Craftsmanship And Personal Development

“Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential.”

– Bruce Lee

At this point in my career, I have told the story of my journey into furniture making so many times there is a certain rote repetition to it. Framing carpenter, finish carpenter, remodeler, the first cabinets built in the unheated barn behind my rented house, winter glue-ups in the dining room with never enough clamps. The opportunity to move into a group shop where I could work along side accomplished craftsmen. The realization at the height of the recession that knowing how to build furniture meant nothing if I didn’t also know how to sell it, and the work in the last few years trying to learn how to do just that.

But what is lost in the repetitive retellings are the moments of discovery, the successes and the failures, the doubts and the decisions, the excitement of learning a new skill and the profound satisfaction that comes from pursuing the elusive mastery of a craft. I doubt that many of us who first become enamored with the tools, techniques and trappings of woodworking, had given much thought to the lifetime of self discovery ahead of us, but I have found that my decision to don the mantle of “Craftsman” has brought with it a series of experiences that have shaped my career and fostered a greater understanding of myself. I was recently afforded just such an experience as a Studio Fellow at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport Maine.

The School’s website describes the Studio Fellowship Program as providing “emerging and established furniture makers, carvers, and turners with a stimulating environment for the exploration of new work.” The program gives participants access to a beautiful 5,400 square foot workshop and, more importantly, to all of the resources, faculty and students that the Center has to offer, all in exchange for just 6 hours of work per week helping with facilities and grounds maintenance and various other tasks.

Over the past four years, I have been involved with the school as a visitor, a workshop student, a gallery exhibitor and most recently as an assistant instructor and have always  found the environment to be exceptionally creative and exciting. My time there in any capacity has always been rewarding and so I have kept the Fellowship Program in the back of my mind as something I would do someday given the chance. But as a full time furniture and cabinetmaker who is perpetually balanced on the razor thin edge of liquidity, the thought of leaving my shop and my income behind for any length of time to pursue things as intangible as “art” and “voice” always seemed impractical. But this past winter, as endless snow-days kept me out of the shop, I spent some time considering what my goals as a furniture maker are, and came to the realization that only by taking risks with my time and with my work would I ever be able to achieve them. So with a certain amount of trepidation I completed the application process and awaited the decision. To my great joy, I was accepted into the program and so I marked out the month of September on my calendar and set about to completing as much work as possible in the months leading up to my departure.

My Fellowship began on one of those gorgeous September days that are unique to Northern New England. The morning air brings with it the faintest hint of Fall that is quickly forgotten as the sun and the temperatures rise. I arrived in the afternoon and began unloading my tools and moving into my bench space. As a primarily self taught maker whose business model has necessitated developing a rather eclectic portfolio, I have always felt self-conscious around more accomplished woodworkers with a cohesive body of work that is a clear expression of themselves. As if I have somehow bluffed my way into an exclusive club and am in danger of being found out at any moment. Upon meeting the rest of the Fellows, however, I realized that my fears were unfounded as I could immediately recognize them as kindred spirits. Indeed, although I was only there for a month, I know that the people I met there will be friends for life.

Over the summer, as I was considering my goals for my month in Maine, I realized that I could go in one of two directions with my time. I could either spend the month working on a single piece that I would be unlikely to finish in such a short period, or I could use the Fellowship as an opportunity to experiment with a number of different ideas and techniques I was interested in, but had been unable to find the time for. I chose the latter approach, and so on the second day there, I began experimenting.

I will spare you the boring details of everything that I worked on, but in brief I experimented with some marquetry and inlay techniques to develop stringing that has a more organic, almost pen and ink drawing look. I took advantage of the schools equipment and knowledgable staff to begin learning how to steam-bend — a skill I have always wanted to incorporate into my arsenal. I developed a technique to create parts that are coved, steam-bent and then coopered that I hope to be able to scale up and use as furniture components. I spent some time learning how best to veneer unusually shaped parts in the vacuum bag. And I tried to take advantage of the faculty design critiques to develop some furniture designs for future spec work. Mostly I tried to live by painter Chuck Close’s observation that “inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of just show up and get to work” and keep producing, embracing my failures — of which there were many!

One of the most interesting parts of the month for me came during the opening reception for the current exhibition in the Messler Gallery where I was able to spend time talking to some of the exhibitors in a show titled “Contemporary Wood Design”.  While I have always approached design as being subservient to craft and technique, these young makers think of themselves as designers first and craftspeople second, or in some cases as designers only, outsourcing the actual construction to others. I found it fascinating to discuss their approach to furniture making and to contemplate how I could incorporate some of their ideas into my own process.

Predictably, the four weeks disappeared at a lightning pace and before I knew it, October was rearing it’s ugly head and it was time to pack up. And so, on a rainy day at the end of September, I loaded up my truck to head back to NH and to my own shop. I would have loved to have been able to stay longer and to keep developing the ideas that I started on while I was there, but I am so grateful for the limited time that I did have.

If we except the premise in the above quote from Bruce Lee, that it is our duty as humans to develop our potential. And if we believe that as artists and craftspeople that our potential is expressed both in the work we create and in the understanding of ourselves, then it is only by getting out of our comfort zones and taking the time to explore new ideas around new people that we can achieve those goals. I can confidently assert that the time I spent as a Studio Fellow at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship has helped me to develop my potential as both a human, and a furniture maker. I look forward to a career, and a life, that is filled with similar opportunities for growth.[vgallery ids=”separated by comma(,) e.g: 1,2,3,4,5″ limit=””][vgallery ids=”separated by comma(,) e.g: 1,2,3,4,5″ limit=””]



Owain Harris

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