REVIEW: 'Why We Make Things and Why It Matters,' by Peter Korn

  • Article by: SPIKE CARLSEN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2014 - 4:14 PM

Part memoir, part philosophical inquiry, Peter Korn’s book takes a fresh look at the arts and artisans around us, and within us.

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A hand carved decoy made in Minnesota.

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A painting by Marc Chagall, a concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach, a vase thrown by the potter down the block — what’s the glue that binds these artifacts and artisans together? Peter Korn maintains that it’s not the creators’ quest for fame, fortune or even self-expression. “None of us enter our studios because the world desperately requires another painting or symphony or chair,” muses Korn, master craftsman and founder of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. “The simple truth is that people who engage in creative practice go into the studio first and foremost because they expect to emerge from the other end of the creative gantlet as different people.”

Your first instinct may be to roll your eyes a bit; let’s not get too highfalutin about sawdust and clay here. But Korn has something to say to us whether our creative practice is woodworking, cooking or playing the fiddle, whether our “studio” is an artist’s loft or a basement corner, whether we “make things” as a professional or as a hobbyist. He constructs the argument that making things helps us both express and understand ourselves, that the best scenario is when we don’t just create a mirror, but when we then use that mirror to reflect upon who we are and what we might become.

Korn uses 40 years of woodworking experience as his touchstone. He explains: “My own values became clear when I eventually realized that the words I used to describe my aesthetic goals as a furniture maker — integrity, simplicity and grace — also described the person I sought to grow into through the practice of craftsmanship.”

He explores design, mental mapping and the notion that three-dimensional arts differ from writing or music in that they engage all the senses and provide immediate feedback. He uses events ranging from his battles with Hodgkin’s disease to a mugging on a Mexican beach to elucidate his points. At the same time, Korn reminds us that self-awareness is no guarantee of happiness; his story of an encounter with the legendary — and very inebriated — potter Peter Voulkas is both hilarious and poignant.

The book is part memoir, part philosophic inquiry and part woodworking manual. In the last few pages, Korn leads us down a path only the most ardent readers will follow, but the bulk of the book is crafted like a fine rocking chair. It challenges us to look both inward and outward. It champions the idea that working with one’s hands can foster perseverance, focus and patience — qualities that spill into other aspects of our lives. And in an era when shop classes are disappearing, and art classes are among the first to be cut, the book reminds us that if we want whole people, we need to educate and respect head, heart and hands.

 

Spike Carlsen writes and makes things in Stillwater. His latest book, “The Backyard Homestead Book of Building Projects,” will be published in March by Storey Publishing.

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  • “Why We Make Things and Why it Matters,” by Peter Korn

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    By: Peter Korn. • Publisher: David R. Godine, 180 pages, $24.95.

    Review: Korn examines how art and creative practice help us not only express ourselves, but become the people we want to be.

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