One of the greatest gifts of hand-making has very little to do with the object being made. Rather, it is the cultivation of presence, the refinement of ones inner life that comes from the careful crafting of a work of art. To put hand and heart into the creation of an object casts the attention simultaneously outward and inward, creating a singular channel of thought and intention that cleanses both mind and spirit. This is not limited to any particular type of craft, but any discipline that involves using ones hands to shape raw material into form.
The masterful food writer M.F.K. Fisher, who made a career writing about the life lessons gained from preparing food, has this to say on the healing powers of baking: "[Breadmaking is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world's sweetest smells... there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”
While modern culture has been desperately trying to free us from the perceived drudgery and burden of physical work, it has also deprived us of the simple yet miraculous healing that can be found in making things of use and beauty.
We are now at a precipice in time, where we need to strike a balance between modern conveniences and the real need for activities that ground us in the present moment and connect us to the cycles and rhythms of the earth. The more that we engage in simple acts of beauty making, the slower, sweeter, and richer we can make the lives of ourselves and those in our community.
Art by James Henkel
My hands are memory keepers. With the right attention, I can see the stories of hundreds of objects, nearly all of which now live out in the world far away from me. From three days ago, traces of glue and shellac coat my fingers from an afternoon of flutemaking. A closer look reveals a myriad of tiny scars from slipped chisels and wayward saws. On my left index finger, a memory of my very first instrument order, a wicked saw cut that opened to the bone. Art will do that to you.
When we see the work of an accomplished artist that we admire, it can awaken a longing to create art of our own. So stirred, we may rush home and gather tools and prepare to throw ourselves into a dance with our muse. After the initial rushes of passion, it may be that the first efforts bear little resemblance to the great art that was shimmering in the mind. At this point, things may get a little prickly.
Once you get past the romantic notions of being an artist and go deep into the practice of your craft, the truth of making is revealed; Art is hard bloody work. There is the physical effort of training your body to shape raw material into new forms. Then the hundreds of hours of study and skill building, and the less tangible, emotional labours.
Making can lay bare all of your deepest insecurities, and send you running time and time again. Your most vulnerable secrets can be revealed in the cutting of stone, wood and clay. It can make you doubt yourself and question whether you have a right to make art in the first place.
The secret is not to confuse these times with failure or inability, but to see them as a necessary companion to inspiration. When creativity opens a deep wound, the task is not to run away at first sight, but to stay put and look at it deeply. If your pain is a part of you, can you include it in the sculpture of your life? I say that with the eyes of a master carver, each knot of the soul and every crack of the heart has the potential to be sanded and polished with our loving kindness into a bright jewel. With a combination of bravery and gentleness, we can use our art to shine our hearts, making us a little more patient, tender, and able to press on and share our gifts with the world.
It has become clear to me that the function of art is not only for beauty making, but for soul making. For every creative effort we make, we work a little bit upon ourselves, shaping the raw material of our beingness into something unique and staggeringly beautiful.
So if you ever doubt your worth as an artist, or if the ups and downs of the creative life become too exhausting, hold fast. Take a breath and remember that with some patience and presence, your present difficulty will soon be smoothed into a perfect part of your living masterpiece.