Two sisters, two coasts, one blog

By Hand


Yesterday I participated in my fourth Handmade Market, a local shopping event that features the work of regional artisans.

As I looked around at the wares and the people who produced them, my mind turned, as it has done in the past, to what it means to make an object by hand.

It wasn’t so long ago that everything we used to feed, shelter, cover and decorate ourselves had to be made by hand, and that a significant amount of one’s time would have been devoted to either creating or mending these everyday items. Surely a grueling and seemingly endless task at times.

I read an article recently which suggests that we romanticize our pre-industrial past, and objectify the process of making by hand, coveting the products produced though they are out of reach of most ordinary people. Mechanization, the author argues, is a democratizing force, handmade is esoteric and expensive.

While I think there is some truth to this, I also see that there is a wealth of human experience & knowledge that is slowly being lost as we (at least in the First world) move further away from the concrete, and toward a more abstract and keyboard dominated future. And though these skills may in some ways be less useful to us in this future, in other ways I think they are fundamental to what it means to be human. In fact, I personally believe that the physical process of making (or cooking, or gardening) are essential our mental well being, and for this reason, indispensable.

So, I decided to share some of the videos about artisans and artists that I have stumbled across in the last couple of years. Some of the clips are long, so I won’t say too much more, except by way of introduction.

I wanted to start with a short from the PBS series Craft in America. This is possibly my favorite documentary series ever, and in fact I’m actually having a small panic attack because when I went to the site to pick out a clip, I saw that two new episodes have been aired. Needless to say, I’ll be watching them as soon as possible. WordPress doesn’t allow me to embed from the PBS website, but here is the link.

The second clip I found via Kelly:

Richard Goodwin has a whole collection of videos on YouTube about trades which are slowly vanishing. I love this one, featuring a master block printer in India, where the thump of the print block is almost meditative:

An interview with Rob Ryan, romantic and master papercutter:

An interview with Jenny Hart, embroidery artist and business woman:

Natalie Chanin, of course:

And last but not least, there’s also a great blog called The Makers, which is an ongoing photo essay about Brooklyn artisans.


10 Responses to “By Hand”

  1. kelly smith-tilly

    What a thoughtful and interesting post. I’ll try to set some time aside to watch these gorgeous videos. And cool that you included Scott Avett–what can’t that guy do?? Love that.

    • oami powers

      He’s amazing. I’ve carved some small blocks, and it is just astounding to me that someone would be able to create such a beautiful piece on that large scale. Plus, you know, the music.

  2. Michelle Smith

    So after my sun diagnosis I read a bit of Thoreau and was really moved (and felt like it was incredibly relevant to our current culture) by his thoughts on stripping away the extraneous. And to me it resonated most with being over-technologied. I am a strong believer that part of my condition resulted in being too computer focused and all the results of that. I am healthier and more balanced when cooking, making and not chained to a electronic task maker. While I enjoy these incredibly busy months for me from October -December, I also know it takes me away from my simple pleasures of just that: cooking, taking photos, reading, hand-crafting. Hence the reasons why I struggle every year if I should continue down this path. But, I’m learning for me that the ebb and flow is good for me, as long as I incorporate the ebb and try to conscientiously stay balanced (a very slippery slope).

    Lately, I have been noticing everywhere I go people looking at their tiny phone screens instead of connecting with each other. I am a believer in changing this lifestyle and have been trying to work on it, but it is tough for me, especially when so much of my art is driven and completed by a computer. Weird and definitely an over reliance on my part.

    Love you and your thoughtfulness. I want people to embrace and understand the level of your commitment to handmade. You have a unique and unwavering ethic that is to be celebrated.

  3. oami powers

    Thank you Michelle, I was really moved when I read your comment. Part of what I was trying to get at, and what I think resonates with what you are saying, is that, though there is no going back, the way forward will need to acknowledge and honor our nature as human beings, which is in large part a PHYSICAL nature. We spend so much time thinking that I think we sometimes lose the understanding that our bodies were made to move, to build, to fashion. And then of course there is the pride in accomplishing a concrete task. We just feel better when we do these things, both physically and mentally. Technology can free us from the burden of heavy labor, of exhausting work, as long as it’s in balance with the material.

  4. Ursula

    Can’t wait to check out PBS series with your god child Oami. She’s so hands on, draws every day now.
    Great recommendations..
    Any pics of market collections ?

    • oami powers

      Oh, that’s a great idea, she’ll love it. One of the new ones has a woman who makes shoes…can’t wait to watch it!!!

      I just bought a camera, so it’s on my schedule to photograph the newer pieces in the next couple of weeks. I think you’ve seen most of it, with the exception of some new bags….

  5. betty

    Nice post Oami. This subject encompasses so many issues… I just want to say thank you for the videos. I watched them all, and particularly enjoyed the Scott Avett linocut one. I’ll have to check out the PBS series.

    • oami powers

      Thanks Betty! I’m glad you enjoyed the videos. You’ll love the PBS series, I’m sure. And yes, there is definitely more to write about the topic, this is but a corner of it.

  6. ruchapowers

    What a gorgeous way to start my day today, coffee and muffin (handmade!! ha ha) and a little film festival on the genius of creativity and human hands. Thank you!! Of course I teared up, and I L.O.V.E what Michelle had to say about the changing focus on our world (to our screens) and about your passion and commitment. She’s totally right on!

  7. Norman Ross Powers

    This has been a full week, and I’m looking foreward to finally checking out the video resources here. Your topic, though, is so juicy and everything you’ve said about it seems completely correct and important. We are who we are because we’ve MADE ourselves this way by MAKING the world we inhabit. It’s part of our genetic fabric. And, right, the urge to fashion physical things could be better acknowledged as an essence of humanness and co-equal to that other powerful human skill, the ability to create worlds with thought alone. Hurrray, for Michell’s celebration of “your commitment to handmade….and unwavering ethic.”


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