Remembering My Role

“A craftsman, from the bottom of his or her heart, is to serve society. Every profession has social obligations and responsibilities. The craftsman’s social responsibility is to fulfill society’s demands as best they know how. Unlike craft, society does not ask the artist for what it needs. The artist’s social responsibility and obligation is to find a valid concept and execute it, then share it with society…whether society likes it or not.”  -Toshio Odate

A couple weeks ago, I posted about the “Quick and Dirty” table that I built for my son. As a child’s play table, I didn’t fuss too much over the finish. I did get Elam’s input on the color. He said he wanted blue, so I gave it two coats of blue milk paint and slapped on a coat of shellac and called it good. The quality of the finish matches the aesthetic of the rest of the table. In other words, it’s functional and not necessarily bad-looking…but don’t look too close.

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Now, time for an admission. The need for this ‘quick and dirty’ table came about due to some piss-poor planning on my part. You see, originally, it was the tavern table that was supposed to serve as Elam’s play table. When my wife first asked me to build a table for him, the wheels in my head started spinning, and before long, I recalled the attractive little Charleston tavern table that had been featured in Popular Woodworking and in “Furniture in the Southern Style“. I had always wanted to build that table, and here was my wife asking me to build at table! Perfect!

Now, most children’s tables can tolerate a fairly broad range of heights, sizes, and designs. After all, kids grow, so you can either build a table that’s too big for them now or one that will be too small for them in a couple of years. What they really need is a chair to match the table, so the kids can work and sit at a comfortable height.

However, our Elam is a special kid. He was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. Thus, with the height of his chair pre-determined, I had to built his table at a height that would match. I measured and determined that 23.5″ would be the ideal height for his table. The original table was 27″ high. Hmmm…dropping the height by 3.5″ seems like it would ruin the aesthetic. I decided to compromise and build the table 25″ high instead. Surely that extra inch and a half would be okay, right? And he would eventually grow into it anyway, right? That was mistake No. 1.

Next, it was obvious that the lower stretchers that are found around the lower perimeter of nearly all tavern tables would be in the way of his wheelchair. No worries, though – I could just nix the front and back stretchers and use a single stretcher in the middle instead. And there’s mistake No. 2.

My wife packed up the kids and headed to off to visit her parents for a weekend. I was tasked with building the table for Elam. And I worked a 30-hour weekend building that table. With hardly any sleep, I kept single-mindedly to the task at hand, and was just pegging the top in place when my wife rolled into the driveway on Sunday afternoon. I was so excited to roll Elam up to his new play table so he could try it out.

My excitement quickly soured as I realized that 1) the addition of 1.5” of height above my “ideal” estimate placed the tabletop in a position where he could barely see anything on the tabletop, and 2) I neglected to ever measure the distance between the front wheels of his wheelchair, and as a result the distance between the table’s front legs was 1/4″ too narrow for the wheelchair to squeeze in between. My own disappointment was only exceeded by that of my wife. It was not a good way to start off a week for anyone involved.

I certainly didn’t slave away for 30 hours over two days to build a non-functional piece. I thought I was doing heartfelt work that would genuinely be appreciated by my son and my wife. But I got caught up in my own aesthetic preferences and lost sight of the original purpose. It was a painful lesson. And one that I quickly made right, two days later, in a two-hour flurry of workshop activity.

The new table may not measure up to the tavern table in style, but it well exceeds in the category that counts: function. Now, I know there is a big arts vs. crafts debate that has been raging for centuries and addressed ad nauseum by folks far more experienced and eloquent than I. I don’t intend to weigh in on this debate, because for me, there is no confusion. I am not an artist; I am a craftsman. If Toshio Odate is to be believed, my primary concern in this specific role is “to fulfill society’s demands” as best as I know how. And since I the lion’s share of my work remains in my own home, the “society” to whom Toshio refers would be my very own family.

I would do well to remember my role. I know of one little guy who certainly appreciates it when it when I do.

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