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Ashley Colby
19 May 2022

Producing Culture

On the freedom and responsibility of creation.

Producing Culture

Craft production has never escaped its pretentiously niche reputation. Obtaining a product like this is usually only accessible to wealthier consumers. To be able to produce artisan craft products for a living, at least at this moment in history, is often seen as even more remote, only the province of hobbyists who can afford “not to work.” What happened? For most of human history the work of small-scale craft production was ubiquitous, an informal and mundane fabric woven intimately through everyday life.

American history is littered with examples of craft culture as an antidote to our modern remoteness and passivity. To work with glass, wood, clay, textiles, and metal and to transform those materials into furniture, clothing, or ceramics is a process of creating culture. Relating to raw materials and molding them takes a set of skills that is largely missing in our developed world. It takes stamina and creativity. Getting proficient at producing an artisanal craft requires a kind of mental patience, a flow state. As you work on a material and gain competence with it, something of your consciousness changes, a kind of unbelievable transformation in your ability to make something with your own two hands.

More than the skill, craft production forces a kind of interdependence. One does not best learn the skill of woodworking, for example, completely alone. The ways in which man shapes wood are part of a tradition, and oftentimes these traditions are specific to a place, an ecology. Take the example of British hedgelaying. The specific tool used to cut saplings to lay them over into a hedge is called a billhook. Across the UK, the design of the billhook was made to accommodate the local ecology:

Billhook shapes across their respective geographical locations in England

The most common trees for hedgelaying in the North would be different from the South, and the tool accommodates the needs of the hedgelayer. A co-creation of man and material and the land yielded traditions passed through community.

This is not a dynamic that disappears as we “progress.” It disappears from disuse – and with it, the richness of shared life that supports our formation in the world. The things we create are the substrate out of which our culture grows. We’ve lost a deep understanding of that simple fact while the things created for us to consume are mined, molded and manufactured around the globe far away from our awareness. The pushing away of the responsibility to create has done something to us. A culture whose identity is based on the consumption of the creations of other people, far away, or of machines, is lacking in a drive toward life, toward vitality.

To fill this emptiness, we think we can pump in mere ideas. As if the chasm of culture is just one you can think your way out of! Has there ever been a time in history where people actively, consciously tried to impose a culture on themselves? Can you imagine amidst the crumbling Roman empire, people reflecting, “Well, if we can only usher in a shift in consciousness, then Rome can be saved!” A truly modern brainworm is believing we can think our way out of the emptiness caused by a lack of creative production.

The major cultural shifts of history were a kind of dance with the material world. As major changes in the physical change, so does our relationship to the world, and our understanding of it too. At this moment, we are at such a turning point.

And so we have two major choices: Choice one is to be conscripted into the conspiracy of forces that increasingly outsource the creative, productive work of life to slave laborers around the world and to machines. At the same time, the fragile just-in-time supply chains that keep that system afloat are crumbling. Choice two is to recapture the act of creation – in ways big and small, as both a mitigation against the risks wrought by the other system, and also as a way to re-create a culture that arises from the vitality of creative, material production.

If we want to foment a shift in culture toward the healthy, a connection to ecology and place, and more interdependence, the foundational place to begin is with the personal act of production. Even a simple task like baking bread from a homemade sourdough starter can open up one’s own view of what’s possible, let alone the kind of model you provide for children in a household where simple acts of personal production are the norm. 

Imagine, instead of an escape into the false paradise of ideas, an immersion in a world where little informal craft experiments punctuate our days. Where we look into the well of tradition for advice and guidance and, on the other side, we hold in our hands a warm bun that bears the same taste of the bun our grandmother ate when she was a girl. To craft a table out of wood, peering back into the traditional styles of one’s ancestors, but adding your own creative and practical flair. A table: belonging to a time and a place, but connecting back through times and places in deep history. All of our lives can be imbued with such magic, such meaning.

What culture arises from this? What happens to a generation that learns by osmosis these skills of production? To children who viscerally feel the actuality of their belonging to a tradition, and a connection to people and places past simply through the sewing of a needle through a piece of cloth? What happens to a landscape where place produces beautiful things, handmade by the people of that place? New England cider. Prairie style tables. California pottery. New York stained glass. A renaissance of textile designs and typefaces and quilt patterns. The pattern described here is the pattern of renaissance itself. A culture grows from the substrate of these things we meaningfully produce: with care, in community, of a place.

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