Edmund de Waal: The classroom versus the workshop

Stories from the Financial Times. 
March 13 2011 7:52 AM

From Head to Hand

Edmund de Waal on making art.

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Edmund de Waal. Click image to expand.
Edmund de Waal

When I was a child there was a truism that anyone could make something (a rabbit hutch, say) or mend something (a bicycle) if they had a classical education. It was felt that using intellectual tools—parsing a bit of Latin history, constructing an argument—was training enough for taking on the material world. Learning gave you a steady approach to the tricksiness of the world of things. Lurking behind this belief was an attitude of de haut en bas; condescension towards those working with their hands.

This annoyed me. Partly because I could only stumble through my Latin lessons but mostly because my afternoons were spent in a pottery workshop learning to throw pots. It was clear to me—a white apron over my school uniform as I kneaded the clay to take out the air bubbles and give it the right consistency, pulled the long twisted wire made from rabbit snares, divided it into 4-ounce balls and sat at my kick wheel in the corner readying myself for my hours of practice—that this was different from classroom learning.

Centring the clay, bringing this small ball into perfect receptivity for throwing, involved a ripple of different movements from hand and wrist, an inclination in the head and neck, a slight tautening in the shoulders. It was a sort of learning that I could not articulate.

All through school I read and I  made pots. I read the great British potter Bernard Leach's A Potter's Book (1940) until my copy broke its spine, studying its diagram of the layout for a proper workshop until I could walk round my imagined future workplace. I read William Morris and John Ruskin. In 1980, I left school and went to Japan to visit venerable potters. Back home I became an apprentice and then took myself off to study English at university. Books and pots, head and hand. I was searching for the place where someone, anyone, writes about that epiphany where you see what you have made and it is different from what you had conceived. I was searching for a description of how an object can displace a bit of the world. I was avid. I wanted someone to write a description of Homo faber, the maker of things. I wanted a story of making told without the penumbra of romanticising how hard it is, without nostalgia.

Then in 1988, in my first proper studio at the end of a street of terraced houses on the edge of Sheffield, close to the dereliction of the old steelworks, I read Primo Levi's The Wrench (1978). It was a strange time to be doing so, as Sheffield razed one factory after another, brick dust choking the road to Attercliffe, the valley where the world's steel had been made.

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I'd read Levi's If This is a Man (published in English in 1958), his great, Protean retelling of his time in Auschwitz, the anatomising of what survival entails. Like so many I had fallen for his lucidity, his sense of responsibility for his story and his need to tell it in adamantine prose.

But The Wrench was a different kind of book, part travelogue, part essay on what it was to be a maker. It was a series of interlinked stories told over a glass of vodka by Faussone, a fictional rigger of cranes and bridges, to an unnamed chemist, a writer, a listener, like Levi.

Faussone has spent his working life erecting complex structures in inhospitable places—Alaska, Russia, on the banks of a flooding river in India, dependent on others but ultimately alone at the top of some crane beset by wind and rain.

Rigging, he says, "is a job that a person has to work out on his own, with his own head and, even better, with his own hands". That is why he has contempt for shoddiness, the lack of attention to the specificity of one moment in one place with a material, the way each plate has to fix on to each bracket in a particular way.

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