The journeyman’s waltz

Beyond our class lessons, one of the objectives of the program is to learn from other students. We’re encouraged to communicate, share ideas, observe the way particular problems are approached and how work is gone about successfully.

Having instructors and students as sounding boards creates a diverse body of knowledge to draw upon. In a way it’s like the journeyman tradition in Europe. Since the middle ages formally trained apprentices left their masters to wander and work their trade for three years and a day. Staying at least fifty kilometres from home, journeymen wandered from town to town working three months at a time under different masters. These years gained an apprentice the title of master craftsman and the right to open their own shop. The compagnon itinérant set out on the tour de France, while the wandergesellen set out auf der walz on the wanderjahre in Germany – to cultivate technical and moral aptitude, to learn about work and life.

Perhaps the most important reason for the emergence of this system was the dissemination of ideas and the transmission of knowledge, best practices and new technologies. Contact between regions meant exposure to new and different tools, construction ideas and assembly forms – allowing each journeyman to return home, assimilating his experiences abroad to better serve his community.

Melancholia by Durer: Notice the hand plane by her feet. Perhaps her disposition is caused by a society that prevents her from becoming a woodworker.

Durer’s Melancholia I: does the hand plane at her feet reflect a sadness that we use such gender biased language? Thankfully we now have journeywomen.

We’re all on the journeyman’s waltz, so to speak, having travelled far to learn together and from one another. The bench room is a bit like the dining room in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – which takes place at a pre-WWI lung sanatorium in the Swiss alps. The dining room is where patients mostly confined to the solitude of their suites congregate and socialize – and is laid out like a map of Europe: The Russians eat in the north-east corner, sandwiching the Germans between Mediterranean patients tabled at the southern end of the room. Attitudes of characters from different regions loosely mirror those of belle époque Europe – and their interactions plant the seeds of self-reflection that unfold the story’s narrative. Similarly, our experiences and attitudes are slowly circulating around the redwoods bench room, helping us learn from one another.

Maybe the most memorable lesson I’ve learned came from my bench mate, Chen, who travelled to the program from Israel. He commented nicely on something I had done, and I responded awkwardly by admitting all the faults in my work – where the glue lines were visible or how the shellac didn’t take evenly: my natural reaction to supportive conversation was to deprecate, to undervalue my work and myself. Chen replied, in accented english, ‘hey, it’s beautiful,’ reminding me how much I have yet to learn, about woodworking and life.


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