I saw some spoons this morning that blew me away. They were by a talented Scandinavian carver named Daniel (instagram handle @storslojd) and they were a set of salad servers in unpainted birch. What stunned me was how much energy they had, and upon trying to express to him how much they moved me, I realized that their energy stemmed from their imperfections. They are deliberately left rough, but it is the sort of rough that speaks of an easy comfort with perfection. The lines were just right. The finish was smooth where it needed to be smooth. The proportions were spot on. The inside of the bowls were loosely done in a scalloped, quick fashion, and this is what gave the pieces their tremendous vibrancy.
It got me thinking, that what we are so often chasing when carving a spoon-- perfection-- is maybe not what we should be chasing. Instead, I want to chase this energy. In the same way Vincent Van Gogh painted the writhing forms of trees in a way that no one could ever describe as perfect, yet was masterful and breathtaking, I want to do with wood. I want to OWN it to the point where things don't need to be perfect to be perfect.
Now obviously, most of us who are drawn to carving long enough to get good at it are of a meticulous bent. I am not one such. I don't get off on finish carpentry or grain or intricate patterns. What I want is deeper, underneath the skin, a sense of rightness that is entirely separate from these things. I used to think it was pure functionality. I used to think it was organic form choices. Now I think it's something more to do with the energy of imperfection.
I'm reading a book right now called Originals, by Adam Grant, that is all about the unexpected ways people become original and their contributions to the world. In one chapter, Grant explains that scientists and artists and writers are often divided into two camps: the first camp is conceptual innovators, who make leaps of creativity early in their careers but peak very early; the second is experimental innovators whose strongest work happens later in life, that builds and builds on repetition and growth. Applied to spooncarving, I think most of us start out wanting to be conceptual innovators, wanting to make our mark by coming up with a shape or a way of doing things or a look or a decoration that is OURS. I certainly did. But more and more I want instead to be an experimental innovator, content to carve simple forms over and over, letting the small changes build up and build up until I find myself in different territory than where I started, not because I boldly set out but because I put one foot in front of the other, day after day.
I want to find myself to Daniel's place of courageous imperfection, where the piece is inseparable from it's distinctive markings. This is a difficult place to reach: it is not as easy as passive imperfection, which is a lack of skill to make the wood do what you want. This is instead a place of creation, of letting go, of using just enough hammer to drive the nail and no more.
And I want to set myself up to peak late. I want to be in my sixties and have people say that I'm producing the finest work I've ever carved. I want to be an experimental innovator, easing my way into new ground, and I want that ground to be joyous and rippling with power and energy, easygoing and effortless yet unmistakeably mine. It will take time to get there. Here's hoping it takes my whole life.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.