I was inspired by a blog post by David Savage, who may be the world’s finest bespoke furniture maker alive today. His shop, Rowden Atelier, produces fine furniture that in my opinion offers the perfect blend of beauty, usefulness, craftsmanship and artistic statement. I have similar aspirations for my carvings and often lament the number of cheap, reproduced (3-D printed or laser-cut) “carvings” out there. There is no question that they can look perfect, and I believe there is a place for them. However, there is a real difference between the art being made by an artist working with her hands and art produced by a machine. David Savage explains the issue here:
We make only by putting in effort, time and love. Good making is an act of love. I wonder as I am laboriously cutting those pins and tails WHY? I quite enjoy doing it but that is not enough. I enjoy sitting in the sun just as much. A good CNC would do this perfectly, so why bother?
But it would be perfect. And it would be so perfect it would be intimidating. We are not that good. We screw up, we miss the line or slightly crack the carcase with too tight a joint. I did both and the evidence is there. I struggle to be perfect and fail. The evidence is there. You can see it in a hand made piece. You can see the human being, skilled but human, attempting perfection, struggling and failing. Again and again. And that is the attraction of it. Not the doing of it, that is O K, but if the doing is to be worth doing, then the object bears witness to the struggle. Hopefully it like proper Art helps us understand and see who we really are.
As a sculpture artist, I am embedded in the process of creation – inseparable from it. I suppose that my work is full of imperfections, but when I think that through, is that even possible? Here’s what I mean. My hands choose the wood. By its very nature, the wood is unique. No two trees are identical, and no two sets of grain structure are the same. I suppose it could be called imperfect, but no more imperfect than you are from me. My hands choose the design. They pick up the pencil and sketch the shape of the sculpture. I’m an imperfect designer/sketcher, but that’s hardly the point. Once I pick up the carving gouge and start cutting, the design/sketch can only be the outline – the draft of the finished product because I have no idea what’s under the surface of the wood. It is only by cutting away everything that isn’t a horse or a frog or a leaf is the final sculpture revealed. That unique grain structure has to influence the final product – why else use wood? I could use plastic and a 3-D printer, but it would be lifeless, impersonal, perfect.
I can still royally screw up. My gouges can be poorly sharpened and show “teeth marks” in the cuts. I can knock bits off that I shouldn’t. I can get the perspective wrong. All the things that an art critic would highlight as errors or imperfections are possible for me. However, that is the point Mr. Savage makes – it is the struggle, the evidence of love, the embedding of me in the sculpture that makes it what it is. A CNC machine or laser engraver cannot do this. We may be impressed by the perfection of the laser-cut letters or the exact arcs of the circles, but these do not contribute to the art. In fact, they may even detract from it. This is why we marvel at the plot, the writing, the style of a novel and the author, not the perfection of the letters on the page. We are not after perfection. We are after the pursuit. Without the struggle, my sculptures cannot exist.
Without love, art cannot exist.