Towards a Poetics of Making

Lately, I have been considering what I find to be the most engaging questions in my field and wondering if the theory that is available is of much use to me – or to my students. My friend at CCA, Dean Schneider, has been reading David Pye on the Nature and Art of Workmanship as part of his final thesis and it occurs to me that Pye’s notions of Workmanship of Risk and Certainty are still some of the most useful concepts for me when thinking about art, craft and design. I’m wondering if there aren’t other parameters and concepts that I find relevant in my work that might be more universally and usefully applied across the field.

But where to start on such a project? I’ve titled this project ‘Towards a Poetics of Making’. Admittedly somewhat pompous, but I think appropriate. I’m searching for qualities in making that can be identified clearly and that help understand the nature of making and at the same time provide tools for makers to think about, conceptualize and move their practice forward. Much like the notions of simile, metaphor, meter and other tools help poets to understand and construct their work while achieving a transcendent and culturally valuable outcome.

So what aspects of making could be relevant to this project? I’ve already talked about some concepts which I’ve been finding useful in some earlier posts. In my recent travels and spending time with students, faculty and the general public I have been introducing, discussing and enriching my own understanding of the notions of  ‘artifact’ and ‘translation’ that I introduced in  a previous post – which you can read here.

An over-arching question which I’ve been finding a useful tool arises from my thinking on ‘artifact’.

What concepts or cultural values adhere to a particular process?

In defining artifact I have focussed on the idea from science of an artifact being  a direct affect (often unintended, unexpected or unwanted) from a particular process or tool. In art making this is often referred to as a ‘mark’ and the consequence of using a tool is ‘mark-making’. The quality of the mark is determined both by the nature of the tool (be it pencil, or oilstick, or chainsaw), the ‘fluency’ and intention of the artist, and the medium which supports the mark.

I my thinking about translation, I have wondered what is gained or lost in translation as a concept or action gets transferred across media? In my own recent collaboration with Matt Hebert of SDSU using both hand whittling and digital fabrication, I have wondered if the inherent qualities of the whittlings – the form and surface that derives from the subtle interplay between the initial shape and material properties of the wooden piece, the shape of the knife, and my own thinking with both hand and mind – get lost or augmented by their subsequent translation through digital processes into objects of radically different scale, process and materiality? And then, what new attributes come from the translation that add to or contradict the initial qualities and readings provided by the whittlings? Of course, these attributes can be both physical and conceptual. I’m still thinking about it, and I’m hoping the works that we make together over the next few months help me discover some answers.

One thing I have concluded, is that the works in design, craft and art that engage me the most are those that have the process of making and the meanings that adhere to those processes at the forefront of their conceptual underpinning.

Which leads me inevitably to some thoughts on ‘craft’. At a discussion following Fo Wilson’s recent lecture at CCA, someone made the statement that ‘craft is an activity that brings you closer to the source.’ I like that! The notion that any activity that brings you closer to the core values and qualities of that medium or field is ‘craft’. So cooking involving all unprocessed ingredients where you are close to the source of those materials and understand the cultural histories and values of all of the materials and processes involved is close to the ‘craft’ of cooking. And this applies to both the cook and the diner – both the artist and the connoisseur. The source is in the sauce!

This way of thinking clearly applies to traditional notions of craft practice and allows us to expand the use of the term ‘craft’ to cooking, writing, and even designing video games. I have mourned the passing of a useful definition of craft as it has been applied to any activity which requires human intervention – the craft of shopping? Perhaps these notions of ‘source’ and ‘artifact’ can help me reclaim the terms as something useful to me as a maker who loves and is embroiled in the histories and stories imbedded in the tools, materials and processes I employ.

I welcome any thoughts you might have! These tools will only be useful if other people find them handy!

Whittling: The Last Class by John Stone

What has been written
about whittling
is not true

most of it

It is the discovery
that keeps
the fingers moving

not idleness

but the knife looking for
the right plane
that will let the secret out

Whittling is no pastime

he says
who has been whittling
in spare minutes at the wood

of his life for forty years

Three rules he thinks
have helped
Make small cuts

In this way

you may be able to stop before
what was to be an arm
has to be something else

Always whittle away from yourself

and toward something.
For God’s sake
and your own
know when to stop

Whittling is the best example
I know of what most
may happen when

least expected

bad or good
Hurry before
angina comes like a pair of pliers

over your left shoulder

There is plenty of wood
for everyone
and you

Go ahead now

May you find
in the waiting wood
rough unspoken

what is true

nearly true

true enough.

“Whittling: The Last Class” by John Stone, from Music from Apartment 8. © Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

Thanks to both Lawrence and Emma-Louise for forwarding this on to me.

Sydney’s Three Winds

Sydney’s Three Winds

I’ve been savoring, thinking about and writing on the unique seasons we experience here in Bayarea.

It reminded me of the classic essay  (which I will reproduce here in full, as I can’t find it anywhere else online) by J.D. Pringle. Pringle was a long time editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and this piece on the distinctive winds of Sydney was reproduced in ‘Austrian Accent’ (Chatto and Windus, London, 1958).


SYDNEY is ruled by three winds, which command the City in turn like the chiefs of an invading army.

The first is the north-easter, the prevailing wind of summer. It is a fair-weather wind, a lazy, languorous wind, which comes in from the long reaches of the South Pacific heavy with moisture and sticky with salt. This is the wind which drives the great Pacific rollers on to the open beaches before leaping over the narrow barrier of land, making the pines of Manly sing as it passes and ruffling the calmer waters of the Harbour on the other side. On Sundays the crews of the 18-foot yachts catch it as they round the buoy for the long run home and push out their bellying spinnakers which lift the small hulls out of the water until they seem to be flying.

The north-easter is a sea-breeze and is out of its element on dry land. As soon as it reaches the brick-and-concrete towers of the City it begins to flag, though it still has the strength to rustle the skirts of the palm trees on Macquarie Street and to fan the foreheads of the drinkers squatting on their haunches outside the pubs in Balmain and Woolloomooloo. A few miles inland the north-easter fades away altogether, daunted by the size of the continent before it. To the western suburbs it brings no relief from the heat but to the more favoured eastern suburbs it is a source of pride and joy; and the wealthy citizens of Bellevue Hill and Point Piper set their houses to catch it like the yachts on the Harbour set their sails. But the north-easter is not an unmixed blessing. If it brings coolness, it also brings the humidity which is the curse of Sydney’s summer.

The north-easter has a rhythm of its own. It starts gently in the morning, the merest sea-breeze, and grows stronger all day until by six o’clock in the evening it is blowing half a gale and sending the more timorous yachtsmen in for shelter. Then it dies away as the sun goes down. Sometimes, too, it seems to grow stronger each day, while the temperature climbs steadily and Sydney swelters in sticky heat. Then suddenly it drops and there is a great calm. In the City the heat seems unbearable.

Women sit outside their terraced houses in the inner suburbs and lean over their cast-iron balconies, unwilling to go indoors. Pale-faced children play languidly in the streets. But the men look to where great clouds are building up in the south or turn on the wireless to listen for the weather forecast. They know that the time has come for the north-easter to give way to the second of the three winds – the southerly.

The southerly comes with a rush of cold air and a splatter of rain. The Sydneysiders call it the “southerly buster,” because it arrives with a banging of doors and windows like a train coming into the station. It can be fierce for a few hours, bowling over the yachts in the Harbour like ninepins and dexterously removing loose tiles from the house-roofs; but it is a much-loved wind in summer, bringing down the temperature with a bump, cooling the sultry streets and sending fretful babies to sleep. Generally it blows itself out in the night and Sydney wakes up in the morning to blue skies and brilliant sun as the north-easter resumes its sway over the City. In winter, however, it may blow for days, bringing cold Melbourne weather and a hint of snow to Sydney.

The third wind is the westerly, a gusty, dusty wind blowing from the heart of the continent. It- is an unpredictable wind, following no rhythm and obeying no laws, but in summer dry and hot as the blast from an oven door, it pounces on the City and worries it. It is an uncomfortable, penetrating wind, which gets through clothes and windows, forcing dust into the eyes and nose. Like the sirocco of the Mediterranean, its extreme dryness seems to irritate people, making the easy-going Sydneysiders bad-tempered.

In winter the southerly may blow for weeks on end, but in summer, fortunately, it rarely lasts more than a day or two – fortunately because it is only when the westerly is blowing that Sydney gets truly hot. The temperature climbs into the hundreds; the tar melts on the roads; and those who go down to the beaches for relief find that they cannot run bare-foot across the burning sand to the water. Worse still, it is the bush-fire wind. If you look up at the sky during a hot westerly, you will see a curious reddish- orange haze on the horizon. This is the smoke of bush-fires burning beyond the City boundaries. On a bad day, when the City is ringed with fires, the sky is half obscured with smoke and the sun glares down on the City like a blood-shot eye.

When Sculptors Craft – the Journal of Modern Craft

When sculptors craft

“How comfortably does craft fit within the history and practice of sculpture? Why is the crafted essence of sculpting so often ignored? And, more positively, what ideas and narratives about sculpture might be generated by accounting for it in terms of craft?”

This is the tagline for the Journal of Modern Craft‘s online forum dedicated to discussing the latest volume of this important peer reviewed journal of contemporary craft. I am a guest blogger for the on-line journal currently and have just posted my first response. Please click over to the blog (by clicking on the underlined link above), read the entries and some pdf’s of current journal articles, and join in the discussion.

More to follow!

Cecile Johnson Soliz finishing Warm, a sculpture that functions as a wood-burning stove, in Castellamonte, Italy, 2007.