David Esterly* studied philosophy at Harvard and Cambridge before the trajectory of his life changed and he became a professional limewood carver. In his book, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making, Esterly describes a challenging year at Hampton Court where he had been hired—an American no less—to repair the fire-damaged wood carvings of the 17th century master carver Grinling Gibbons.
Esterly is thoughtful and well schooled in classical thought. He is also a champion for a kind of art making that comes into existence through making. In one chapter, “The Thinking of the Body” he bemoans how few sculptors are hands on with their art. “What self-respecting sculptor makes his own work these days?” he asks. In our Anglo-American world, the two most successful sculptors are Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, both famous for being as far from the personal and the hand made as possible.
The beauty of handiwork no longer is part of the work’s meaning…Skill is worse than unnecessary. It sends out the wrong signals. Often as not it’s a term of condescension among contemporary art critics. The adjective “mere” attaches to it like a barnacle. Skill is the folk costume donned by sculpture when it leaves the world of thought and wit and irony and descends to craft. The only craft should be in the craftiness of the conceit. Art is ideas, and ideas reside in the brain. The rest is simply execution. in fact, having someone else do it for you preserves your purity.
Meanwhile Esterly is delving deep into Gibbons’ work so that he can recreate and reconstruct the ornamental brilliance of these exquisite carvings. He looks carefully and closely so that he can understand every gesture and turn that Gibbons enacted. As a result, Esterly approached his task with a very different intent.
There’s no waiting, then, for the muse to descend…Inspiration is for amatuers, somebody once said. The creativity is incremental, not divorced from the making. You invent while you make. You work in the churn of the moment, and the forms seem to determine their own shape. You think with your hands.
Esterly often pulls in from one of his favorite poets. (“Yeats and Blake and Thomas Traherne, three among many poets and painters who report feelings of oceanic oneness…If you perceive a work of art intensely enough, its sea will flow in your veins.”) As is often the case for me, Esterly finds parallels in his experience as a visual artist with poetic expression.
What is this consciousness, evoked by painting or sculpture, or poetry or music, or even a painterly landscape? It’s the thinking of the body, says Yeats, smelling the salt air when he read of Odysseus, feeling a tingle in the soles of his feet when he saw the Winged Victory. But isn’t the thinking of the body an almost perfect definition of skill? Is’t it what happens, not when you’re experiencing art, but when you’re creating it?
Esterly then offers an insight into the connectivity between making and viewing, one that resonates with my experience as well:
The viewer’s consciousness repeats the maker’s. This is the ancient secret of art’s power, the crux of the matter, the hidden valley where the roads come together. The work of art and the work of art transport you to the same charmed place. One phrase can encompass the making of art and the enjoyment of it, because the bedrock of both is the same baffling sensation of mind and body melting together, of outside as inside, of seeing as making.
*One earlier Slow Muse post mentions Esterly and his book: Your Own Way of Looking At Things.