Break the curse of the blank sheet of paper

That blank sheet of emptiness taunts our self doubt.

That blank sheet of emptiness taunts our self doubt.

“Imagination is the highest kite one can fly”.

Lauren Bacall

 

I remember a time when a blank sheet of paper had the power to chase away every creative thought. It’s a mind trick. It seemed like a mirror reflecting dead air and silence in my head, with not a whiff or a hint of an idea floating off in the distance.  I call it a trick, because if we could ever behold what our imagination is capable of, we would fall down in awe. Imagination is the thing that get’s you wide awake at 3:30 am rooting around the workshop making a racket and having a great time of it. But we seldom tap it in our daily routine, so a little thing like the emptiness of a sheet of paper becomes a wall too high to breach.

Cooking up an idea and letting it stew.

Cooking up an idea and letting it stew.

 

 

I said “remember” because now it’s my privilege and joy to guide many woodworkers past that stumbling block. That was brought home to me the last few weeks teaching a series of design workshops for the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers and at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. Over and over came the words, “This is awesome! I don’t have to get stuck anymore staring at that blank sheet of paper” , or “This is 1000% better, I can get off square one and get the juices and ideas flowing”.

 

Sure – the first drawings were shaky dead ends and mud pits. And yes, the trash cans overflowed with crumpled paper and the maintenance guy had to vacuum up a bushel of eraser dust. But ideas flowed, designs took shape,  and those designs improved quickly. Best of all, woodworkers who doubted they would ever break free from the blank page came in sleepy eyed on day two, after staying up till 3:30 am.

I’m not sure who was more pleased. Forty six fired up workshop attendees, or Jim Tolpin and myself who had the honor of witnessing it.

 

 

George R. Walker

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Designers Alphabet, X is for…….

Vintage Mahogony Planks from "American Lumberman November 1908"

Vintage Mahogony Planks from “American Lumberman November 1908″

durer-latin-xylon, Greek root word for wood. I must admit – X had me stumped. Also Xyloid, an adjective meaning resembling wood or ligneous. If I go through the designers alphabet again I may have to double up on another letter and take a pass on this one. Here’s a link to a great furniture grade wood supplier I highly recommend.  Horizon Wood Products. Great people to work with and xylon to drool over.

 

George R. Walker

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Just want it to be done

Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz, 1606-1682

One year ago Jim Tolpin and I were axehandles and elbows in final edit mode for our manuscript BH&E (By Hand & Eye).  I was struck by how much work is involved down that final stretch and I just wanted it over with.  Sort of like a large furniture project. It starts with the excitement of picking just the right figured boards to unleash something beautiful. That excitement gives way to a different kind of pleasure when the shaping and joinery begins, more like a long hike in the woods. Every good hike has a few brambles to muddle through, but the pleasure of building makes up for the hilly spots. Yet, near the end I always just want to get it done, shed the saddle and roll in some clover.

But this was different. After Jim and I high fived and broke some glass, we went right back to the fun of sending each other articles, links to historic engravings, and random thoughts about how our craft might have solved a problem. Rather than moving on, we continued to moving in. We’ve only scratched the surface as much of this knowledge can only be pried loose at the point of a tool. Jim’s still eager to test out every idea at the bench, and I can’t resist flipping over stones in the creek bed. A year later, actually three years later for the two of us, we are more convinced that the tradition has so much to teach us about how to see. And with each piece of knowledge we become more convinced that the traditional tool set is the key to breathe life into it.

I’m headed out to Port Townsend in March to share this knowledge in a design workshop. There are still a few spots left, so if you are game for a week of eye opening discovery, sign up.

George R. Walker

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What’s in your Tool Kit?

Ladies Desk attributed to John and Thomas Seymour circa 1795

Ladies Desk attributed to John and Thomas Seymour circa 1795

I enjoy a trip to an art museum. It’s more than a chance to examine great furniture on display, but to see the interplay between art, architecture, and furniture.  There is a craft element of art that applies directly to furniture building – GOOD WORK IS NO ACCIDENT. Painter Robert Genn offers timeless advise to an aspiring artist about what he really needs in his tool kit. You can read the whole thing  here in his excellent art resources website The Painters Keys. I’ve included parts of it below because it applies directly to our craft. My meager thoughts are added in bold font.

“I told him he needed six items in his kit: time, space, series, media, books and desire. This is how I laid it out for him: 

Time: Set aside a time every day. It should be at least an hour, preferably a lot more. Include weekends and statutory holidays. No substitutes for just doing it. Whether it’s learning to execute solid joinery or developing your designers eye. 

Space: Find a space that is always yours–where you can set up and work in continuity. It need not be large, but it ought to be yours. Splurge and make it a secret garden, even if you have to shoehorn it between the washer and furnace.

Series: Do a series of explorations toward tangible goals–say 100 pieces of work in one direction or another. Then start another series. In woodworking your series may be dovetails, or shellac – working the series till you reach a goal of proficiency. Or for design it could be an exploration of a familiar form while experimenting with curves. 

Media: Choose a medium that intrigues you. Realize that the potential of all media is going to be greater than at first realized. Be prepared for frustration. Select a wood species like quarter sawn white oak, figured cherry,  or maple and explore it until you fully grasp it’s potential. 

Books: “How-to” and art-history books are better than ever. They are your best teachers and friends. With books, you can grow at your own speed and in your own direction. There’s never been a better time than now when it comes learning resources. Books, videos, on-line and in person workshops. Give yourself a boost (Shameless Plug).

Desire: Know that desire is more important than any other factor. Desire comes from process. Process reinforces desire and desire becomes love. You need love in your kit. Swim in the shear joy shaping wood with your hands. 

George R. Walker

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Compass layouts on Youtube

Sheraton

Nearly every guide to the building arts going back to the dawn of printing included a series of geometric layouts with a compass. A challenge to the decipher, these lessons were shoehorned together, and made worse with a flurry of confusing text buried twenty pages away.  Our book “By Hand & Eye” was written in hopes of extending our building tradition by making it relevant to the modern artisan. To that end, we put together digital animations of those classic compass layouts. You can access them through this link to Jim Tolpin’s YouTube channel . For those of you that bought our book and had difficulty accessing the layouts, we hope this offers a solution.

George R. Walker

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Top Ten Reasons

palladio 001-001

Here are the Top Ten Reasons for signing up for the Foundations of Design workshop I’m teaching at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking the week of March 17th – 21st. 

10. You’ll learn proportions as a second language.

9. It will transform the way you see furniture. 

8. Port Townsend is a destination in itself, picturesque with great restaurants. 

7. Be inspired and jazz your passion for furniture building.

6. Learn the truth about mixing plaids and stripes – can it really work?

5. Going forward your furniture will be designated BFD (not what you think – Before Foundations of Design) and AFD (After Foundations of Design). 

4. You’ll walk away with the beginnings of a design portfolio you can build on.

3. Because Jim Tolpin makes great cookies.

2. Because design is rewarding, challenging, surprising, risky, and fun.

1. It’s January for Pete’s sake, treat yourself to something fun. 

George R. Walker

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Designer’s Alphabet, W is for ……

Bluets, Photo by Geo Walker

Bluets, Photo by Geo Walker

durer wonder – as in a sense of wonder. Most children have it, but adults let it slip away like wind driven clouds. You may experience wonder peering through a microscope, yet it isn’t something you can pin down and dissect. Wonder lies at the heart of every creative work and gives us the great gift of living in the moment. Intoxicating like a drug yet without the ill affects, wonder draws us into our true inner core. Wonder sparks that adrenalin rush when creative ideas surge as though driven by a storm. It lurks unexpected waiting to surprise us. A walk in an abandoned orchard and the chance glimmer of an heirloom rose peeking out from the bramble; crisp peels of thunder not dampened by four walls; a line of poetry that tosses ice water on our slumbering thoughts.

Every once in a while folks write about the difference between art and craft, or try to define some boundary between them. That may be a fools errand in today’s world  but it is certain that some creative works lift themselves, defying gravity with some invisible inner force.  I know my own opinions might be pigeonholed as naive and dated, but to my mind the one thing that elevates a work is wonder. It may be found in the simplest of everyday craft objects like a wooden spoon carved from a crooked mountain laurel branch, or a painting that captures sunlight glowing through a breaking wave.

While you are making new years resolutions, resolve to nurture your sense of wonder. Feed it by giving space to the part of you that still is capable of awe and starve those soul killing distractions that threaten to swallow us.

How will you nurture your sense of wonder in 2014?

George R. Walker

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