Thursday, August 2, 2007

Other Skills

So today I've been redoing a cane seat on an antique chair. I love it when I can fix something; when I can take a broken thing and make it whole and useful again. It's great to do manual work and let your mind wonder and I began thinking about how I learned this skill.

Many, many years ago, my husband and I were looking for durable chairs, We had a young family and the Navy was moving us about every two to three years. We decided to buy antique furniture because (1) It is usually solid wood and could be repaired or refinished. (2) It had a value should it get destroyed. Modern furniture, we learned the hard way, was not that great at withstanding the wear and tear of sea vans and virtually had no claimable value once it was torn up.

So that is why we were cruising antique and junk stores in Portland, Oregon, where we were stationed at the time. We came across a dealer who had a set of oak pressed-back dining chairs.* The caned seats were in shreds. We were interested in buying the chairs, but learned it was very expensive to replace the seats. And it was even more difficult to locate a craftsman who could do it. After talking with the dealer a while, he remembered man who used to do seats but, he said, he was getting quite old, had arthritis and it was doubtful if he still worked at it. Then he suggested I might be able to convince the man to teach me how to cane seats. With that condition, we asked the dealer to hold the chairs.

I convinced the cane man he needed to have me as a student and bought the chairs.

During the course of the lessons, my teacher began talking about how He learned the craft. When he was a young man, he was taught by an itinerate chair-caner who had, in turn, learned it in prison as a rehabilitative trade. When my teacher had his lessons, his teacher, the ex-con, was very old man. When I had my lessons, my teacher was about 80 years old. So if you calculate the time-span of passing-down-the-skill through three people, to the time that I'm sitting here recaning a chair, it calculates to about 125-150 years from the time the convict/chair-caner first learned his trade to my working today. Now that's an amazing thing.

I'm lucky to have found my teacher when he was a very experienced craftsman because he knew all the subtle nuances of the cane itself and how to manipulate it through the weaving process. He not only taught me the mechanics of the skill, but all the 'other' things it would take a long time 'doing' to learn.

And that's probably true of most art. Brilliance may show it's flash at an early age, but it takes years of doing to arrive at the fullness and deep understanding of the craft in order to bring it together in a form recognized as a masterful execution. Skill, yes, all the techniques can be learned. Mastery only comes with time.

*We still have the chairs and after umteen years of hard use and many, many moves they are now in the barn and guess what: They need new seats.

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