Acts of Creation: Table of Contents

Prologue: The Craftsman’s Way

For too long, we who work with words, ideas or computers have denigrated those whose hands get dirty and whose bodies get tired from their labors. Yet these people and their ethic of work embody the crucial and profound place of craftsmanship in the American spirit. They remind us that labor and creativity are always a single piece—and a philosophy of life.

Michael Seward: Cherishing Nature’s Mistakes

He always felt an urge to create, but he didn’t know what to create until he came across a book on furniture making, bought a humble Black & Decker table saw and went to work. With intense effort and little pay, Michael eventually recognized that his greatest joy is sharing in the pleasure his beautiful, idiosyncratic tables, cabinets and chests give to the people who come to own them. “It’s not just an object,” he says. “It’s of deep emotional importance.”

Charlie Keller: The Scholarly Blacksmith

As an anthropologist, Charlie always smirked at hearing a colleague confidently explain that an ancient metal ladle was shaped as it was so it could dip and pour. As a blacksmith with a PhD who actually knew the thousands of choices and deep knowledge about the materials, fire, heat, hammering and bending that went into making a simple ladle, he would think, Yeah, come out to the shop and I’ll give you a hammer. In his shop, thinking and doing are one.

 Sam Maloof: A Woodworker’s World

He is among the most famous hand craftsmen in America–the winner of a MacArthur “genius” award whose furniture has resided in the White House, the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery, and the homes of former presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Yet
Sam says he can teach almost anyone to be an excellent furniture maker. What he cannot teach them is how to be a good, decent and humane enough person to raise the excellent to the sublime. He says, “You do it because of the love.”

Bob Dix: Time through a Keyhole

Bob has never met a lock he couldn’t pick. He is that good. Locks speak to him, and he believes they speak to us, telling the tale of hundreds of years of cultural transformation, from the unadorned locks of the Dark Ages, to the elaborately etched locks of the Renaissance, to the tumbler locks that made modern security possible. In his Ohio basement are 7,000 locks–perhaps the largest collection in the world. With his eye-piece otoscope, steady hands, lifetime of knowledge and mysterious intuition, Bob knows each as a mechanism and a story.

Chuck Crispin: A Philosopher of Exactitude

As a devotee of poet T. S. Eliot, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chuck is the last man you’d expect to find sawing, laying, hammering and sanding hardwood floors. Yet, when he installed his first floor years ago, “It was like changing water into wine.” The Greek philosophers mused on the gap between the ideal and the real. In his work creating elaborate, one-of-a-kind inlaid floors, Chuck ponders that gap every day, pursuing perfection while knowing its achievement is impossible. But reaching for it . . . oh, what a rush.

 Derek Ogden: Tilting at Watermills

He is one of the world’s preeminent millwrights–one of the few men who still has the knowledge and skill to repair the gargantuan oak wheels, shafts, cogs, cants, gudgeons and gears that compose the antique watermills and windmills of America and Europe. Derek is awed by his own achievements, mesmerized by the seamless way that the mastery of craft and creative intellect merge in creating objects of utility and beauty. Only one other experience evokes that sensation in him: Listening to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto K. 622.

Robert Reade: A Craftsman’s Conscience

His father–a mathematician and amateur woodworker–built 8-year-old Robert a step-stool so he could run the table saw in the home workshop where they built cabinets, chairs and chests. Young Robert once asked his father if he should repair a hidden carpentry mistake that no one would ever see. “You know it’s there,” his father answered, and Robert made the repair.  Forty years later, he constructs the 2×4 frames of houses with the same care and precision he and his father put into building furniture. “There is nothing nicer-looking than a stick-built roof just sitting up there against the sky,” he says. “It’s a work of art.”

Larry Stearns: Meditations in Copper

He was a party-loving college dropout, slapping shingles on roofs for the money when he met a Czechoslovakian sculptor on a job at a Long Island mansion. He told Larry that labor became art when the laborer made an emotional connection to his work. Another wise man on that job told Larry that work wasn’t only a way to make a living but a path to life’s meaning. The chance encounters transformed the way he thought about his work, which transformed the way he did his work. Today, Larry’s stunning copper finials, domes and weather vanes adorn some of America’s most beautiful roofs–archeological evidence, he believes, of his humanity.

Jeff Gammelin: A Fireplace Stands 2,000 Years

Decades ago, Jeff decided to build a fireplace from the stones strewn around his 80 acres in rural Maine. He smacked them together with no thought to aesthetics. Then, standing one day in the second story of a nearby barn, he looked out at his fireplace and saw rational beauty–large stones blending into rivers of gentler, smaller stones, all woven together in a canvas of colors that reminded him of Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings. His monumental fireplaces rise today in scores of homes, including David Rockefeller Jr.’s Maine retreat. Jeff’s hard and fast rule: each fireplace must be different from the last because, he says, “It’s grow or die.”

Lorna Kollmeyer: Casting for Beauty Lost

Lorna’s dad was a pipe-fitter who wanted her to do something more with her life. She enjoyed working with her hands, getting dirty, being tired at the end of the day. But with her Phi Beta Kappa college degree and her dad’s aspirations, she left behind hand-crafting beautiful plaster medallions, rosettes, cartouches, plaques and spandrels for San Francisco’s Victorian homes to carry an expensive leather briefcase to an office. She hated it–and returned to become, after years of exacting labor, the city’s most accomplished plaster artisan. “I got over being embarrassed about working with my hands,” she says. “I decided to take great pride in it.”

Peter Good: He Builds Beautiful Doors

He only builds doors. A door with wooden panels that rise to hide its windows for a couple who travels a lot. A door that blends in with a home’s exterior wall so it cannot be seen by casual passersby. A door built from the railroad trestle beams on which a man played as a boy. Doors of Douglas fir, East Indian rosewood, Central African bubinga. Honduran mahogany doors built, shipped to Brazil and elaborately carved by the esteemed sculptor Paulino Lazur. “I’ll create something that has never existed,” Peter says of his doors. “And I’ll do it all myself. I like that.”

Tedd Benson: The Craft of Craftsmanship

He wrote the book on how to construct timber-frame homes–literally. Published in 1980, Building the Timber Frame House made Tedd the cult icon of a burgeoning movement to create homes with the plain majesty of Scandinavian stave churches and Colonial meeting houses. The elaborate beam joinery of the structures resembles furniture-making done by a race of giants. “You are humbled by your own creation, this building that will stand for 500 years,” he says. “And that feeling is what keeps me and all craftsmen doing it every day.”

Manuel Palos: The Dragon in the Stone

If, in a thousand years, San Francisco lies in ruins, Manuel imagines that perhaps the giant 12-by-13-foot dragon fireplace he carved and chiseled from four tons of Mexican limestone for the home of actor Nicholas Cage may still stand. What will the people or beings examining our lost culture make of its fangs, flared nostrils and evil eyes? A giant talisman? A rendering of God? Or the devil? And what of Manuel’s other monumental carvings of giant eagles, Zeus and Medusa? All he knows is this: “Anything well done lasts forever.”

Peter King: God Made Man Out of Clay

He must dedicate his friend Katie’s small backyard clay kiln tonight. What should he say? That his own love and fascination with creating huge ceramic architectural adornments–Spanish, Pueblo and Gothic arches, ocean-wave wainscoting, Mayan baseboards, Aztec birds, flamingos, great blue herons, dolphins, Egyptian hieroglyphics, even human faces–has left him with debt and an old van? “If I were to win the lottery tomorrow, I’d do exactly what I do today,” he finally says. “What I do is who I am. It’s not a job. It’s who I am.”

Epilogue: When Work is Worship

We live in an era when men and women work to live–for time with their children, time for golf or fantasy football, time for reading a book or watching TV. Yet there are still those of us who live to work, who discover in work their love and gift and passion for excellence. For that, they often sacrifice many good things. But the feeling they get . . . it is a wonder to behold.