Goodbye to an Old Mentor

Tom died Sunday. He was 70. I knew him about 30 years ago, brother of a dear friend, a housemate of sorts on an old farm in California shared by a dozen or so fellow misfits. A commune I guess. I didn't know him well. He was a mentor to me, though it would be many years before either of us knew it.

He did art and he put The Work first. He would grunt disapprovingly if anyone called him an artist. It wasn't unusual for him to work through the night, fueled by coffee and cigarettes, pulled into the momentum the of the piece as it took form. His work, whether sculpture, pottery, or drawings, had a tangible substance that you could reach out and grab onto, and a strength that made it look as if it would endure for centuries. These qualities seemed to have come from somewhere deep, as if he had reached into himself and pulled them from mud in a bucket somewhere inside, and shaped it into whatever it was to become.

He was the consummate carpenter, bowing to tradition, not taking the easy way out. He told a story of a building inspector who came to see if his work met the code. Upon seeing the Japanese joinery, free of nails, the inspector's jaw dropped as he tried to  figure just what it was he was seeing, then silently signed the permit. He built a castle for a winery, and an elegant dory. He once made a coiled pot in a room he had built, and it grew of its own free will to be so large that it couldn't support its own weight before it was fired. It kept folding in on itself, so for days on end he'd wake up every few minutes to coax it back into shape. When it was completed, it wouldn't fit through a door, so he knocked a hole in a wall to get it out then built a kiln around it to fire it. It is the most beautiful pot, with fleshy curves; it reminds me of a Rubens.

What I learned from Tom was the value of handwork, that it's important, and that it must be done right. Not that it must be perfect, but that it must be right. Working to that standard, at times it brings me great frustration, and at other times relief when finally I know a piece is right. Done by hand, it isn't perfect—we have machines for that—but it is right. He didn't teach it, but in The Work he lived by it. I never conveyed to him what I had learned, but now I am pleased to know that a few months ago, he learned that his principles loom large in what I do, and as my daughter and I build her guitar, we will not strive to make it perfect, but it will be right.

Rest well, Tom. I hope you are at peace. And thanks.

Begin the Beguine

This is the official launch of this little blog, where I hope to write about some things about building guitars, and other handwork, that go beyond the process—whys and wherefores, things like that.

I’ve always been a hands-on type. I think it came from my mother. For as long as I can remember, she sewed: her own clothes, our clothes, clothes for others. I made things from an early age. I think I’m wired for building things. I get great satisfaction from working with my hands. There’s some kind of peace I find in it, and when I don’t do it for a while, I get a little edgy.

A year or so ago, it came to me why it has this appeal. I work at a university, where I run a computer lab for the foreign languages department. I had some of my guitars on display at a folk festival, and a sociologist I know from work stopped by. She said, “This isn’t like computers at all!” My reply was, “That’s why I do it!” The answer had popped into my head without any forethought. But on thinking about it later, I realized that’s exactly why I do it. Because it’s not like computers. A lot of what I do at work is enjoyable, especially interactions with students, but it doesn’t fill the need I have to work with my hands. Building guitars fills that need. When I’m done with one, it makes music. So, I get the satisfaction of the building process, the things I build make music, and my customers have new tools for making their own music. It doesn’t get any better than that.