Wabi-Sabi for beginners
Updated: Apr 21
Hopefully, I am not alone with these sentiments. On a job, focus is completely on how to apply your skills, knowledge, tools and materials to complete the commission with due haste and to a standard that is, at least, acceptable to the client. Personal work however generates a very different paradigm. There is no preordained goal, nor clear route to completion. Success or failure is totally determined by you. Without a client, work must stand alone
Suddenly, we are in a different place. Everything becomes significant, perceived lack of talent takes control and confidence dries up. Personally, this has meant spending years building benches and collecting tools, getting prepared. The intention always to build this or that wonderful thing, to do so however necessitates purchasing some tool or book of advice. Weirdly neither of these gets me any closer to finishing the project. Instead, I have a vast collection of tools and books, all of which lead to even more overcomplicating, procrastination and uncertainty.
We are losing from the start. This is minimised through our commitments to clients, other factors outside our control have more importance.
Set free from client demands we become slaves to our own Platonic ideals. Neutered by the impossibility of making anything that is good enough. Instead, I prepare to match my own perfectionism,, buying more tools and building more benches to do this or that. As an object of utility, benches are great, they avoid many of the crippling self-criticisms whilst still enjoying the pleasures of working wood.
The shift of emphasis from minimal costs for maximum profit to exposing your soul and skills for no likely fiscal gain causes a seismic shift in approach. Buying new kit can be justified as self-development that will make you more saleable, at least this sounds plausible. Materials however suddenly become a very clear expense. My response has been to rely on free sources of timber to work with. Skip diving for fun.
This has certain benefits. You are once more working within constraint. Not problem solving for a client but problem-solving led by available materials. The Platonic ideal’s power weakens, how could perfection be achieved from the bottom of a skip? Philosophy rushes to rescue or help rationalise our minds once more. From Japan, the Zen concept of Wabi-Sabi comes into play.
In Wabi-Sabi, beauty can only be appreciated through abandoning conventional judgement. The broken, flawed or worn have an equal claim to value as the immaculately finished. Whilst one has technique the other has a narrative or struggle presented.
Whilst I agree with the Wabi-Sabi concept and see it within the work of others, I struggle to marry it with my inner Plato. Thus I roll on preparing for the masterwork, buying fixes via tools and books (that almost always disappoint).
Occasionally, it has been suggested that I should attend courses to develop skills. Sadly, I have concluded that I am no more capable of following structured learning than I can resist the impulsive purchase of a new tool. I lack patience and always want to dive in first.
I am pleased that last year I felt happy enough with some green woodwork to give my wife a pair of Giacometti inspired salad servers.