Art and Craft

I love this guy.

He was a clock repairman, a lathe operator, a Golden Gloves boxer, and somewhere in there, he was a short order cook at a diner in New Hampshire. His name was Spider Osgood.

Watching this video of him cook is a thing of beauty, like watching ballet with eggs and sausage. His speed is what’s impressive. Most people couldn’t cook and move that fast if you had a gun to their heads. Spider whistles while he does it. That’s how he got the name: he moved so quickly at the grill it was like he had 8 hands at once.

If I ever tried anything like that, I’d be typing these words with 9 fingers, rest assured.

Now we think of cooking as a craft. Being a short-order cook is a job. It’s a trade if you want to get technical. But looking at Spider’s performance – and it is a performance – it becomes difficult to separate craft of cooking with the art of what he’s doing. Night after night, Spider did his job with such artistry that he was famous throughout the Northeast. How can we not call what he’s doing art on some level?

When we think of art, we usually define it by media, like drawing, painting, sculpture, etc., things you might hang and admire quietly. When we think of craft, we usually think of something tangible and practical, like skilled trades. In our minds, they are separate things.

But this is not how we should think of them. A better understanding would recognize that craft, in fact, leads to art.

When you see a piece of art, what you’re looking at is a bunch of little actions. You can think of a painting as an assemblage of brush strokes, a thousand little acts that can coalesce into art. The little things – the brush strokes, if you will – these things are craft.

This hypothetical painting is art insofar as it inspires an emotional reaction. That, at its core, is what art is: something that inspires an emotional reaction in a person. Our jobs would ideally provide us with opportunities to create art in this mold.

Though there are jobs that afford no chance to make art in this way, I’d posit most do. Those chances only come, however, when you master the craft of any job. Doing this is not easy; it takes time, effort, and most important, it takes a craftsman’s mentality.

This mentality is easy to see when you delve into how great art is made. You always see a person who not only did all the little things, but committed to doing them well. That’s true for any art, from a brilliant sculpture to a piece of amazing furniture.

The chair in the link above was made in the Stickley workshop in upstate New York. You can bet the person that made it wasn’t thinking about passion, or even art when they did. They were thinking about making the joinery fit properly, or sanding the wood correctly, or choosing a stain with care so that it brings out the natural grain of the wood. Art happens when all these little actions are performed with care and understanding.

However, when we are tasked with trying to find work or a career, all we focus on is ourselves, our passions in particular.

Cal Newport, the writer of So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, describes this as the ‘Passion Hypothesis:’ the idea that a person should follow their passions and make those passions into a career. Rather than focusing on what they bring to any job, a person focuses on what a job brings to them in terms of happiness, fulfillment and challenge.

This is problematic because passion is a nebulous thing, and offers little clarity to what one should be doing day to day. Most people couldn’t tell you what their passion is, let alone understand how it should dictate their actions. But everyday, a person can bring all they can to their work, and do the little things well. That’s how craftsman’s mentality affords focus, and it is how art actually gets made.

Spider is a sterling example of that. He didn’t spend every shift thinking about how he would affect the world, or how his job was fulfilling. He went in, did it to the best of his ability, and by doing so, developed his work into art.

If you want to do things that inspire people, that make them talk and think, you need to focus on the little things rather than the big. You need to focus on the craft of what you’re trying to do, rather than yourself.

The great thing is that all people have the opportunity to do this. That’s why we need this definition of art and craft: it allows us to understand how what art is, how it is made through craft, and how one might aspire to it. When we do, we find ourselves greatly enriched.

Even Spider, as a short order cook, enjoyed his work to the point where he doesn’t even think of it as such. He enjoyed it because he’s creating art every time he steps behind the counter.

As Spider himself said: “You concentrate on the food; that’s the thing that you’re working with.”

We are all working with something.

Whatever that is, we should make art with it.

[Kyle Flak contributed the definition of art I used in this article. Thanks, Kyle!]

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