American Woodworker

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When you're an artist it's really hard not to compare your talent to that of your peers. Even though most of us know that the proper reaction to the brilliant work of others is to be happy for them, to admire them for what they've achieved, to appreciate the work itself because after all you're a fan of the genre or you wouldn't be doing this right? -- even though we know what a mature reaction would look like, it's sometimes really hard to pull it off. There's a very unique emotion -- perhaps terror is the closest relative to it -- when an artist looks upon the masterful work of a peer and a little voice inside says, 'You couldn't do that, even if you tried.'

Here's how I know. Last week I went to the furniture show in Kerrville. (Not so much a "show" really, none of the furniture danced or sang or played the keytar. Just sort of sat there quiet and looked pretty. But it did that really well.) The show features the work of the best and brightest furniture designer/craftspeople from all over the state. And we really do have some good ones here. One more thing to be proud of.

But oh, there were moments of pure terror. A few of the pieces amazed me to my quivering bowels, made my head hurt as I dizzily tried to figure how they were made. Brilliant ideas I never could have conceived, incarnated in precise and delicate and painstaking detail that I never could have nurtured. You couldn't do that, even if you tried.

So how does an artist answer that voice? Because you have to respond somehow, or you can't go on doing what you do, right? You have to believe that what you do has a legitimate place in a world where that guy's stuff exists too.

When I was younger and punker, I countered by listing all the things I am good at that that guy probably isn't, I convinced myself I didn't really care that his stuff was so good, or better still, I picked it over looking for little things to criticize.

I'm older now, calmer, less threatened. Don't know why, maybe that's just one of the advantages of gray hair. Or so I'm told, I don't really have any myself yet. In Kerrville this time, unlike shows I went to in my youth, I had a really good time. I studied each piece carefully, as though it were a person deserving my utmost respect, stood back reverently and took in the design, moved up closely and marveled at the crafting of it, and yes if there were things I didn't like I was honest about that too. But I was able to walk away from each piece feeling proud of the person who made it, feeling their angst as they conceived it and puzzled over how to make it and finished it and held it out for the world to see and trembled wondering whether anyone would actually like it. I've done all those things myself many times, so I know how hard this is. Unlike before, I left the gallery glowing, remembering anew why I love doing what I do, wishing I could meet each craftsperson and talk to them for hours about their piece.

While I was in Kerrville my phone rang. It was an inquiry from someone wanting a dining table. I went home that night, filled with the inspiration from dozens of my peers, and designed a really beautiful and unusual piece. I'm really proud of it, and I can't wait to build it, and I could not be more thankful to my fellow Texas designer/craftspeople for reminding me how fulfilling this calling can be.

So I guess my answer to "You couldn't do that, even if you tried" is now, "Perhaps not, but seeing that reminds me of how amazing wood furniture can be, and it makes me want to get even better. And that's more than enough."


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