Apr 06

I Make, Therefore I Am by Gillian Montegrande

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There are many things we can say about the failings and ills of our society, but the most worrying are
the apathy and abstinence from positive and proactive input from certain sectors. Many have
become spectators of life rather than participants; television for example, in the form of reality
shows creates confusion between fame and achievement and because of its accessible nature and
selective (edited) exposure of facts, gives the false impression that such things are easily gained
without the investment of learning, effort or struggle. As a result viewers, particularly but not
exclusively the young, find themselves disconnected and struggling to find a purpose in a world that
does not match their expectations.

What to do?

While there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution there are, in my opinion, things that can be done to
provide these people once more with a sense of doing, being and purpose; to feel that their
existence is justified just.

What better way to show evidence of our existence and identity (apart from creating children), than
to leave behind a tangible object created by hand?

Today the media is full to bursting, of programmes and articles dedicated to the tangible handmade
achievements of the past, such as the Antiques Road Show, Victorian/Edwardian Farm and most
recently, Handmade in Britain (to name but a few), where experts extol the virtues of craftsmen and
craftsmanship. They talk about the detail, the design, the skill, the workmanship and the fact that
many of these items are still in working use, literally hundreds of years later.

These antique objects and artefacts were as a result of ‘skilled manual labour’ the bi product of
which was being usefully occupied. There was a time when the term ‘manual labour’ meant and
(maybe in some eyes) still does mean today, demeaning, soulless work. However, we have forgotten
(or choose to ignore) that manual labour, although sometimes hard, was also associated with an
honest day’s work and more often than not there was something tangible to show for the efforts
expended at the end of the day. In that time, it is possible, even likely, that when such a person put
their head on the pillow at night, tired and aching, they did not realise the significance and
importance of their exertions and maybe would not have been aware that they were satisfying an
innate need to be manually as well as mentally occupied.

Today, not only is very little built to last but also few people expect things to last, in their constant search for ‘the next thing’, this ‘have it all and having it now’ approach has been of no help and indeed has caused the financial mess the planet now finds itself in.

Nevertheless, there are some who are fully aware of the significance of such noble exertions, which I
repeat; we celebrate on a regular basis. Manual occupation is still one of the best ways to satisfy this primeval need and that there is nothing wrong in going to bed tired and aching, knowing that the
day has been used to its full with something to show at the end of it. Some have become obsessed
with jumping the gun, to get to the destination without going on the journey, let alone enjoying it!
The concept of physical struggle is now perceived as bad, to the extent that we are desperately
trying to eliminate it (in the western world at least), to our cost. The advancement of human
knowledge and discovery has done much to improve the plight of humanity but it has also done
much to take away the privilege of physical occupation and endeavour. Many children, from
underprivileged and privileged backgrounds alike, with their parents’ blessing are very ready, to
replace hands-on experiences, with virtual ones; the gaming industry was worth $105 billion in
August 2010.

But physical exertion, endeavour, struggle even, is still to this day, necessary in every human life.
When that is not present, an emotional as well as physical vacuum is created, which as we all know,
must be filled. Are our lives any “easier” today? I doubt it. We’ve simply replaced physical struggle
with mental anxiety.

Art, Craft and Manual Production satisfy that need on every level.

When making, a process is gone-through, which uses pretty much all of our faculties:
Desire and/or need; concept; design; sourcing of materials; establishing the strengths and
weaknesses of both material and maker and then through trial, error and ingenuity working with or
around those attributes and limitations, to finally be confronted with something that is real, knowing
that so much of oneself has gone into the very fibre of the work.

But there are obstacles in the form of modern-day fears and insecurities that currently pervade
every aspect of modern life which is so readily passed on to our children. They are no longer allowed
or encouraged to go out, to discover the world around them, in order that they might take risks, to
discover how things work, how they themselves work and how the two work together. They no
longer have the opportunity or are encouraged (as previous generations were) to find discarded raw
materials such as pieces of wood or old bicycle parts, to transform into go-carts or wooden boats,
that really do work. Making is as much a way of discovering how they work as how the world around
them works. We need to restore this human right to them and making – structured or otherwise, can
do that.

Using our hands to create things of beauty, use or both; using the raw materials we find around us,
where a battle of wills ensues between maker and material, grappling and tussling with that
material, until a truce – a compromise and understanding is achieved and something beautiful
emerges. It is this struggle that helps define us as human beings and we need this affirmation, pretty
much on a daily basis, to keep us sane and healthy.

If we know this then why can making not become once more an integral part of our society and the
way we (parents and teachers) teach our children? What happened to Woodwork, Metalwork,
Needlework, Home Economics in the classroom? The old adage, “The only way to learn how to do
something is to do it” has never been more true. It is in the classroom and at home where we need
to start again, showing little children that those appendages called hands have a direct link to the
wellbeing of their mind and psyche as well as their sense of place and belonging. Today, a three year
old child has far more idea of what to do with a computer game controller than he does with
Plasticine, Playdoh, Lego or Crayons. I fear that the prophetic vision depicted in the (ironically)
computer-generated animation Wall-E, is much closer than we think!

If such a vision is to be believed, then we may be further down that path than is comfortable to
admit. I would argue that the recent inner city riots have been carried out by people who have come
to believe that there is no point in having a go at anything because it “won’t work” or at least they
have not been shown that it could. Some of us know it can work and that trying is part of the fun,
adventure and fulfilment. These unfortunate people are afraid to take the risk of discovering how to
do something that may or may not have a positive outcome, but from which they can learn and
improve. Instead they do something, which achieves instant gratification with the least effort and
ironically they feel more secure in doing because they are sure of the outcome. You throw a brick
through a window; you know what’s going to happen! But that is all that is ever going to happen- no
wonder frustration and violence are never far away. With making, there is always new territory to be
discovered, in the skill and in oneself.

If we could only pass on to others that sense of achievement and what it feels like to stare upon the
tangible and positive result of one’s own useful endeavours, then it will go at least some way to
improving the lot of individuals who currently have no hope.

Gillian Montegrande

Founder of Made by Hands of Britain

  • Cathrine,

    You stated “What better way to show evidence of our existence and identity (apart from creating children), than
    to leave behind a tangible object created by hand?” It brings to mind two of my favorite quotes.

    1. Considered the cornerstone of the Arts & Crafts movement, John Ruskin wrote, “When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us…(and it) will be held sacred because our hands have touched (it), and that men will say, as they look upon the labor…’See! This our father did for us.'”

    2. Adapted from “MORNINGSIDE”
    Written by Neil Diamond, 1972 Prophet Music, Inc. (ASCAP)

    He left a table made of nails and pride. And with his hands,
    he carved these words inside, ‘For my children’.

    And the legs were shaped with his hands, and the top made of oaken wood.
    And the children that sat around his great table touched it with their laughter.
    Ah, and that was good, for I recall the words an old man signed,

    ‘For my children’

  • What you say is so true and also so very sad! As a child I was constantly making things – very often from the things I found around me – I remember gathering some sheeps wool on a country walk, spinning it on a pencil stuck in a lump of plasticine, knitting it into a little dolls blanket and then dying it with beetroot juice! I’ve tried to bring up my children to be creative, I’ve surrounded them with materials and got them numerous craft books from the library for inspiration but sadly the lure of the computer screen has always been greater!

  • I, you and any one with any sense knows and agrees with what you are saying. When you step out as a graduate, there should be a pre-arranged apprenticeship organized in industry, where learning a skill continues into an employable future and for those leaving school, the services should be compulsory, where you learn to graft and develop skills to live by.

    I teach children as young as 6 about art, looking at different cultures and learning about how different artists’ live and can make a difference through art. They will not all want to be artists when they grow up, but they are learning you have to have multiple skills to get on and live by in this world.

  • Dear Gillian,

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I’m going to pass this on to everyone I know.

    Thank you,

    Sylvia Generales