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The Apprenticeship: Part One- The Introduction

jarrod dahl

I’m very interested in the rise of the craftsperson/maker class, the rise of an understanding of what really good traditional handcrafts are. There must be an acknowledgment of the high skill it takes to make great craft objects if we are to fully realize a new paradigm within our culture in regards to handcrafts. We also must foster this understanding by raising up new craftspersons within it. The apprenticeship is one way to cultivate this understanding. The understanding that really great traditional handcraft takes great skill, practice to make and that ‘the art of seeing’ cannot be learned overnight but only over time. Experience is the key. 

There is a growing interest in this ethos and I think it’s part of the growing maker renaissance. As the number of professional and highly skilled greenwood workers grows there needs to be more opportunities for folks to learn the craft and gain the experience needed to grow as craftspeople in a guided way. It may not be for everyone on either end of the apprenticeship. But I have this nagging feeling that it needs to be part of the complete picture if we are to see a balance to what I describe in the ‘masterless’ post I wrote last spring. If we look to the trades, the pottery world, or even academia, all have carried on with some form of apprenticeship system. I would argue that it’s part of the reason they have fairly strong momentum and are culturally accepted on many levels.

I also think we all carry thoughts, ideas and attitudes that are in fact marginalizing traditional craft. The fact that anyone can buy a few tools and get to carving spoons is a really great thing. But we don’t see that with eye surgery, engineering or law and I think this is part of my concern. Anyone can carve a spoon. What does this mean for those who want to take it to the next level? The professionals are a minority and many don’t have the time, energy or desire to offer apprenticeships. There are attempts by organizations to help, but in the end I think they fall short. I’m convinced it has to come from within the craftsperson class and on our own terms. After all we know well and more than most that tacit knowledge is a major part of traditional craft design and it needs some attention, understanding and respect. 

I've been teaching for years at different venues but recently I’ve also been teaching folks here at my workshop. It's been a kind of ‘one on one’ classroom. Folks have been traveling from far and wide to visit, stay a while and learn. This has been mostly in the form of cash for class time or work trade for class time. This type of exchange has been working out great. But there is a big difference between a 2 day workshop and months of intense and subtle learning. The latter fosters tacit knowledge and the deeper things involved in making. I’ve been stewing on the idea that I needed to bring it to the next level and that I needed to make it happen. This did mean designing new processes for an apprentice to be involved in my making world. It meant having to do things differently and this I think is part of why we don’t see more of these types of exchanges. 

In November, Nate Chambers came to stay as an experimental apprentice. We had a very clear understanding of what the little over a month time would look like. He arrived with a fair amount of woodworking experience already and he could operate a chainsaw. This was an important part of his skill set as he was to rough out bowl and spoon blanks for me. He already had a few years of electric lathe turning under his belt which helped in regards to the dialogue on shape, form and technique/process, etc… In the end, we both agreed that after the few weeks we were just getting into a groove and next time I did this it needed to be longer than a month. 

There was a lot going on on many levels and I hope to get into what that dialogue was like and give insight into exactly what the system looked like as the days turned into weeks. 

After Nate left for home we have remained in regular dialogue via text, emails and our Instagram feeds. Our work continues.  An idea has evolved when I received an email from Nate. We are both very interested to explore what a modern apprenticeship looks like and it seems there are ways to continue that relationship and exchange even as we live and work over a 1,000 miles away from each other. 

The idea is framed in Nate’s letter.

"I enjoyed the six week apprenticeship at your home in Wisconsin. Besides learning a series of technical skills, I also enjoyed our many discussions concerning the ethos of craft, how we make things and why, and a host of other things as well. What I hope to address briefly is this relationship between apprentice and master, and just how we are able to set aside our egos long enough to even enter into a useful and intelligent conversation. 

    When I approached you this past year about apprenticing with you on the spring pole lathe, I already had good training in the world of woodworking, and quite a bit of experience as a "green woodworker." Even though we both live in different worlds(I work on an electric lathe and you work on a foot powered lathe), we both work within a world where there is at least a shared language. And my feeling was that I wanted to get closer to a world with less dust and noise. Hence my approaching you. And at that time I had been turning on the electric lathe long enough to know that there is definitely a process we all need to go through before we are even entitled to begin speaking about craft and how we make things successfully. I remember when I first started turning bowls on the electric lathe. I immediately fell victim to thinking my work was good because I needed it to be. I did not immediately practice putting my work aside and revisiting it weeks later so that I could really see it for what it was.  I started selling my bowls at Christmas some years back and I sold about $300 worth and then I looked at what was left over three months later and I was humiliated. Not a day goes by when I don't wish I could track the people down who bought my work and give them something new. My work now is good. Proper thickness married with proper form. But what was required between that initial time when I first started turning and now is a humility that I don't think comes naturally for us as craftsman. By that I mean that I think we probably have to force ourselves to practice it, this humility, in the same way we practice our carving and turning and, ultimately, patience and love and tolerance for others. Because the craft we practice, or should I say the way we practice craft, directly mirrors how we live our lives. 

   And so when I returned home last month I found myself falling victim to the same trap I fell victim to with my early bowl turning. Pride and ego blind us sometimes. I've stopped now and looked at the spoons I've been carving and the end grain cups I've been turning.  Some of them are good. Some of them fall short. I'm an experienced enough craftsman now to monitor my own work. Most of the time. But in the spirit of the craft tradition I have a proposal: I would like, in the next few winter months, to send you the spoons I carve as well as a few of the end grain cups I turn. I am going to specifically send you these "end grain viking cups." That way we have a measuring stick and a point of reference. I am going to continue to turn a variety of other end grain cups, relying on my own ability as a craftsman to sort out the good and the junk. But in the world of the viking end grain cups and spoons, I wholly trust your judgement as someone far more experienced than I am, as someone who is a master of that form. For some reason I think people are uncomfortable with this apprentice/master relationship, and I am not quite sure why. When I went to college I never felt I needed to question this: I trusted my professors as simply having a knowledge base that I didn't have. As I went through the years learning from them I never felt like I was "parroting," but simply learning how to think about things in a different way, the same way that now in the craft world I am learning how to do things in a different way. At the end of the day I have my own ideas, and that is the trademark of a good craftsman. I've learned from you, Curtis Buchanan, Jim Sannerud, Drew Langsner, Andy McFate, Tim Manney, Kenneth Kortemeier, to name but a few. I always appreciated T.S. Eliot's inscription to Ezra Pound: il miglior fabbro/the better craftsman. So this letter to you is a nod to those who I feel deserve my respect. And a nod to those whom I would entrust judgement upon my work. 

    A sidenote: It was also Ezra Pound who was famous for saying "make it new!" Perhaps this is a conversation for another future blog, the many ways in which we emulate others work to find our own voice. "You could not be unoriginal, even if you wanted to," the painter Robert Henri said, and I think that warrants a discussion as well. 

    I look forward to your feedback regarding my spoons and my emulations of your viking cups as I seek to find my own voice. My hope is that we could work things out in this way: in the winter months you might blog about the spoons and cups I send you. Their failures and, if any, their successes. The spoons and cups that fall short in their utility and form should be burned or cut in half for study. The ones that are successes should be sent back to me after discussion as well. 

Looking forward to it.    

Nate “

So this is the project. I’ll discuss the straight up stuff as I critique Nate’s work, like design, techniques to improve individual design, the concept of the universal aesthetic, ideas and processes to develop skill etc…But also try to convey an ethos of making and explore the non- physical side of it, attitude toward our work, ego and design, ‘the art of seeing’ and the like.

As we explore this process, this relationship, and our work, both perspectives will be covered, both mine and Nate’s.

Stay tuned. 

For the New Rise of Traditional Craft!