a new tool in a decade. Almost 30 years ago, I gutted and renovated the second floor of my first fixer-upper. After 35 straight back-breaking 16-hour days, I calculated that I had saved $5,000–not nearly enough gain for the pain. I’m no nerd. I worked with my dad building fences and sheds as a kid. In college, I roofed houses for money. Just out of college, I patched drywall and refinished oak floors and kitchen cabinets to make my dumpy apartments pretend to elegance. I can swing a hammer okay.

But I confess: I never enjoyed it.

My wife once asked how I could have the patience to sit all day fiddling with the same five pages of writing but get frustrated enough after two minutes of hapless screw driving to toss the tool across the yard. “I don’t like screw driving,” I told her.

Yet men whose character and intelligence I respect have always loved to drive screws–and pound nails, cut boards, just plain build things. My best friend from high school quit his junior high teaching job a few years out of college to build decks, garages and houses for a living. My best friend from college did everything but his PhD dissertation, decided academia was hooey, and became a carpenter. He still reads tomes for fun, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Goethe’s Faust. Then he drives off in his pick-up, straps on his work belt and frames up another house. These men always baffled me: They love this work!

Not me. On visits, I was the guy who handed out the tools, held the lamp in the dark crawl space, ran to the hardware store to pick up a new bottle of Elmer’s glue. In my own work, I was doing the socially certified, high-status job of the journalist and university professor–dinners at the White House, interviews with the rich and famous, awards and books to my name. Yet again and again, these men and other craftsmen I knew humbled me.

I once visited my old friend from high school, and, with wonder in his voice, he told me he enjoyed nothing more than building a beautiful deck on a beautiful day. When I once visited my friend from college, I discovered he had totally renovated his rental apartment at his own expense. He said he had no choice–the space simply demanded a new configuration of rooms. Meanwhile, back at my fixer-upper, I had wisely hired a man to do my first-floor renovation. He was a country boy, my age, who’d been hammering on houses since he was a teenager. He cursed every fifth word and never went anywhere without his dog, Buddy. Then one day, he sheepishly mentioned that he didn’t like my architect’s plan.

He stood outside the front door facing my house and said that even before a person walked in, he should gaze all the way through the house and see the river on the back side. He walked in and began waving his arms at imaginary windows and French doors that should make the water, the woods and the house’s interior blur to create the sensation of being outside even when you were inside. We nixed the architect. The house was beautiful.

Something is out of whack. We who believe that we think for a living break the world into thinkers and laborers. We give ourselves top billing. Yet these men I admired just didn’t fit that hierarchy. They were smart. They didn’t work with their hands because they had no choice; they worked with their hands because they loved it. For some reason, I needed to understand these men and men like them. I suppose we all do. After all, they’re the part of ourselves we left behind in our rush to become modern. After two years and thousands of miles traveled for An American Craftsman, after visiting an architectural ceramicist in Florida; a furniture-maker in Maryland; a millwright in Virginia; a coppersmith in Vermont; a timber-framer in New Hampshire; a fireplace mason in Maine; a locksmith and a house-framer in Ohio; a wood-floor man in Indiana; a blacksmith in Illinois; a chair-maker, an ornamental plasterer, a stone-carver and a door-maker in California, I know these people better. What makes them fine craftsmen?

Call it The Craftsman’s Way.

They don’t work for the money. A few of the 14 fine craftsmen I visited have become affluent from their crafts. But more common is furniture-maker Michael Seward, who earned $30,000 the year before I met him. Or Chuck Crispin, an award-winning maker of elaborately in-laid wood floors, and architectural ceramicist Peter King, who made even less. Often these incomes are earned in 60, 70, 80 hours of work a week. Yet all of them said that if they had launched their careers worrying about making a good living, they never would have invested the time it takes to get good enough to make a good living.

It’s the catch-22 of craftsmanship.

If not for money, then what? That’s the heart of it. Again and again, these craftsmen spoke of a feeling they get when they are working at their best. Like great athletes whose minds and bodies work in sync, fine craftsmen go into a “zone.” Hours seem to pass in minutes. They describe the sensation as “addictive,” “like a drug,” “like a runner’s high,” “an emotional high,” “hypnotic,” “a waking dream,” “meditative.” It’s this emotional payoff that makes the tiring, dirty, tedious labor of craft a joy.

As Sam Maloof said, “You do it because of the love.”

Tools don’t make the craftsman. Blacksmiths tell this derogatory joke about any blacksmith more obsessed with tools than craft: “He spends too much time polishing his anvil.” Sam Maloof once knew a man who spent decades outfitting the perfect woodworking shop. But he never built anything. Michael Seward built his first beautiful furniture with a wobbly old table saw. Peter King makes his giant slabs of clay on an ancient hand-roller. Clearly, this argument can go too far–a man can’t build a house without hammer and nails. But to fine craftsmen, tools don’t make a craftsman. Creativity, they believe, is the only irreplaceable tool.

Skills don’t make the craftsman, either. This is awfully hard to explain. Craftsmen repeatedly told me that mastering their crafts’ mechanical skills wasn’t what made them fine craftsmen. That, of course, flies in the face of everything we think about craftsmanship–that it is a set of skills acquired over many years of patient, repetitious labor. “I can teach anyone to be a good woodworker,” said Maloof. But, he added, he can’t teach anyone to have the aesthetic eye it takes to be a truly fine woodworker.

Take that as symbolism. Because fine craftsmen come to master the mechanics of their crafts in the way that we come to master walking. A man supposedly once asked jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker how to become a great musician. The story goes that Parker told him to practice the scales all day, every day, for a decade and then to forget them. In other words, mechanical skills must become so second nature that they are unconscious, like walking. In other words, anyone can spend a decade learning the mechanics of a craft. But in the end, he will be judged only on the music he makes from the scales he has learned.

The work is always larger than life. Not one of these craftsmen believes he is working only to build a house, to renovate a watermill, to cast a plaster medallion. Each imbues his work with grander purpose–framer Robert Reade is instilling a new generation of house-builders with the value of excellence; millwright Derek Ogden is preserving a nearly extinct body of knowledge; ornamental plasterer Lorna Kollmeyer is resurrecting and cataloguing a niche in the history of San Francisco’s 19th-century Victorian age.

On and on it goes–Michael Seward wants the people who buy his furniture to experience an emotional connection to him through his furniture; Chuck Crispin wants his clients’ lives to be evoked in his floor designs; timber-framer Tedd Benson wants his workers to share his exhilaration in the work; Bob Dix believes the history of mankind is played out in the history of locks; Jeff Gammelin wants people to sit before his monumental fireplaces and experience a primal memory of home and hearth; blacksmith Charles Keller wants the highly educated world to appreciate the complicated genius of not only fine blacksmiths but all fine craftsmen.

These craftsmen aren’t just writing themselves large. In her book, Uncommon Genius, Denise Shekerjian interviews winners of the MacArthur Prize, the so-called “genius award”–scientists, novelists, photographers, artists, philosophers, physicians and, the only craftsman in the crowd, Sam Maloof. She finds this quality in them all: They invest their work with a vision. Even Maloof tells her that his goal is to pass on the secrets of furniture-making to the next generation. How does “vision” create genius? “Give a man a purpose,” Shekerjian writes, “and he will go forward, again and again, heartily, steadily, and creatively. . . . dreams unleash the imagination.” So it is for craftsmen. Coppersmith Larry Stearns was a “party-loving roofer,” as he put it. Then he met a sculptor who believed craft is raised to art when the craftsman makes an emotional connection to his work. He met a house builder who saw everything he made as archeological evidence of his own humanity. Only when these ideas–these values–began to animate Stearns’ labor did he become excited enough about his work to do his best.

For years, Chuck Crispin had been laying wood floors when he signed on to do a job for one of the most exacting floor men in the country. The old guy demanded that Crispin cut his floor boards so tight they had to be pounded into place. He had never known such exactitude. Suddenly, he was no longer laying a floor. He was testing the boundaries of perfection. Overnight, the inspiration of the old man’s grand, unyielding vision of excellence transformed Crispin from mechanic to craftsman to artist.

Intelligence matters. The image of the steady, hard-working but-not-too-bright craftsman was probably always a myth–bad press from thinkers denigrating doers whose hands get dirty. But it’s absolutely a myth for these craftsmen: Ten of the 14 graduated from college; only two never attended college at all. And none of them were art majors. They studied architecture and philosophy, engineering and anthropology, economics and English literature. Plasterer Lorna Kollmeyer was Phi Beta Kappa. Why should we be surprised? If craftsmen do their best work when imbued with a higher vision, then being quick with concepts, fast with ideas–being smart–has always mattered.

They can’t rest on their laurels. Fine craftsmen are compelled to do their work differently each time they do it. This isn’t only a commitment to constant self-improvement; it’s more like a psychological obsession. They can’t stop themselves. Days after Peter King has installed a one-of-kind ceramic fireplace, he starts worrying about how he’d do it differently next time–not better, differently. Jeff Gammelin tries never to build a fireplace like any he has built before. A man once asked Sam Maloof how he could make the same chair over and over. Knowing that no two of his chairs is ever exactly alike, Maloof answered, “I haven’t got it right yet.”

Perfection is not the goal. That’s a shocker. But not one of these fine craftsmen’s goals is to achieve perfection. The thrill is in approaching perfection–envisioning it, aiming for it, and then mastering the possibilities and limits of tools and materials, whether copper, iron, wood, clay, stone or plaster. Fine craftsmen are always trying to split the difference between where they are in their work and the ideal of perfection off in the distance. The goal is to get closer and closer, knowing they can’t ever arrive. It is the narrowing of the gap by even razor-thin widths each time that inspires them.

The love of raw materials is forever fresh. After 25 years, Peter King still marvels at the sensuous feel of cool, wet clay in his hands. Manuel Palos, after 30 years of stone carving, still feels awe when he rubs a piece of raw marble to brilliance. Robert Reade hates to see the houses he frames covered with siding–those 2-by-4 skeletons are just so beautiful against the clouds. Who knows why, but fine craftsmen are always re-remembering the beauty of their raw materials. It’s like seeing the man or woman you love forever young.

They work for themselves. Fine craftsmen are among the last of us who work for nobody. They should be as mythic as the American cowboy. They hate bureaucracy, bosses and paperwork. They mostly work alone. They punch their own clocks. If modern man is alienated from his work, craftsmen are not modern. They set their own standards and judge their work harsher than any employer. They don’t crave vacations or leisure time, don’t fret about being a workaholic. Work is their life, their love.

Finally, they are decent people. Over the years, I’ve written about politicians, actors, poets, athletes, teachers, cops, lawyers, bureaucrats–famous and infamous, rich and poor. The people I visited for An American Craftsman were as decent a gang as I’ve ever met. They were proud and humble at once. Nobody was a braggart. They laughed easily. Nobody was a back-slapper. After they talked, they listened. I’ve come to believe that Sam Maloof is right–you can’t be a good craftsman if you aren’t a good person. These people are proof.

From me to them–thinker to thinkers–I honor them.

Because their rites and ways are not only lessons for craft, but for life.

Praise and reviews of Acts of Creation

“This collection of profiles about great American craftsmen is itself the handiwork of a great American craftsman.” – David Grogan, past editor, This Old House Magazine

“Acts of Creation is a lovely collection of literary journalism, written by a master of the form. Walt Harrington’s gracefully nuanced prose, full of feeling and finely observed detail, wonderfully conveys the world of craftsmen in all its artful integrity. In the grand tradition of Tracy Kidder, John McPhee and Joseph Mitchell, Harrington offers us a fascinating and enduring homage to men at work.” – Barry Siegel; Pulitzer Prize winner; author, Manifest Injustice; director of the Literary Journalism Program, University of California, Irvine

“Acts of Creation is an example of what happens when a top-notch writer, laboring in solitude with purity of purpose, puts the right words in the right order.” – Madeleine Blais; Pulitzer Prize winner; author, Uphill Walkers: Portrait of a Family

“This is vintage Walt Harrington: Rigorous reporting, lyrical writing and compelling storytelling. He has a knack of turning the lives of ordinary people into works of art.” – Joe Mackall; author, Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish; director of the Creative Writing Program, Ashland University

“Acts of Creation is a compelling tribute to Americans who work with their hands — and hearts.” – Pete Earley; author, Crazy: A Father’s Search through America’s Mental Health Madness

“Acts of Creation is a marvelous book– it celebrates the life dedicated to a purpose that is both practical and transcendent. The carpenters, millwrights, coppersmiths, plasterers, stonemasons and others who inhabit these pages offer humble inspiration to the rest of us, and Walt Harrington’s prose is the very embodiment of master craftsmanship as he explores the deep convictions that motivate it. Put it on your shelf alongside John McPhee, Tracy Kidder and Susan Orlean.” – Philip Gerard; author, The Patron Saint of Dreams; professor in the Department of Creative Writing, UNC, Wilmington