A while ago I came across a video on the BBC website of a man sitting in a shop window carving wooden spoons. His name is Barn Carder, but he is widely known as Barn The Spoon. He spent some time as apprentice to a furniture maker and then spent a couple of years wandering from town to town carving wooden spoons and selling them as he went. After he had saved up enough he opened his shop in London where he carves wooden spoons for a living and runs courses teaching other people how to carve their own spoons.
There has been something of a revival in this artisan approach of a person making for himself something that most of us would simply buy from a shop. There is, for example, a lot of artisan bread making going on and a mall near where I live has a monthly craft market where people come to sell jam, chutney, smoked fish, home made sausages and hand raised pork pies they have made themselves using traditional crafts. I admire these people and look at my own craft efforts from a new perspective each time I go there. I almost always buy something I don’t really want just to encourage them to keep these crafts alive.
Last year we had an Italian lady come to my place of work on a job swap scheme and she was telling me how in her home village each family makes its own tomato sauce once a year. The whole family gather together for three or four days and make enough sauce for the year using their top secret family recipe, handed down from mother to daughter for generations, then they bottle it and store it in the cellar.
A few years ago I came across a man called Jack Schmidling who perhaps epitomises the whole approach to artisan crafts. Jack does not just make his own clothes, he keeps sheep, which he shears himself, then spins the wool and weaves his own cloth on a loom he built in his dining room. When he has the cloth he makes shirts, coats and jackets for him and his wife Marilyn. He also brews his own beer, makes cheese using a cheese press he designed and built himself, he crafts sterling silver cutlery and even makes the wooden buttons for his garments by hand using tools he designed and made himself. Come the revolution this guy might be a very handy person to know.
The other day, however, I came across something that really made me stop and think about this whole artisan craft thing. I do a bit of drawing and painting and I buy my pencils in bulk from a school supply house but I have often wondered what it might be like to draw with better pencils. This, of course, requires me to consider what, “better” means. I can’t imagine that spending twice as much on my pencils will make me draw any better, but I have often wondered whether it might make drawing more pleasurable. Maybe better pencils will respond more to different grades of paper or maybe better pencils will make me more expressive or more careful or thoughtful. Or something.
But I had not got any farther than thinking about this, until Sunday of last week. I finally went online and started looking for these mythical, “better pencils,” without any clear idea of what, “better,” might mean in this context. I’m not really sure what I expected to find, but what I found just blew me away.
What I found was a man called David Rees, who, for want of a better expression, is a pencil sharpener. David calls himself an artisan pencil sharpener, which means that for a mere fifteen dollars he will sharpen your pencil for you.
The story he tells is that he started working for the Census Bureau, and on day one of the training course the students had to take out their pencils and sharpen them. This is because the United States census form has to be completed in pencil, so clearly all Census Bureau employees have to have properly sharpened pencils for whatever it is they do at the Census Bureau. David took out his number two pencil and started sharpening it, and he found it such a satisfying thing to do that he decided there and then to see if there was any way he could make a living out of it.
Time passed, during which David learned that there is no formal vocabulary for describing the sharpening of pencils, so he developed his own. He studied the methods of hand sharpening pencils and when he was ready he took the plunge, resigned his job, launched his new career, and now David is a professional pencil sharpener.
Some time ago I was reading a blog post about the politics of teaching. The Blogger was saying that teachers of non-political subjects like, say, history, for example, should teach their subject from a politically neutral perspective. The point was that the teacher should avoid bringing their own bias to the subject and stick to the facts. Then, she expanded on this by pointing out that the decision to teach this way is a politically motivated decision. Therefore, big conclusion, attempts to be politically neutral are in fact not politically neutral at all.
I was thinking about this while watching the video about David Rees the pencil sharpener. It occurred to me that in being the most artisan he can possibly be, at the most mundane and trivial of tasks, maybe he is not actually being an artisan at all, maybe he is instead making a statement about artisan crafts in general. Maybe he is saying that this whole artisan movement is ripe for satire and his professional pencil sharpening service is just a joke. When looked at from that perspective it becomes difficult to watch his profound explanation of the history of straight edge pencil sharpening without seeing the ghost of a smirk hiding behind his barely controlled visage.
But then I remembered a conversation I had some years ago with some people in an online forum, on the topic of sewing buttonholes on shirts. A man posted a picture of his latest shirt, which he had not made himself but bought from a very exclusive, high end, artisan shirt maker, who is apparently very selective about who he will sell his shirts to. He doesn’t want his shirts being worn with jeans and leather jackets, or something equally as pretentious. Anyway, the buttonholes on this superior, artisan shirt, were puckered. The material at the edge of the buttonhole was puckered, a fault that beginners make and which they struggle to overcome as they learn to keep their stitches properly and evenly tensioned. I pointed out this rather obvious fault but I was told that I was actually wrong. That was not a fault, the buttonholes were in fact artistically puckered to demonstrate the far superior skill of their maker.
I must admit that I wasn’t able to get my head around this concept. My mug has a hole in the bottom to demonstrate the superior craftsmanship required to put it there, versus a mug that will actually hold my coffee. Or the pages of my book are utterly blank so that I can compose my own story as I go. The idea that something can be artfully bad as a way of demonstrating how good it is just doesn’t wash with me. Those horror movies that are so bad they’re funny, they’re not horror movies any more and we are laughing at them not hiding behind the sofa. If your birthday cake said, “Hapy Brithday,” would you pay extra for the genius required to do this?
I think the point of those buttonholes is that some people do take this stuff terribly seriously. The exact shade of blue required for the mould in your cheese is as important to them as the air that I breathe is to me. The trouble with David Rees, the pencil sharpener guy, is that I don’t know whether he is genuinely earnest and serious about this, or whether it is okay for me to laugh along with him. If I laugh at his genuine attempt to resurrect the craft of hand sharpened pencils then that makes me rude, but if I take him seriously when he is only joking then I have, essentially, been mugged. So it turns out to be deep, thought provoking, wonderfully profound and terribly funny all at the same time.
And I still have no idea what, “better pencils,” are!
Barn The Spoon – hand crafted wooden spoons
Jack Schmidling – making clothes and more from scratch
David Rees – artisan pencil sharpener for hire