The Art of Mastery

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Jennie Alexander’s two-slat post-and-rung shaved chair.

Niels Henrik David Bohr, a Danish physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for his work on atomic structures once said, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”

It reminded me of something Jennie Alexander said during a recent phone conversation for our Meet the Author series, something I didn’t use: “Isn’t this interesting? I’ve only made one type of stool. I’ve only made one type of one-slat chair. And I’ve only made one kind of two-slat post-and-rung chair. And that’s it! I’ve never made a rocking chair. I’ve never made a piece of furniture. I’ve done the same thing over and over and over and it changes, changes, changes—when it’s ready to change. And that’s kind of weird.”

Maybe. But maybe not.

In 2004, while working at Popular Woodworking magazine, I visited chairmaker Brian Boggs (who, by the way, was inspired by Alexander’s book “Make a Chair from a Tree”). At the time of my visit, Boggs’ primary focus was chairs, specifically Appalachian-style ladderback chairs with a contemporary flair. And by that point he had dedicated years of his life to not only building them, but improving them. Improvements came in the form of design, yes, but also tools (Lie-Nielsen still sells the Boggs Curved Spokeshave), joints (his “universal joint” features double offset tenons and housed shoulders) and machines (his hickory bark stripper took 12 years to develop). All of this, simply to make a better chair.

I’m all over the place. There was the Christmas I asked for embroidery supplies. Come Valentine’s Day I tried to embroider my husband a single heart on cardstock. There was a lot of cursing involved, some blood and I don’t think I’ve touched the supplies since.

I rowed for two quarters at college. I took a short evening class on astronomy and spent a few years volunteering at the Cincinnati Observatory until I came to the conclusion that I enjoyed the poetry of stars much more so than the math. Every time I run I think, I should run a marathon.

I find many things to be fascinating. One look at Half Dome and I want to climb it. One meditation class and I’m looking up ashrams in India. One world religion class and I want to enroll in seminary, become a Buddhist and define myself as atheist, all at once.

I suppose this is why I was drawn to writing. For a short while I get to live vicariously in the life of another. And not always, but often, that other is being written about because of their ability to narrow their focus so much that they become an expert, even if that wasn’t their intention. Perhaps this is behind all brilliance.

There’s validity in trying it all. But I’ve also learned that there’s validity in finding a niche. There’s validity in devoting a large part of your life to 17th century joinery. And Welsh stick chairs. And carving acanthus leaves. And making macaroons. And growing the perfect tomato.

Alexander may only have made one type of stool. And one type of one-slat chair. And one type of two-slat post-and-rung chair. But her dedication to doing the same thing “over and over and over,” while allowing it to change and improve while also studying and theorizing and, dare we say, obsessing, has benefitted all those who point to “Make a Chair from a Tree” as inspiration. That type of devotion is why we can buy copper tacks from John Wilson. And moulding planes from Matt Bickford. And letterpress printed books.

I think all experts see what Alexander calls “the flash.” The niche, for them, fulfills. “There is a spirit of shaving wood that fills a place in me that otherwise is not filled as a person, as a thinker, as a human being,” Alexander says.

Coupled with, of course, hard work, dedication and simply showing up at the bench, again and again and again. As Charles Hayward wrote in a 1936 issue of The Woodworker magazine: “Continued application and perseverance do really bring mastery, and in these summer months, when practical work has been thrust into the background, we can still consolidate and even advance our work.”

— Kara Gebhart Uhl

This entry was posted in Honest Labour, Make a Joint Stool from a Tree, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Art of Mastery

  1. Similar to what CH said every single time we use our hands for any purpose whatsoever we become more skilful. So leatherwork, painting, handwriting, etc. etc all add to each other. So the old saying is true “Practice makes perfect” even though we know perfection is neither possible or desirable.

    Interesting for me, as I study psychology is that certain ideas and beliefs if “practised” start to build a wall of sometimes positive sometimes negative attitudes. So this is exactly the same as practising hand skills.

  2. Dan says:

    As one who has attained mediocrity in several areas of woodworking I can only say Amen.

  3. Simon Stucki says:

    I’m not sure if I want to be an expert then. Not saying nobody should be one of course, just not sure if it is right for me.

  4. jonfiant says:

    Kara,
    I love your posts. You may not think you excell at any one thing, but I assure you, you do. That thing is writing. Keep up the fantastic work! So glad you are on the team.
    Jon

    • Kara Uhl says:

      Thank you for such kind words, Jon. I never know if I should respond to comments but I read them all and appreciate them all (even the corrections, ha!). So thank you.

  5. mjstauss says:

    Lovely post and food for thought! I happen to have picked up “Make a Chair From a Tree” from the local library just earlier today. Can’t wait to read it!

  6. pfollansbee says:

    Well, it is interesting. It’s just not exactly perfectly true. I have made a living out of disagreeing with Alexander, which JA will attest to. I was there when Alexander made joint stools, a joined table with a drawer and way back when, we were both students in Curtis Buchanan’s very first Windsor chair class at Country Workshops. So while the essence of JA’s statement is semi-true, it’s not strictly true. What is a fact, JA concentrated on the chair in the picture. And brought it to the woodworking world – and turned us all onto it in doing so. for which, I am forever grateful.

  7. I hadn’t made the connection before reading your article, but I think there’s a connection between building the same type of chair over and over, and a musician’s rehearsing by focusing on the same passage, playing the same measure or two over and over and over again until the technique is there – – – then going on to refine and reinterpret the passage on subsequent playings. So that might be at least one link between Jennie’s musical and woodworking careers.

    I’ve taught the “same” basic cabinetmaking class at Highland Woodworking for 16 years now, and each time we build this simple little cabinet, I see some little improvement, or new efficiency, that seems to appear on its own. It’s a beautiful thing!

  8. Lee Hockman says:

    Wow! I completely understand. Every time I read an article or see a video on a really neat technique for turning (or carving, or scroll sawing, or hand tool working…take your choice) I get extremely focused on THAT sub-subject of wood working. For me, that’s called “occupational attention deficit disorder, or OADD as I call it. However, I am retired now and can afford the time it takes to jump from one to the other; but I would probably starve, loose my house, go bankrupt or all of the above if I was counting on my efforts to provide for my family. Thankfully, I was able to focus enough to raise 2 children and become debt-free so that now I have no qualms about un-focusing my woodworking efforts and enjoying whatever, or wherever, my interests lead me today. Tomorrow I’ll do whatever tomorrow brings. I love being retired. Excellent article. Best wishes.

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