Sylva Spoon

Craft and Art

Thomas Bartlett2 Comments

My Art Inferiority Complex

Art vs Craft

Art won the propaganda war over craft about 600 years ago. Around this time the arts differentiated themselves from artisans. Artists became famous and crafts began to decline in status. In Europe, rich Christians and the Church commissioned artists to paint religious scenes. The House of Medici provided funding for works by Leonardo de Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, among others. These people were funding painters, not blacksmiths. 

Under this system of funding it was the artist who were regarded as special, not necessarily their work. Many of these artists were highly skilled, but they may have had contemporaries with similar abilities that weren't recognised until much later on. Van Gogh had to wait until he was dead before he sold a painting. Craftspeople couldn't afford to do that. Craftspeople had to rely solely on the strength of their products, as they themselves were often relatively anonymous. 

The ‘Art vs Craft’ debate tends to get reduced to ‘art looks good but is kind of useless while craft is handy to have around but it’s emotionless and simplistic’. This is often the result because one side is trying to prove it’s better than the other. This is stupid. Art and craft have their own separate goals in mind. My complaint is that in our collective ideology, art is often compared to craft and considered to be superior. This is a love letter to craft, adding to the growing literature that craft is important and shouldn’t play second fiddle to art. Partly because craft made the violin art’s using.

For the sake of this article, I'm defining craft as things created to fulfil a utilitarian function. A teapot, shoes, a bicycle. Art as things created to evoke an emotional response. A painting, a sculpture, a film. Art and craft have a lot in common. However we humans like to put things into categories. We prefer 'or' to 'and'. This divide can feel like a false barrier, and there exist a whole host of items that fall into the ambiguous grey zone of something between art and craft. That said, creating clear definitions is extremely important. The magic of language, the ability to take a formless idea that exists only in our minds and breath life into it through words so it can, fully formed, enter the mind of another, is an amazing thing. An amazing thing that only works if words have meanings. In this context, saying ‘art or craft is whatever you want it to be’ really isn’t helpful.

I don't want people to think I'm trying to belittle the value of art. I'm not. I think art is extremely important. Good art opens our eyes to new ideas, it excites us and gets us feeling and thinking in new ways. We desperately need good art in our lives. What I'm trying to do here is raise the stature of craft. This is an essay praising the value of craft. Valuable in its own right.

Craft is not Art waiting to be born.

I hate it when people call craft 'art', as a complement. It conveys the impression that if only the craft is good enough it can be elevated to the venerated position of ‘art’. If we craftspeople work hard enough or put our hearts into our work we might one day be considered Artists. Oh to dare to dream.

He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
— Louis Nizer

Good art gets us to feel. It exists to evoke emotion and helps to evolve human consciousness. Craft is designed to make our day-to-day lives better. It’s importance is in a comfy sweater, your favourite coffee mug, the pen that glides across the page. Craft is at its best when it works. When a craft object works really well, it integrates itself seamlessly into our life. This seamless integration is part of the problem in raising the profile of craft. It quickly fades into the background. There’s the initial excitement of getting a handcrafted kitchen knife that effortlessly slices and dices. After a few ragouts and several pico del gallos, we’re used to the way it glides through tomatoes with ease. The facile cleaving of fruit no longer elicits the excitement it once did. Without being mindful of the importance of craft, it’s likely we won’t notice it again until it stops working. We value it without appreciating it.

Life just works better with good craft. We might only get a small pleasure from using good craft objects. But we have the potential to use them a lot. Our current culture has created a cult of the exotic. We’ve become conditioned to look for enjoyment only from things rare and difficult to access. Repetition is looked down on as boring. We’ve come to believe that if we get to experience something everyday, it can’t be significant.

We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions in life - those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength
— Oswald Chambers

Simple Pleasures From Simple Objects

In order to raise the status of craft in our current culture we have to highlight the importance of the little things in life. Craft makes the things we do everyday more enjoyable. It’s because we do these things everyday that we should take notice of them and the potential for enjoyment they bring.

It is important to allow the well made into our lives. Well made craft items function well. This makes the tasks they’re designed to fulfil more enjoyable. If a cooking spoon is comfortable to hold, does a great job of getting into the corners of your pot and is able to scrape the bottom just right, I guarantee that the person who made it spent a lot of time thinking about hands, pots, stirring technique and cooking. Their thoughtful effort makes your cooking experience more enjoyable. If you’re anything like me, you like to eat. It’s an activity I engage in several times a day. Which means a lot of cooking as eating Pringles straight out of the tube while standing over the sink loses it’s charm fairly quickly. If we own well made craft items that work well we would do well to consider the maker; the thought and effort they put into their work so we can scramble our eggs in an enjoyable manner. In this way, good craft not only makes tasks more enjoyable but it connects us to the people that made them.

Good craft items are practical, physical objects that can represent certain values or feelings. We are shaped by our environment, therefore we would do well to fill our homes with work that represents values we want to embody. For example, we might want to show our appreciation for the natural world - owning items crafted from natural fibres could help remind us of our connection to the living world. A person feeling downtrodden by modern life - it’s hectic rushing, cold technology and excessive precision - might be drawn to a handmade wooden bowl. As well as comfortably holding nourishing soup it is a balancing symbol of nature, the rustic and craft.

There are many daily activities we engage in that good craft can make more enjoyable. By taking the time to notice what works and what doesn’t in our lives we can consciously use good craft items to improve our day-to-day existence. Craft isn’t likely to deliver the lightening bolt of new ideas and emotion that art does. It’s more of a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day - simple, unobtrusive but greatly appreciated.

Driftless Spoon Gathering 2018

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Last weekend was the Driftless Spoon Gathering in La Farge, WI. It’s organised by the Driftless Folk School and was the first US spoon gathering I attended back in 2015. I couldn’t make it last year, so it was great to be able to attend this year.

We’re kind of lucky the event was able to go ahead at all. Just a few weeks earlier La Farge was hit hard by flooding. Parts of the village were 10 feet underwater. By the time we arrived La Farge seemed to have recovered well enough for the local school kids to ‘TP’ several houses during homecoming, which fell on the same weekend as the Gathering.

As usual, I carpooled there with Derek. We had planned a couple of camp meals together with Tom Dengler and Fred Livesay. I brought along pork kebabs, Derek had a couple of breakfast hashes planned. Pretty much everything tastes better cooked over a fire while camping.


The event itself is pretty chill. As the name suggests, it’s a gathering. We spoon carvers gather and carve spoons. This year’s turnout was fairly small, perhaps 20 or so people. Most people had at least some experience in spoon carving. Terry Beck, one of the organisers of the event, was doing a great job of making sure newbies got at least some instruction.

 Terry giving some instruction

Terry giving some instruction

I had a lot of fun with some of the people new to the craft. I managed to convince the Driftless Folk School’s new admin hire to carve her first spoon. I showed a 7 year old how to hollow out a spoon and was impressed by how well they took to the task. A family of three were all carving in unison, having just learned how to safely perform some new knife grips.

I met lots of fantastic people at the Gathering. Most I’d met before at previous gatherings. Or we’d interacted online. I finally met Daniel Marcou face-to-face. He interviewed me for his website last year. He also brought some fabulous cherry crooks along to the Gathering. I nabbed a couple and spent most of the weekend working on them.

I also got a chance to chat with Greg Nelson. Our paths had crossed previously, but I didn’t get much of a chance to paw through examples of his work. Greg carves fantastic eating spoons. I highly recommend you check his work out. I bought one of his spoons and so far have used it daily.

These gatherings are always a lot of fun. If you’re into spoon carving you already know that it’s mostly a solo activity. The peaceful nature of sitting alone, slowly shaping wood into a useful utensil is an aspect that draws many to the craft. Explaining the joy of spoon carving to the uninitiated can be difficult. So hanging out with so many people that already get it and are as willing as you to nerd out over wood types, spoon designs and mouth feel is a great pleasure.

 Spoon circle spoons

Spoon circle spoons

Spoon Crooks

Thomas Bartlett1 Comment

AKA Bent Branch Spoons

I love carving with straight wood. It's great to have a large round of clean, straight grained wood. It splits cleanly, popping out identical billets. You know they will all behave in the same way. Perfect for carving out multiple spoons of the same design. Handily, large rounds of wood are also the easiest for me to get a hold of. 

The downside to carving lovely curvy spoons out of straight grained wood is that you start introducing weaknesses. We're all familiar with how wood grows in layers within the tree. Once the tree has been felled and you start carving, these growth rings are now the grain of the wood. Along the length of a spoon, the more contact one layer has with the next, the stronger that connection is. When working with a straight grain billet you need to layout the spoon so you get curves that don't cut across growth rings too sharply. It's easy enough to do, but you can't have extreme curves without creating a potentially weak spoon. 

 Using radially split wood, the weak points (in red) are most obvious in the plan view of the spoon.

Using radially split wood, the weak points (in red) are most obvious in the plan view of the spoon.

 In tangentially split wood, the short grain weakness are usually at the tip of the bowl. Depending on how much of a crank one tries to create, the handle might also have some weaker, short grain, connections. 

In tangentially split wood, the short grain weakness are usually at the tip of the bowl. Depending on how much of a crank one tries to create, the handle might also have some weaker, short grain, connections. 

Fortunately nature has already sorted this problem out for us. Trees have been kind enough to grow limbs in the shape of spoons, curves already included. You can find these pre-grown spoons where a new branch grows out of the trunk or from a larger limb, or where a limb splits into two branches. Occasionally you can also find the right shape somewhere in the middle of a branch, but these occurrences are rarer.

Working with crooks gives me a sense of working with nature. It does however mean that certain decisions have already been made for me. To make the best use of the advantages in strength and thinness that a crook offers you are limited to the shape it has grown into. The strongest spoon forms will have the fibres running unbroken along the bottom of the bowl, where it needs the most strength. You should be able to see the growth rings exiting the front of the bowl. This ensures there isn't any short grain at the tip of the bowl, an area often subject to stresses from scraping. 

 Here the spoon is laid out so the bottom of the bowl follows the wood grain / fibres. 

Here the spoon is laid out so the bottom of the bowl follows the wood grain / fibres. 

Sticking to the way the branch has grown often results in a spoon that has less of a bend in it than the branch hints at. A 'mistake' people often make when working with crooks is to try and get the crookiest crook that has ever crooked from their crook. This isn't really much of an issue, you're just introducing weaknesses that you get in tangentially split wood. If you're aware of this you can plan accordingly and all will be good in the world. 

 This crankier crook has some short grain in at the tip of the bowl. Might not be a problem, but is weaker than following the wood fibres.

This crankier crook has some short grain in at the tip of the bowl. Might not be a problem, but is weaker than following the wood fibres.

Personally I enjoy working within the limitations the tree has set for me. It presents a fun challenge and encourages me to finish a spoon that most closely represents what nature started. 


Burnout or Discipline

Thomas Bartlett1 Comment
Burnout: fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity.
Discipline: behavior and order maintained by training and control

My week tends to have a fairly set routine: after roughing out around 15 or so items at the Saturday Farmers' Market I have Sunday and sometimes Monday to spend time with my wife and generally relax. I then spend the rest of the week finishing the roughed out work, starting and finishing a few other items along the way. This week I found myself avoiding work. Which is strange, because I genuinely enjoy what I do. I wanted figure out why that was the case.

My wife and I did host a neighbourhood barbeque on Sunday. It was a lot of fun, but more effort than our usual Sundays of walks with the dog and watching films from the sofa. So perhaps I was just feeling tired. On the flip side, we did spend our Monday doing virtually nothing, which was decidedly delicious. I know that I'm susceptible to thinking that if I enjoy a little of something, then a lot of it would also be great. Which is how I sometimes end up eating a whole box of doughnuts on my own. But that's a whole other issue!

After much navel-gazing I decided it was either due to either burnout or a lack of discipline. I've been working more or less the same routine for the last 18 weeks. I've carved a lot of spoons in that time. I also know that I enjoy doing nothing. I get this weird notion that surfing Craigslist and watching another Youtube video on what Dr. Strange's plan at the end of Infinity War might have been will be more enjoyable than sitting in my workshop carving. 

Sidenote: I prefer to think in terms of discipline rather than motivation. Motivation tends to relate more to wanting to do something. If I always waited until I wanted to do I thing, I wouldn't get a lot done. Discipline get things done because you know it needs doing.

The tricky part is figuring out which was the cause. The lazy part of me could convince me it's burnout and sit me on the couch and let Youtube's algorithm feed me an endless stream of videos. Conversely, the disciplined part of me is capable of marching me out to the shed and keeping me there until I end up genuinely disliking what I'm doing. So figuring out where on the spectrum of being burnt-out or lacking discipline is a worthwhile pursuit albeit a tricky one. 

I wasn't fully avoiding work altogether. What I was avoiding was the main task of actually carving stuff. I've recently acquired a small gas forge so I can make my own turning hooks. I played around with that a little this week. I don't have a anvil, so I was using the 'anvil plate' on the back of my bench vice. It didn't work great, a real anvil is still needed, but it was fun to smack some hot metal around. This week wasn't really the right time to fire up the forge. I should have waited until I had access to a proper anvil. I also spent a fair chunk of time putting together some videos. All things that peripherally support the business. But not the main task of making things to sell at Saturday's Farmers' Market. 

The way I was avoiding work was probably the biggest indicator as to why I was avoiding work. The fact that my procrastination was still within the broad realm of 'work' suggested I was being disciplined enough to avoid truly wasting my time. I think mixing in a wider range of activities (more regular blogging again, for example) will keep me from pointlessly avoiding the main tasks that need to be done. 

What tends to pull you away from your most important work? How do you keep yourself focused and on task?


Objects with Soul

Thomas Bartlett1 Comment

The Meaning We Give to the Items We Own

I love making utensils for people to use. Through regular use, we start to give physical objects an emotional meaning. A spoon is gradually no longer just a spoon, it's your favourite spoon for eating the chicken soup your partner makes you when you're feeling a little poorly. It becomes a symbol that says 'things kinda suck, but they're starting to look up'. Opening the kitchen draw and seeing it becomes a reminder of community, love and healing. 

The items we hold dear are reservoirs of memory. They are present at key moments in our life. Like us, they're changed by the experience. Wood is especially good at this. It's durable enough to be long lasting, serving it's purpose for more than one generation. But malleable enough that the passage of time is clearly written on it's surface. Edges become worn, scratches appear and colours mellow. In other objects, this kind of wear is seen as damage, devaluing the product. For objects with soul, it becomes a part of the story. 

 Worn, used and loved kitchen utensils

Worn, used and loved kitchen utensils

Giving an object soul is a slow, unconscious, process. In my own life I find that the more simple an object is, the more likely I am to see it as soulful. It starts as a blank canvas, single-mindedly performing the function it was designed for. I might only have a handful of objects I think of as soulful: a few of the wooden spoons in my collection, a couple of my older items of clothing, my woodworking tools. They're items that 'feel right' when I'm using them. Items that easily evoke pleasant memories. Things that have a history I can retell.   

Nearly all the woodworking tools I use are steeped with meaning. I know the person that made the knife blade I use most regularly. I made the handle from a cherry burr given to me by a friend. The wood is dark from use and the blade is starting to change from repeated sharpenings. Another example is a tool that got me thinking about the way we shape objects is tied to how they shape us.     

 An old tool absorbing new memories

An old tool absorbing new memories

This drawknife is a recent addition to my life. It was it's newness that brought the relationship we have to the objects we own to the forefront of my mind. I've had it for perhaps two or three months. It was given to me by a gentleman that got chatting with me at the Madison Farmers' Market. He saw I was using a drawknife and realised he had one at home he had no use for. A couple of weeks later I gave him a spoon in exchange for the drawknife (and a couple bits of wood). A little Googling suggests that it was made by the John Pritzlaff Hardware Company, a Milwaukee based company that operated from 1850 to 1958. That suggests this a locally made tool, at least 60 years old. 

I spent several hours putting on a new edge and it soon become a regular user. Last night tipped the balance into making this tool a reservoir of memory. My friend brought over a recently acquired sharpening device (a Tormek T-7 for fellow sharpening nerds). This tool uses a stone wheel, which creates whats known as a hollow grind. With the equipment I own, I can only produce a flat grind. As neither of us were super familiar with using this kind of sharpening tool, the new grind on my drawknife not only serves a practical purpose, but now holds the memory of messing about in the workshop with friends.

This tool has survived the last sixty years in great condition and just a few months with me it's probably already carved over a hundred spoons. I don't knows how long it will continue in my service, but I know that every time I pick it up I'll be reminded of community, the kindness of strangers and the joy of learning new skills.