Why We Make Things and Why It Matters

CC image by Steve

CC image by Yelp Inc.

CC image by Yelp Inc.

This week for our blog, we’re going to be looking in a slightly different direction. I read the book Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman by Peter Korn. This week is different because the book is primarily about woodworking and the impact it has. Peter Korn was a woodworker first and became a writer much later in life. The book tells the journey of Korn’s life, from high school to his fledgling days as a carpenter into furniture making and eventually beginning a woodworking school in Maine. He follows the journey he took, explaining the decisions he made along the way, with the added illumination of retrospect, and examines why he chose woodworking and what it means to him and to the world at large.

Korn writes, “…it is still possible to say that craft offers a holistic experience many contemporary Americans find lacking in their occupations and personal lives.” This idea of engaging the whole person, the heart, head, and hand, as he says, is the foundation for his arguments. There are few things in our modern world that engage the whole person, and this holistic approach to life and earning a living has become unique. Korn believes this centered approach provides a fulfillment that little else can. It allows for a more balanced person within and balanced within the world as a whole.

CC image by Steve

CC image by Steve

Korn’s next main point in the book is that each person carries a mental map of his world and his personal narrative. These mental maps are how we organize and interpret the world. They are heavily influenced by our experiences, what we do, who we meet, and the culture we’re immersed in. He writes, “…bottom line is that creative effort is a process of challenging embedded narratives of belief in order to think the world into being for oneself, and that the work involved in doing so provides a wellspring of spiritual fulfillment.” The mental maps that we create direct how we interact with the world, but with an incorrect mental map, who knows what will happen. Korn believes that creative work, particularly that which allows you to have a direct and immediate result, like woodworking or ceramics, challenges your mental map, helping it align more closely with reality. As you’re working with wood, you can’t simply make it do whatever you want. Your efforts are constrained to the capabilities of the wood.

Our mental maps are also heavily influenced by our community. Korn writes that, “We are socially embraided to such an extent that the architecture of our thoughts is a communal construction.” We are products of our society, and everything we do, whether we realize it or not, influences that community in return. Everything we create contains a huge amount of history and context, the history of our community and culture, our personal history, and our thoughts and opinions of the moment. He writes, “This flow of information through millennia is the conversation of object making.” When we create, we are participating in a conversation, a cultural discussion that has gone on long before us and will continue on long after us.

Korn also believes that the work we do shapes us. It influences who we will become. As we choose what we do, we choose who we become. While his chosen path was woodworking, there are many other paths to choose from. He writes, “…I find that working with wood, words, and people are all different forms of the same endeavor. All are ways in which I actively participate in thinking my own self and our shared world into being.” He continues, “I think with whatever is at hand, and words turn out to be only one among many possible media.” The important thing to remember is that whatever we choose to do influences the community around us and will influence who we are as a person, whether you choose to be a woodworker, ceramist, painter, writer, or photographer.

Throughout the book, Korn challenges the modern idea of work, of sitting in an office, of being a replaceable piece in a machine that does no creative work. While not all of us can be woodworkers or ceramists we can all find something that challenges us as a whole person, heart, head, and hand. Something that will allow us to participate in this long conversation in our culture and create something that embodies our self, our uniqueness, and our creativity.

A few more quotes to finish, all be Peter Korn unless otherwise noted.

“It is a given that, individually and collectively, we think our world into being.”

“The simple truth is that people who engage in creative practice go into the studio first and foremost because they expect to emerge from other end of the creative gauntlet as different people.”

“However a person chooses to go about it, creative practice directly challenges the status quo of his mental map, impinges upon his core models of identity, and impacts the beliefs of others.”

“Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.” (Richard Sennett – The Craftsman)

“The extent of my ignorance might have been crushing had I been fully aware of it.”

By Melissa Blakely