For this posting I wanted to think about the experience of slowness in craft, as both activity and object embodying a complex matrix of time and action and substance. I’ve been a bit stuck with this, mulling it over, prevaricating beyond the limits of slowness, and I want thank Malcolm for prompting me with his usual, precisely crafted, thoughts. I thought again about the ‘thickening’ of experience that he had described.
When I was a student I had a brief summer romance with a motorbike. It was my first taste of independent mobility, of being able to go anywhere I wanted. I loved the immediacy of the experience: the intimate sense of speed; of the ground rushing by beneath my feet; of objects flashing by (I should say, perhaps, in this particular context, that speed is of course relative, and that my motorbike was in fact far slower than most cars). There was also a sense of being totally, mind and body, engaged, of observing, making fine judgments and responding immediately with nuanced movements. There were certain actions, such as taking a wide bend, that seemed so graceful that, leaning into the curve, sensing the centrifugal shift of mass, aware of the quickening of the moment – the world receded, time slowed right down so that I seemed to be moving in weightless slow-motion – ‘the still point of the turning world’ referred to in my first posting. These were brief events that became stretched so that there was a sense of the infinite before, suddenly, I would rush on.
I was, in truth, a fair-weather motorcyclist. September arrived, and the first time that I had to make a long journey in the rain, I fell absolutely out of love with my motorbike. I have not ridden one since and am not troubled by any middle-aged Harley-Davidson fantasies. The experience, however, has stayed with me as a vivid image or schema for understanding a paradoxical conception of quickness and slowness… and the image has become central to my understanding of craft.
When I consider my pleasure in making I realize that it is quite bound up with different experiences of time, of time slowing down and of time passing suddenly and unexpectedly. There were tasks that early in my career I regarded as boring necessities, a means to an end. At first I associated my pleasure with complicated activities, obviously demanding and absorbing, such as marking out, delicate shaping or jointing. However, I realised that I had come to relish time consuming, repetitive jobs. For instance, I saw one of the early stages of a job, converting the timber from rough sawn planks into the dimensions that I required, as a tedious obstacle that stood between my imagination and its realization. The planer in particular was noisy and brutal. I would hover over the ‘on’ button, putting off the moment. Wearing headphones and protective glasses I would feel cut off. This sense of monotony and isolation was exacerbated by the background drone of the machine and the extraction system. The work settled into a rhythm, ostensibly mechanical: you pick up the wood from one pile and pass it over the rotating blade of the planer in order to create a flat surface, then you place it on to another pile. In fact, as you pick up each piece of timber you assess the direction of the grain, the flatness or curve of the unplaned surface. As you place the timber on to the planer table you rock the timber to get a sense of the high and low points, you find a balance so that you are planing it flat rather than simply following it’s existing shape. Also, whilst you are using the machine to delicately shave material from the surface, you are aware that it is a powerful machine. You are aiming to use it both fluently and carefully, respectfully. So you are extremely focused and responsive, to the machine, to the process and to the material. As the rhythm imposes itself you are working quickly, with an almost intuitive sureness, not questioning. All of your knowledge and experience flows together and coheres in the act of making. Instead of feeling cut off you become thrown into yourself, the outward looking attentiveness sits alongside a dreamy distance, in which our interior world is expanded. We seem to step outside of the flow of time.
This came back to me one day whilst I was watching the Master Mason Pascal Mychalysin in the mason’s yard at Gloucester Cathedral. Pascal was carving a pinnacle encrusted with intricate geometry. He was working extremely rapidly, but carving with absolute exactitude. In the repeated instant of striking his chisel, each precise angle was exactly measured and matched. As he worked Pascal seemed an image of intense self-containment, contained in his own time. It was such a joy to watch him and I was trying to understand the source of my elation. I felt that it was something to do with a recognition that whilst he was lost in “the pleasurable satisfaction of impulse towards energy” , in the performance of his learned facility for working quickly, he was, in the same moment, in the moment, luxuriating in the ‘thickening’ of time in which everything is observed with enormous clarity and in which complex questions are presented, investigated and resolved.
Is this experience communicated?
I’ve recently written about the textile artist Matthew Harris, whose work seems to be saturated with time. Matthew uses slow processes of controlled repetition, so that, once immersed, he can work intuitively and spontaneously. His work balances intention and chance. He wants to make consciously, but he also wants to be taken by surprise. He chooses processes that are simple and repetitious so as to allow the interplay of formal and contingent elements. The durational aspect to his making is written into the work. The time spent making imbues it with a depth and a richness that holds the eye. The order of observation is suggested by the structure of the work, but the complexity of that structure means that the eye doesn’t settle into a linear reading. It moves restlessly across the surface. Returning to points of detail, we are drawn beyond the surface into a deeper sense of how the work is constructed, into Harris’s making processes, and into a vicarious experience of the making time.
Similarly, I have been looking at some small drawings by the artist Colin Glen. The drawings are of short twists of wire, rendered with photographic precision. Prosaic, and lacking in any fine detail, the drawings are nevertheless utterly absorbing. Colin told me that people sometimes respond to these drawings by commenting that they must have taken a frustratingly huge amount of time. He replied that in fact when he was doing them time disappeared in a lovely way, and at the same time he felt deeply connected to the world. The appeal of these exquisite drawings lies precisely in the way that the time taken, looking at and carefully reproducing these simple objects makes us look with care. We are held in time as we slowly trace the action of Colin’s mark making, we read and share his sense of connection.
How quickly life must pass without the viscosity induced by such moments, facilitated by hyperawareness of the moment.
I will end with another compelling contradiction that I think is related and that I’m sure will speak vividly to makers. I had been talking to my Uncle Jim (a man who knows a thing or two about both poetry and skilful labour) about craft and he subsequently sent me a collection of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. He wanted to draw my attention to Heaney’s respect for and attention to physical labour, and his conception of a poem as something made. These two ideas are expressed powerfully in the wonderful poem Digging, but I was drawn to another poem that evoked the complex matrix of time and action and substance in craft making – The Old Smoothing Iron.
OLD SMOOTHING IRON
Often I watched her lift it
from where its compact wedge
rode the back of the stove
like a tug at anchor.
To test its heat she’d stare
and spit in its iron face
or hold it up next her cheek
to divine the stored danger.
Soft thumps on the ironing board.
Her dimpled angled elbow
and intent stoop
as she aimed the smoothing iron
like a plane into linen,
like the resentment of women,
To work, her dumb lunge says,
is to move a certain mass
through a certain distance,
is to pull your weight and feel
exact and equal to it.
Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.