A Workmanship of Risk
Polishing a lovely little Acacia-Robinia Melody Bowl this morning I was contemplating how the polish manufacturer had advised us against using his polishes the way we do. It might seem mad but we put them on then rub them off again. Not his idea at all.
Ancient techniques of making anything have been pretty much replaced by better technologies in the last two centuries. The oil blend we use now contains a wide variety of plant oils from China, and Europe as well as waxes from the tropics. Together they create a wonderfully high level of finish. Yet the techniques required to use them are basic. Brush it on and wait for it to dry. We use an older method that takes more care. The finish we get also allows for a patina to build up in use. Something the manufacturer would rather avoid as unreliable.
Getting things right is generally an unquestioned aspiration. Who wants to get things wrong? Yet in our workshop we try not to get things purely right. Herein lies the risk.
Risk is a hugely important ingredient of your Sounding Bowl. Risk creates attention. Risk means that we are walking the line making your Sounding Bowl for you. We deliberately create a process that requires our full attention at every point. This is not a fit and forget workshop. Every moment of making requires attention. There are huge benefits from taking these risks.
The concept of a workmanship of risk was first posited by Professor David Pye who taught furniture making at the Royal College of Art in London in the mid to late 20th century. Prof. Pye’s books changed the whole discussion of craftsmanship begun by the Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th century. His argument is that quality is not dependent on ‘making by hand’ but on how much attention, how much risk, was built into the process. Anything manufactured without risk contains too much predictability to become rewarding to live with. This insight has sustained top makers worldwide in the last 40 years and is slowly entering popular consciousness.
My polish manufacturer wants his product to produce good results for people so he suggests you simply paint it on and leave it. This will create a very strong protection for the wood, akin to a varnish. His idea is that light and moisture, wear and tear are held at bay. Our idea is that you can actually touch the wood, feel the music in the wood and still have some protection against dirt and moisture so we use ancient techniques, similar to French polishing (which is a famously high skilled technique using shellac, a resin from Indian beetles to produce a deep, lustrous shine, but gives no protection against heat and wet) Thus we combine the best of ancient techniques with the best modern blended products. Repeated layers applied – and removed again once they get tacky – builds up IN the wood while leaving the surface clear of thick coatings. Every pore of the wood becomes filled and protected, yet the touch remains.
The point with a workmanship of risk is involvement. Involving the full attention of the maker has effects in three ways: Most importantly, it fills the made object with care. There is no doubt that the loving attention given in making a Sounding Bowl is an important ingredient in how effective they are. Everyone who sees one becomes immediately aware of the care that has gone into them. Faced with an instrument full of care, they typically notice how a feeling of being cared-for arises in themselves. A very important transfer from a reservoir of care in the bowl into a process of care in music and therapy and on to a feeling of care in the client/patient. Secondly, it allows the maker to be more than an industrial unit. Few jobs today truly allow the worker to care. From bank manager to doctor, from builder to car maker, from health worker to telephone helpline assistant, everybody today has their work strictly limited by pre-set methods designed to produce good results but cutting out care the process. To be given real responsibility fills the worker with the capacity to care. This is a hugely important human capacity and when cut off it limits the development of the human individual. Creating a process of risk is counter-intuitive, raising fears of producing work with flaws in, yet it adds humanity to the workplace, as well as depth of quality and hidden value to the product. Thirdly, this way of working means that the material being worked gets full attention. Modern manufacturing processes, described by Prof. Pye as ‘workmanship of certainty’ treat the material without care, exerting whatever forces against it will get the right results. In the workmanship of risk, we work with the material, seeking co-operation rather than simple dominance. In doing so, we discover how much more the material is capable of. Wood is a very important example of this, varying so much from piece to piece. If you apply a right/wrong solution, you are condemned to doing only what will work on any piece, instead of what can be brought out in this piece. This is a step beyond right/wrong practice into relational working. A ‘workmanship of certainty’ process denies the worker an involvement, his mind drifts off while the work is done. The risk element of working with real care involves the maker fully in-the-moment, caring for each step of the process. Thus, the material, the shape it is formed into becomes drenched with attention, with care.
When the material is worked with in this way, with really close attention, in a relational way, extraordinary things begin to happen. It is as though the wood itself feels joy. Shavings move from the tool in a dance, the wood reveals its most beautiful aspects, the polish becomes a subtle enhancement and not a pasted-on shine. It may seem a big claim, but there is something here about the whole relationship between human consciousness and nature. Most objects in our lives today have been manufactured in a process deliberately set up to avoid risk, to avoid having to care. The design has been pushed through without care. The makers have to produce someone else’s design without a chance of personal involvement, The design is pushed onto the material with very little question of how the material relates to that. This treats nature like a slave, forcing what we want from her without care. The workmanship of risk creates a new relationship with nature, creates the very process of caring for nature herself as she is present in the material, in the tools, in the polishes.
Loneliness is a huge feature of modern life. Changes in family life mean that old and young alike experience levels of loneliness that would once have been nightmare and have now become humdrum. Adding to this, the objects around us have nothing to say. Cutlery, clothing, transportation, furniture, everything has been manufactured without care. Nature has abandoned the material because it is so highly processed she can no longer recognise herself in it. Be it stainless alloys, plastics or wood-print veneer, it is no longer related to how it exists in nature. The object itself has not experienced any care in making, so has no imprint of human attention or endeavour. This, around you, the home environment that once spoke of the hand of the craftsman, of the care of the maker now has no voice. How much deeper can loneliness get, than to have too few friends, too little family and no living connection with the everyday objects of life?
Therapy, be it touch, talk, or music therapy, is effective in as much as it is a truly relational process. Therapy is a process of bringing care into a place of suffering. Music is one way of bringing care to deeper places than talk is able to go. Care is the essential enabler of life. Care for ourselves is something we are sometimes taught to forget by an accumulation of adverse circumstance. Therapy is about opening the wells of care.
When you hold a Sounding Bowl in your hands, when you listen to those harmonies, you are holding and hearing care. Care that creates a harmonious relationship with nature. Care that creates a harmonious relationship with each moment of the making process. Care that comes through a harmonious relationship between design and production. In our world, that is a rare and important thing.