March 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a fair amount of scratching around I have found Richard Sennett’s ‘The Craftsman’. The section I am refering to is under the chapter ‘The Hand’, subsection ‘Hand and Eye: The Rhythm of Concentration‘. The example he uses is that of a glassblower called Erin O’Connor, who is learning how to blow a Barolo wine goblet.

The crucial moment in glassblowing is when the molten glass gathers at the end of the pipe, as it will sag unless the pipe is in constant motion. O’Connor used, according to Sennett, “the triad of the ‘intelligent hand‘ – coordination of hand, eye and brain”. According to O’Connor, “My awareness of the blowpipe’s weight in my palm receded and in its stead advanced the sensation of the ledge’s edge at the blowpipe’s mid-point followed by the weight of the gathering glass on the blowpipe’s tip, and finally the gather towards a goblet”. The philosopher Michael Polanyi likened it to hammering in a nail and the fact that we don’t feel the handle in our palm but the head striking the nail. The sensation of the handle merges with the “focal awareness” of driving in the nail. Total absorbed concentration.

O’Connor felt that to work better she needed to anticipate the evolution of the material, which she called being engaged in the process of “corporeal anticipation”, always just ahead of the material from liquid to bubble, to bubble with stem and stem with foot. This state of prehension she learned through repetition, blowing the glass again and again. As Sennett says, “This is repetition for its own sake: like a swimmer’s strokes, sheer movement repeated becomes a pleasure in itself”.

Sennett says that we might think that the routine of doing something over and over again to be mindless and boring but that this isn’t the case for people who develop highly sophisticated hand skills. It’s called rhythm. “Built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled craftsman has extended rhythm to the hand and the eye.”

The woman using the wheel next to me on the throwing weekend at Swarthmore used porcelain on the Saturday and white stoneware, a slighly grey-white clay, on the Sunday. The white clay was so elegant and to be working with white rather than unappealing brown was captivating. I thought at that point that that is how I would like to work.

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