When I enter most art museums, I walk past the Chagalls and Rodins, down the stairs, around the corner and look for a nondescript doorway with the words “Decorative Arts” scrawled across the top. I know I won’t find paintings, sculptures, or world-famous artist’s signatures within, yet I linger. I linger because it’s here I find art made, not simply for viewing, but for eating off of, living in, walking across and using: copper teapots, stained-glass light fixtures, entire rooms transported from historic houses and sometimes an art deco vacuum cleaner thrown in for good measure. It’s the creators of these types of handcrafted items that writer Walt Harrington celebrates and illuminates in his book, “Acts of Creation: America’s Finest Hand Craftsmen at Work.”
In this collection of profiles — originally run as a series in This Old House magazine — Harrington examines the best of the best. Included are a wood-floor artisan who quotes Wordsworth, a locksmith who’s part Sherlock Holmes, part cat burglar, and a wheelwright who compares the feeling of finishing a water wheel to what Mozart must have felt upon finishing a symphony.
Harrington — a proponent of intimate journalism — records not simply what people do, but how they feel and think; their motivations, victories and defeats. His profile of Sam Maloof — a king among woodworkers — focuses primarily on Maloof’s relationship with his wife, Freda, and, in doing so, reveals more about the man than any examination of his woods, tools and design talents might have. At one point, Maloof says, “To be a fine craftsman … you must first be a good person.”
Many of those profiled are torch bearers for once-glorious, but now dying, crafts: Ornamental plasterers, blacksmiths, stonemasons and locksmiths. All are impassioned, many are broke. One craftsman explains, “If you’re not obsessive, you won’t be a craftsman. It’s the difference between being a believer and being a fanatic.” And as you work your way through the book, you know he’s right.
There are a few distracting elements. Harrington, at times, attempts to explain in words some visually unexplainable activity. And photos — there are exactly zero — would have gone a long way toward helping the reader envision the artisans and the remarkable artifacts they create. But these flaws are easily set aside. Harrington knows how to turn a sentence. In describing the shop of coppersmith Larry Stearns, he writes, “Giant sheets of salmon pink copper, with reflective surfaces that make tall, thin men look short and squat, go boi-yoi-yoiing as they are moved from storage to workbench.” It’s a book worth reading for the prose alone. The author — a craftsman in the art of words — has created a work worth examining.
Spike Carlsen lives and writes in Stillwater, Minnesota. His latest book is “The Backyard Homestead Book of Building Projects.”