Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 170, October 2019
Book Review: The Difference Makers
by Marc Adams
Review by J. Norman Reid

The Difference Makers, a recent release from Lost Art Press, is a deceptive book. On one hand, it easily qualifies as a gorgeous coffee table book. Oversized, beautifully laid out, with professional color photography throughout, it serves well in the role of a work to display and revel in. It can be thumbed through in any sequence, leaving the eye to fall upon any number of randomly encountered delights. In this guise, the book is certain to be an instant success.

But on the other hand, to assume that its principal purpose is as a display vehicle is to miss its central point. For this book is much more than a collection of superlatives of the creative arts. It is, rather, an exploration of the creative spirit itself, of the lives, the life influences, the motivations of a group of master creators in the medium of wood. Ultimately, it seeks to uncover the forces that have driven these artists to succeed at artistic perfection.

The author, Marc Adams, succeeds brilliantly in crafting a work that excels in meeting both of these objectives. Adams, the proprietor and guiding hand behind the Marc Adams School of Woodworking near Indianapolis, operates what is arguably as fine a woodworking school as can be found within the borders of the U.S. Through the years, he has sought out the best instructors to teach classes in a diverse set of subjects. Of those who've taught at his school, he's been touched by many. This book reprises their lives, their work, and the creative spirit of 30 of the best he has come to know.

Adams argues that we are now in a fourth generation of excellence in American woodworking. The first, he suggests, was the period from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, when such renowned makers as John Goddard, the Townsends, and, later, Duncan Phyfe set the pattern with styles that were iconic for the era.

The second great era grew under the influence of John Ruskin and William Morris, whose theories and research spawned the Arts & Crafts movement and, in America, the great achievements of the Stickleys, the Greene and Greene brothers, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others who followed in their philosophical and stylistic footsteps.

The third period of greatness, he suggests, came in the years following World War II, when such luminaries as Sam Maloof, James Krenov, George Nakashima, and Wendell Castle created new and innovative designs that broke from established traditions.

Adams opines that we have now entered a fourth era of fresh creativity in American woodworking, though not one characterized by a specific style or set of stylistic influences. Instead, it's set apart by both artistic freedom and a renewed commitment to excellence in both conception and execution.

Perhaps Adams is correct. But that hardly matters to his purpose, which is to array a sequence of excellence before us, to excite our own creative juices and inspire us with a desire to accept nothing less than the best of what we are capable.

The Difference Makers, then, contains profiles of 30 woodworkers and their creations, each of whom has taught at Adams' school. The profiles are arrayed alphabetically, so there is no hierarchy of judgment about the order of their importance or the degree of perfection of their work, as if such a judgment were possible. The selected makers represent a broad range of talents and creations, from tool makers to furniture builders to the decorative arts and free forms of artistic expression.

Each of the profiles includes a brief life sketch of the artist, their creative influences and philosophy. Personal notes about Adams' relationship with them as an artist and a person serve to remind us of their humanity, despite the iconic quality of their work. The sketches offer stories about the events that shaped their creative lives and that helped to mold them into the creators that they are, the challenges they faced and had to overcome, the sometimes tortured paths (in one case, literally) they've trod to achieve their status as "difference makers."

At this point in a review such as this, I might be expected to highlight selected artists, my favorites, perhaps. But I've found that to be a difficult task, for each artist is in some ways unique. And at the same time, all are equally committed to being the best at what they do, ever seeking an even greater degree of perfection.

As woodworkers, many of the names included in the book are already quite familiar, even if the full scope of their work may not be. But I discovered many creators who were new to my experience, and it was exciting to witness their exemplary work and look in on their growth and evolution as creative artists.

By now you'll have gathered that I think this book, too, is exemplary. Beautifully produced, hardbacked and slipcovered, printed on high quality paper intended to endure the tests of time, its 244 pages are filled with delight.

I believe this book will have broad appeal. Though it emanates from the world of woodworking, its influences and interests are far broader, and anyone with an eye for the creative arts will find it of major interest. Woodworkers, of course, will also find its emphasis on creative and commitment to excellence to be inspirational. There's nothing "how to" here; this work is, rather, a place to dive into the realm of the potential.

So, what is my conclusion? This is, in my judgment, a great book. Anyone interested in American creative arts, in furniture design, in the genesis of excellence will find much of value here. I think I've run out of superlatives. How many ways can you say "exemplary"? If you can think of another synonym, I'm certain it will apply with ease.

Find out more and purchase The Difference Makers by Marc Adams

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net.

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