Stories that Live in the Present

The recession challenged people in Wisconsin and across the nation.  As the recovery continues, so does the discussion about work, education, what makes a good life, and how to create strong communities, as well as a strong state and nation. Read stories that explore the meaning and experience of work today, and the challenges and opportunities that we face.

Vital Skills: Learning a Trade
and Crafting a Life

April Stone-Dahl weaving a black ash basket. Photo by Bob Gross.

If you look at a list of businesses from any town before World War I, you will find blacksmiths, small foundries, harness and saddlery shops, printers, shoemakers, milliners and tailors, coopers, and furniture makers. Go back another fifty years and the lists include basket makers, potters, and broom-makers.

Today, an internet search on any of the above would reveal a small number of people who are mastering traditional skills. Who are these skilled craftspeople? What markets are they serving?

An exhibition in 2012 called “Vital Skills” celebrated the commitment and mastery of artists and artisans who are preserving craft traditions like harness-making, decoy carving, papermaking, weaving, and knife making. The exhibition, as well as public events that brought together the diverse people who are choosing this work, were funded in part with a grant from the WHC. 

Working in a Local Economy

“These traditional skills may play an important role in creating local communities…”

The curator of the exhibition, Jody Clowes, explains her interest in the subject: “[The project] addresses many of the things I value most —respect for traditional wisdom, the dignity of work, and the intricate dance between hand and mind—as well as my belief that these traditional skills may play an important role in creating local communities with the resilience to weather an uncertain future.”

Clowes remembers when she first noted that almost everything she owned was imported. It made her nervous to think what would happen if the stores from which she stocked her life closed. “It bothered me to find that almost none of [my things] were still made close by. When did that change?”

Work as Identity and Lifestyle

Some of us can guess at a trade in our lineage through our family name. Before public schools, it was common for parents to teach their children the skills needed to continue the family trade. These skills were developed by many individuals over generations. Yet the accumulated knowledge and experience of the people who mastered them has, to a degree, been lost. Today, those who choose such trades are doing so quite deliberately.

“The loss of craft technique can be compared to the extinction of a language or a species.”

“The loss of craft technique can be compared to the extinction of a language or a species,” writes Clowes. “After a few generations, subtleties and sensitivities that were common parlance in traditional workshops can be devilishly difficult to rediscover. Weekend workshops and YouTube videos can be useful tools, but they are no substitute for learning right alongside someone who can sense the perfect consistency for paper pulp or the right moment to strike hot iron.”

For some who are choosing this way of working today, it represents a balanced relationship between body and mind, and between materials and tools. Without idealizing the past, Clowes feels that those who are able to find a “niche” market for this work today are benefiting from “a way of life, one that offered powerfully tangible rewards to significant numbers of people.”

Photo: Bob Gross. April Stone-Dahl (Odanah) weaving a black ash basket.