A Transformative Conversation With Peter Korn, Part 1
“And because an artist is a man before being an artist, the autonomous world of morality is simply superior to (and more inclusive than) the autonomous world of art. ”
Jacques Maritain, The Responsibility of the Artist
In my last post Learning From An American Marquetry Master, I gave an update on some of Silas Kopf’s recent accomplishments. Since then he completed his marquetry class and fun ukulele workshop – just in time for Duke Kahanamoku’s 125th Birthday (celebrated here by Silas Kopf). Silas wants to teach his skills and inspire the next generation to build on these traditions while reinvigorating them with fresh ideas. As Peter Korn said: “One of the great things about Silas is that he’s not just preserving an art, he’s advancing an art…”
Peter Korn (b. 1951) is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine. Silas Kopf recommended that I read Peter Korn’s book Why We Make Things and Why It Matters. Peter is originally from Pennsylvania, attended the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in history. He moved to the New England area and began his career as a furniture designer-craftsman in 1974. His furniture pieces have been exhibited in American galleries and museums. While working as a staff member at Anderson Ranch in Colorado, he taught alongside Tage Frid, Sam Maloof, Art Carpenter, James Krenov, Alan Peters and other seminal furniture makers of the early studio furniture movement.
Highlights From Interview With Peter Korn
What is the central insight that you got from writing this book?
- The one central realization around which the other ideas of the book developed
When I was in my early thirties and was starting to show in galleries and having to write artist’s statements, I wrote a sentence that brought my emerging ideas into focus: “I want to make furniture that has the qualities of integrity, simplicity, and grace.” A decade later, when I started thinking about things from a different perspective, I realized that the reason I had become a furniture maker had to do with somehow subconsciously imagining that getting good at the craft and practicing it would be a way of cultivating the qualities of integrity, simplicity, and grace within myself.
So I came to see that for me, becoming a craftsman was very much an effort at self-discovery and self-transformation, where you don’t know what the outcome’s going to be, but you go into the studio because you expect to come out somehow different – not just because you expect to come out with a piece of work. That’s my understanding of what art is in the 20th and 21st centuries. Art-making is the process of willfully throwing yourself open to who you are and who you might become; so it’s a way of exploring your own humanity, which then becomes a way of exploring humanity period.
“The critical point, as I began to see it, was that all people who engage in creative, self-expressive work – visual artists, craftspeople, writers, composers and others – participate in the same essential human activity as a woodworker does at the drawing board and the bench. We may make things because we enjoy the process, but our underlying intent, inevitably, is self-transformation.”
Peter Korn, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters
What are some of the other main ideas?
It took a long time to write this book because there were many things I’d assumed about the big picture – how the mind works, what art is – and I found out that a lot of my preconceptions were as wrong as could be.
- That ideas are not just thoughts embedded in and expressed through language For example, the assumption that when we think, it’s with words and language. I discovered that words are one medium with which you can work out ideas, but so is wood, so are our clothes and other tangible elements of material culture. We actually think with many sorts of tools to access the place where thinking takes place in the human mind – our subconscious place – that we have no direct access to and can neither observe nor fathom.
- That we are interconnected by our culture, which flows through all of us like a river of ideas The quality of our thoughts and what we create can contribute positive elements to our mutual human culture. This affect is both immediate and ongoing.
How are these realizations affecting your plans for The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship?
- Empowering new generations of woodworkers and furniture designer-craftsmen As a non-profit institution with a well-articulated philosophy of art, the center for Furniture Craftsmanship is striving to empower new generations of woodworkers and furniture designer-craftsmen with the mental and practical skills required to not just preserve the woodworking and furniture arts, but to advance them well into the 21st century.
- Embracing new techniques and technologies As a school we’re taking the approach that each new technique and technology is one more arrow in the woodworker’s quiver – or several as the case may be – giving you more chances to problem solve in better ways. Relying on one technique or technology isn’t a great idea at all because that’s really quite limiting.