Last year at Handworks, I bought a spoon from Jarrod Stone Dahl, a craftsman whose work I admire immensely. I’d watched his work and read his great blog for a few years, had never met him.
He had one spoon left, and I asked him if he’d be willing to add a small design of his I liked to the spoon.
“Nope,” he replied.
No apology, no explanation, no animosity, no shrug. Just nope.
He jumped about five notches in my estimation. Here’s why:
I have no idea why he refused – maybe he didn’t have time, or didn’t want to sharpen a tool. Maybe he needed some coffee or a sandwich. Maybe he just didn’t feel like doing it at that moment. Maybe he didn’t like my face.
My impression at the moment, though, was that he thought it was a bad idea. And that it was a bad idea for a reason that I probably wasn’t in a position to understand, and it just wasn’t worth trying to explain it. So he just said no.
Whether I’m right about the reasoning or not is beside the point, really – the guy knows wooden spoons as well as just about anyone on this continent, anyway. I know what I’ve seen online and in books and at craft events. There’s no comparison in our understanding.
So I took it as evidence that he wasn’t remotely interested in compromising what he thought his work was about for anyone. Not for money, not to be liked, not to be polite, and not to be understood.
I didn’t ask why. I think I just smirked and said something like ‘hell yeah’ or ‘fair enough.’
Because if you devote yourself completely to something – anything – for a few thousand hours, sooner or later you realize that nobody who hasn’t done those hours see it the way you do, and there’s no point trying to explain it to them. It’s about putting in the time to ‘see’ it properly.
I wish there was a better term for what I’m talking about, but the correct term is tacit knowledge.
Recently I bought a mug from him as well. He’s been developing skills on a pole lathe – and exploring some of the fascinating things you can do with a reciprocating lathe that a normal powered lathe cannot do. Such as turning cups with a handle, like mine (shown at top, with the infamous spoon).
I love this mug – as you can tell from the extraordinary sheen of grime it’s developing from being in my greasy, dirty, working hands all the time. I think it’s gorgeous, and for all the same reasons I discussed in this post on Seth Gould. It’s a classic example of tacit skill, and there’s no way to fake that. Not at all.
But I’m only able to scratch the surface of ‘seeing’ these pieces. I’ve looked at and touched these mugs, and I watched some videos on how he makes them – I get the theory of them just fine. All the cheap knowledge there is about them – I got that. But the deep knowing – The skills, the eyes, the hands, the real understanding: I’m not getting that unless I spend the time to develop it.
My mug’s a fairly early one when he was developing the form. Here’s a picture of a much more recent mug. According to Jarrod, these are a ‘sweeter shape’ and more refined and subtle, and he likes them much more. Personally, I can see some differences certainly – in the fullness of the curves, the waist, the delicacy – but I’m not sure I would see one as better than the other.
But I have no problem taking his word for it, and no doubt that if I spent a few hundred hours making these I’d agree with him. He’s done the work, developed the skills, and learned to see in ways I haven’t.
I didn’t ask him to explain it to me any more than that. How could he?
This post is first step into some sketchy territory. I’ve been thinking, reading, ranting, talking, and scribbling furiously about things related to this for a few years now, and I’m going to take a stab at spitting some of it out on the blog.
But in all seriousness – if you’re anti-meta, if you’re a reader isn’t interested in thinking about making, and wants to see pictures of planes or tools or whatever – you might want to skip these posts. Only getting deeper from here.
when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.