For several holiday seasons I was privileged to set up my booth next to an accomplished craftsman, known widely for his hand-carved wooden figurines, particularly his expressive Santas, elves and gnomes, any of which could have been jolly s’elf-portraits.
He had a hard time keeping up with demand, especially at Christmastime, so he spent the entire show carving as an entertainment to his customers, staying out of the way of his charming wife, who busied herself taking payments, bagging merchandise, and constantly rearranging their festive holiday display.
His habit was to use an assortment of short-bladed knives to shape each bare block of wood, paring away the chips and curls of shavings until the details of his impish figures began to emerge. At that point he would take up a small, hand-size electric crafters’ drill, the high-pitched buzzing kind, with multiple attachments, the sort of machine that reminded you that you had put off scheduling a dental appointment for longer than you should.
Whuzzzzzz, zuzzzzzzzzz, zi-zuzzzzzzzzz! The instrument droned, barely audible over the hum of nattering show-goers, and the endless loop of Christmas music that was being piped in from overhead.
Crowds gathered in the aisle to see the master at work. He chatted pleasantly with his onlookers, undistracted as he stroked the instrument over the wood, up and down in gentle curves, melting tangled hairlines, knurled fingers, baggy trousers and craggy bearded faces into existence.
An insightful man, he had a way of making things simple…
“There’s no magic to wood carving, You just cut away the pieces that don't belong there, until you find the fellow hiding inside. (I sort of borrowed that from Michaelangelo.)”
…without avoiding the realities of life:
“Every other man that comes in here tells me that he’s planning to take up carving, just as soon as he retires. Tough luck for that fellow, I say. He’ll be dead before he learns how.”
Now and again someone would step forward to make a predictable point, indicating to the others present that this artist was cheating, abandoning the ways of the true craftsman by resorting to the use of modern labor-saving devices.
“I thought you did these by hand,” they would say, a note of triumph accenting the accusation, as though they alone had discovered a profound truth, and revealed it as a duty to their brethren.
“I carve these things exactly the way my grandfather did,” he was fond of saying, as he did a couple dozen times a day, while accusers and baffled onlookers shook their heads in polite disbelief.
He’d wait a moment or two for his words to sink in, knowing that someone would rise to the bait.
“They didn’t have those teeny electric drills when your granddaddy was alive, did they?”
“Then how can you say you do it just like he did?”
Another calculated pause. “My ancestors believed in employing the highest level of technology that was available to them to accomplish the task at hand,” he’d reply, never once looking up from his work. “ I’m doing the same thing.”
His logic satisfied most of his audience. A few die-hards continued to grimace, and grumble.
“Folks, I’m not trying to see how long it’ll take me to finish this piece. I’m here to create the highest quality product I can make for my customers. You don’t get prizes for making things hard on yourself.”
I think about him whenever I start on another complex, detailed, large-scale design… with a ballpoint pen.
At those times, a part of me wishes I had developed a knack for painting with a four-inch house brush.
Then I remember that I use the highest level of technology available to me to process and disseminate my artwork: a hi-resolution scanner and a printing press. I may be a cheater, but I’m not stupid.