Gary Rogowski's new book, Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of
Distraction is a woodworking memoir by a
born storyteller. It isn't exactly a memoir, though. It isn't exactly a "how-to"
book, either, nor even a "why-to." It has elements of all those, and I
suppose I'll go with memoir if you force me to choose. That's because by the
time you finish Handmade, you feel like you know Gary as Gary (I could
never think of him as "Mr. Rogowski" after reading it!), and that if you
happened to meet him somewhere you'd not just recognize him, but be able
to continue a conversation that began when you opened his book. And if
you're a woodworker, Gary is worth knowing.
Why? For those of you who don't already know his previous books, his many
magazine articles, and his appearances online in assorted videos, Gary
Rogowski has made a living by making fine furniture since the 1970's. In
addition to his writing, he has spent the past 15 or more years teaching at
The Northwest Woodworking Studio, developing a curriculum of short
courses and a lengthy Mastery Program which have started hundreds of
woodworkers on their own paths as makers.
Gary has developed his approach to furniture design on his own, though he
never denies the Asian, Shaker, and modernist influences that show in them.
His teaching is similar: he has developed his own curriculum, and when you
see him teaching (as I have) you see a master in direct dialogue with
individual students, using their own specific workbench predicaments to
impart what they need to know. However, all of Gary's self-developed
pedagogy is in the service of age-old woodworking practices he's consciously
training his students to do.
Which brings me to what this book is really about, its real hub. Rogowski
shows you how he has "made it" as a self-employed woodworker making
one-off pieces of the highest possible quality. "Made it" not in the business
sense, but in the personal, spiritual, emotional sense. Handmade is
strongest as a memoir when Gary tells about the hard parts more honestly
than I've ever heard them described before: the wood that warps
unexpectedly at just the wrong time; the load of lumber that falls off the
roof of your car onto a busy highway in the middle of a torrential Portland
rain; the sanding defect that doesn't show up until you're rubbing out the
final coat of painstakingly applied finish: HOW do you keep going when this
stuff happens? By very honestly taking us through his own tough times,
Gary shows us how we might approach them ourselves, if for no other
reason than because if he could do it, we might at least try. And even if we
fail, or half-succeed, or wiggle out of the predicament by some unexpected
stroke of fate, we'll at least have a good story of our own to tell a novice
Gary Rogowski graciously agreed to answer a few of our questions for this
review of his book. Here's a transcript:
Highland: I know we should read the book to learn your real answer, but in
a nutshell: how can making something by hand deliver us from distraction in
a world of smartphones, traffic jams, and social media?
Gary Rogowski: Woodworkers are the kind of folks who like tools, they like
to problem solve, wear a lot of hats, and they like to talk to themselves.
Best conversation of the day sometimes. Being at the bench, working with
our hands, can take us to this quiet place where we can have a good chat
with our self. It's here that we can get lost in the work, let our hands take
over from our brain, or rather we put the two of them together in the work.
It allows all sorts of other ideas to sift through. It is energizing and quieting
for me all at once.
Highland: If time spent quietly at the bench can help us deal with this
wildly overstimulating reality we live in, what does someone like you, who
has chosen the relatively lonely job of woodworker, get distracted by?
Gary Rogowski: That's good.
I'm like everybody else. My eyes have been trained to read more quickly. I
want to see the replay of the bird taking off even when I'm walking down the
street and not watching a ball game. We are conditioned now. I can't wait to
see my email every 20 minutes. It's all this stuff that we've filled our lives
with that 20, certainly 30 years ago didn't exist. Now it consumes people's
consciousness. I switch radio stations as fast as the next guy. I just need a
break from all this distraction now and then. I need quiet in order to
Highland: One way your book is different than many woodworking books is
that you spend a lot of time showing us the bloopers. And I mean, worse
than bloopers: shop accidents leading to injury. Mistakes that send you back
several steps. Leaking roofs. And in those moments, you write detailed,
accurate descriptions of that gut-punched feeling and the first racing
thoughts of denial when something like that happens. Are you trying to
scare readers away from woodworking?
Gary Rogowski: Oh heck no. Woodworking is as much fun as you can have
by yourself. I love it. It just comes with a big caveat: be careful, cuz you're
in charge and you can get hurt. When you do get hurt, then you need to
stop and figure out what just happened and try to make sure that it never or
seldom happens again. [Some of us take longer than others to learn.]
Highland: In your years of teaching, have you noticed any changes in what
your students are looking for, or want to do, when they start woodworking?
Gary Rogowski: When they start? No. Everyone wants to build the Taj
Mahal of furniture. I know I did. But reality sets in if you're in the business
of it. And for that you need a marketing brain for some part of the week.
You need a sales brain for another part, a design brain for yet another, and
so on. If you can enjoy this mix of skills and challenges, then it's endlessly
fun and provocative.
Highland: As a woodworker in 2017, is it easier to find a market for your
work than it was, say, 10 years ago?
Gary Rogowski: The web is the greatest/ worst thing that has ever
happened to humanity. It is the largest library in the world and yet it is not
trustworthy because anyone can post there. So it makes it easier to show
work that photographs well. It may not be well made. But it's far easier to
show the world what you do now. In that sense it is easier to market. The
problem is that people can touch your quality and the first thing someone
does after liking the form of your work is to go up and touch it.
Highland: Speaking about either your teaching or your commissioned
pieces, how do you see the "maker" movement affecting your work? Having
been a woodworker, and a teacher, for a while, I have my own thoughts on
how the people I see at the bench are a little different than they were in
2000, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.
Gary Rogowski: Well one of the effects of the web is dumbing things down
since people want the fast result. They want the quick answer. As a result a
lot of skill in craft gets lost. Good enough is not simply the American way,
it's the web's way of doing things. Be a "master" in a year, take this class
and become a "master." Everything has speeded up so much that it's tough
to convince folks that patience and practice are the ways to mastery, not
speed. The maker movement doesn't understand that in my opinion.
Highland: Your book spans the lifetimes of more than one dog, but you
never specifically discuss their being in the shop with you. Anything to share
on the subject of shop dogs, or would that be spoiling your sequel?
("Houndmade: Driven to Distraction by Bench Dogs")
Gary Rogowski: That's a terrible title that I'm laughing at. Well, I am
writing about my Boys now, but not so much as shop dogs. They both hated
the shop. I just happened to spend a lot of time there so that's where they
hung too. Too noisy, too dusty for them.
Highland: Several other eminent woodworkers have told me that having a
hobby other than woodworking keeps them fresh when they show up at the
bench. I've heard of bonsai, calligraphy, sailing...after reading
Handmade I assume yours is hiking. There are a lot of long walks in the
mountains in here! How does being outdoors for long stretches help your
time at the bench?
Gary Rogowski: Oh man, it fills up and empties my brain all at the same
time. It gives me time to sift out ideas. My best lectures have come from
walks where all of a sudden all the ideas line up in a row, the way they're
supposed to be and all I have to do is have the sense to bring a pen to write
them down. It's a huge blender is hiking, a blender and a sifter, it's an oven
and sometimes it's the drain.
Find out more and purchase Handmade - Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction
Jim Dillon has been teaching at Highland since 2000. His day job is as Cabinetmaker at Fernbank Science Center, building exhibits. He was self-employed as a custom furniture maker for 8 years, and before that, taught college English. He finds that coaching other woodworkers to develop their problem-solving and hand skills is an inspiration for his own work.
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