"Maker Crush" interview by 7 Ton Co.

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7 Ton Design and Letterpress Co. has interviewed me as part of their "Maker Crush" blog series. Here is an example of the many nice things they had to say:

"Mastering a skill takes persistence, dedication, and loyalty - It's a game of endurance and constant learning. Mastering many skills is not something most of us even imagine as a possibility. So, when we met Wheeler Munroe, who has proven to be a master of many trades, we were in awe. She is a diamond in the rough and we can't sing her praises loud enough."

I had a lot to say as well about my ideas, trials and path as a maker. To check out the rest, follow the link below.    

Also, 7 Ton made this gorgeous new maple syrup label which will be going out into the world with our upcoming, 2016 maple harvest.

A thank you note to Pam, Clyde, Martha & Greg.

I had the privilege of spending my last two years of high school at the School of the Arts in Winston Salem, NC studying visual arts (now UNCSA). In retrospect, I don’t know how my art teachers, Pam, Clyde, Martha, and Greg managed to do what they did. I of course, as a 15, 16, 17 year old, was the most important and talented person in the universe and already know most of everything.Those teachers fought the good fight, carving into my youthful idiocy, extracting and exposing talents and abilities that I didn’t know were there. I loathed some assignments because they were so demanding as to seem impossible. I haughtily skipped through others, finding them overly simple and below my obvious and extraordinary talents. Mostly I relished being there in an environment where creativity, craftsmanship, and personal excellence were daily goals, taken seriously. This was precious, in it’s high contrast to the perniciously dull and underwhelming education I waded through in my rural Appalachian upbringing.

The majority of the art assignments at UNCSA revolved around basic exercises in design, drawing and sculpture; draw what you see in front of you, make a perfect cone and cube from paper, pencil an even value scale from white to black, demonstrate a focal point. Though these types of assignments at the time, seemed like distractions from making REAL art, I now, these 15 (what?!) years later, see these as among some of the most important things I ever learned in school. As fundamentals, they still relate and resonate in everything that I do.

I recently sifted through my portfolio from that time and came across a color theory assignment where with paint, we mixed value scales of the tints, tones, and shades of 12 pure hues. I worked hard at that assignment, and did an alright job of mixing my paint within orderly, gridded sections. Once done with the painting, I hurriedly cut out the color swatches and mounted them on foam board. I was deeply appalled when the the grade on the assignment came back with a big ugly minus attached to the A. Pam circled the minus and pointed it to a handwritten note telling me that my color mixing was fine, but that my craftsmanship was lacking in the way that I had cut and mounted the bits of paper; wormy cut-edges and bits of layout marks and finger smudges remaining. In my eminent wisdom, I was sure that Pam was being too harsh and that everyone (i.e. me) was looking at the paint and not the craftsmanship. I now see that that criticism was the one of the first rays of light that broke through to me in the dawning of my eye for craftsmanship. Up until that point, I honestly couldn’t see the difference.  I was blind to that level of detail. I couldn’t see it, so it didn’t matter, so I how could I have made it any differently?

I have since developed a keen eye for fair lines, spacial relationships, and exacting craftsmanship. When I look at that color theory assignment now, I just have to laugh. My craftsmanship sucked and I didn’t even know it. I now marvel at the resiliency of those teachers who spent their careers on the front lines of teenage ignorance, unworldliness, and stupidity, working tirelessly to hammer in not just information, but truly some of the finer points of the world, shedding light on the inner dimensions and expanse of our human abilities. Some people will go their whole lives without ever being able to spot something that is a sixteenth of an inch off.  To Pam, Clyde, Greg, and to Martha up in heaven, Thank You. You taught me how to see.

Planned Obsolescence

I just moved recently. I've moved five times in the past three years.  Each move was a move in the right direction, and each was graciously a little less hellish than the last, however I don't plan on moving again any time soon. In 2004 I made my first big move out into the world to California when all my worldly possessions fit easily into the trunk of my car. Now, despite having a cargo van, I find myself renting bigger and bigger moving trucks just to get the job done. 

As a maker, tools and materials are everything; machines, power tools, hand tools, work tables, storage cabinets, leather, wood, fabric, and flammable liquids. We amass.....mass. And with all of these things, we make more things, and for what?

During this last move I went to the dump to offload accumulated detritus, and  Ho-ly Shit. I've long felt that everyone who eats meat should slaughter and butcher and animal in order to get in touch with where meat comes from. I now add to the list that everyone who creates trash needs to go to the dump and take a good long look at where trash goes. So many materials. So much waste. So many things that failed to be worthwhile. So much mass. There were mountains, truly mountains of trash.

So many things are made, only to be thrown away.

From a business perspective, it's easy as a maker to view my position as futile in the face of mass production. It is cheaper for people to buy a new couch than it is to have a old one reupholstered. It is WAY cheaper to buy furniture at Ikea than to buy handmade from a craftsman, and yes, cheaper tool belts can be found at your local big-box hardware store. But all of these cheaper, mass produced things are truly made to be thrown away and bought again, and again, and again. With low quality materials that will crumble and peal, rip, crack, go out of style, and fail, we do ourselves, our environment, and future generations of antique-ers no favors when we buy in to planned obsolescence. 

As I move through the world collecting, using, making, keeping, and discarding things, I now keep in mind the physiognomy of the landfill, and the grandiose waste that we all take part in.

When I make things, it is with a desire to create things that are worthwhile. Worthwhile for the enjoyment of the passing moment within the making, and worthwhile in that the end result is an object that enhances the daily experience through its use and presence, something that is worth holding on to because it is a pleasure to have and use, and that will not only endure its use but warm and improve with age.

 

To Teach is to Listen

 photo by David Welter

photo by David Welter

In the summer of 2014 I had my first two teaching experiences. My ice breaker was teaching a five day summer class in upholstery at the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking School in Fort Bragg, CA, followed by just a half day cameo introducing power tools as part of a five day,  Ladies Basic Carpentry class through Wild Abundance in Asheville, NC.

For me, to learn is a very introverted thing. I am listening to everything around me- not just listening with my ears, but listening with my eyes, my hands, my heart.

My fear in teaching was that I would fail my students by not knowing enough about my topic; that my job was to be this bottomless fount of facts and that I would inevitably fall short. I was also concerned that I would have to do a complete personality flip and take all my quiet listening and introversion and flip it around into being some flamboyant extrovert in order to get my lesson plan across. I was wrong.

Although my voice ached at the end of each day from so much talking, I found that I was "listening" harder than ever and that the thing that all makers learn to do is to "listen". Exchanging facts is important to learning, but as a maker I listen to every situation. I try to "hear" all facets of the complexities around me. In the circumstance of upholstery I am listening to my materials, balancing the aesthetic and physical tensions amongst them. When I am teaching I am listening to the struggles and triumphs of my students, to the questions that are asked, and to the questions that go unasked yet need answering.

I was self conscious in my entry into teaching upholstery because I am entirely self-taught in that skill set. Yet as I engage in all my varied topics as a maker, upholstery, woodworking, leather, farming, and now teaching, I am continually discovering the total sameness that underlies these topics. To learn and grow in one area is to expand in all other areas. I fully credit my time studying fine woodworking at CR for my ability as an upholsterer because I learned about process and how to set sight on something complex, see it for its many parts, and work those pieces carefully, attentively, and in the right order to an end goal.

Source: WheelerMunroe.com

Endurance

By some great convergence that is beyond my reckoning, yet also the result of my greatest export of will and wahoo, I find myself farming maple syrup in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Never have I ever thrown everything I've got so completely into a project, which is saying a lot. I'm am not bashful when it comes to throwing myself into my work.

I ran cross country in high school and I discovered something then that I continue to realize more fully as a maker. I call it the "runners mind". It could be called a lot of things, or maybe have no name at all but still be known to you. Distance running can be rather entrancing; the cadence of footfalls and breath cycling together. Some runners may race one another, but I found that I was only racing myself, balancing the reach of my muscles with the expanse of my breath, and above all, endlessly hurling my will at the two, digging, digging, digging deeper.  Endurance. The runner's mind is that place where everything else in the world is gone except for the work that is being done.

This can be a blissful place when all is right and the work is good. This can be an intense place when you are trying to cross a finish line. This can be a wildly frustrating place when the goal continually pushes at the edge of your reach and ability. This can be a scary place when you push too hard and something is broken.  This can be a deeply satisfying place when a hard won goal is met, the body stronger, the mind wiser, the heart full.

Never have I ever run a race so hard as I did in the 2014 sugar season, pushing against my own borders in every direction. Reaching for something that is so much bigger than me. It started with moving to the mountains alone; wild and remote. Then buying my first chainsaw, building my body on the steep north facing slopes, hanging on to this roaring little beast that would just as willingly saw a log in half as my leg. I tensioned wires through the woods to suspend pipes for sap collection. I split fence posts from great locust logs and dug holes 2.5 feet deep to plant them in. I cut, split and stacked many cords of firewood. As winter bore down, sap season fast approaching, and all the work unfinished, I pushed myself to work outside in temperatures that sometimes dipped down in the single digits. And when the woods were ready and sap ran I, with my father, boiled over 4,000 gallons of sap down into just 69 gallons of pure maple syrup.

As I cultivate endurance as a maker I find that I am working to hold runner's mind both within my day-to-day hustles, and within the greater goals that will not be met in a day or even a year.  Endeavoring to live within that sweet spot where work might bring enjoyment and satisfaction in each moment and day, as it feeds in to the bigger picture of dreams that fill a life. I don't always get right or keep things balanced as they should be. Endurance and runner's mind seem to be found in the tension between giving "it" all you've got,  yet holding enough of "it" back so that you don't run yourself out. I am proud of the what I accomplished in the 2014 season, but I plan to ease the pace in years to come so that the rhythm is sustainable. I pushed so hard that I almost pushed myself out all together.

 

Tailored

This original dress represents a long process of designing and making. It started with constructing a dress form from raw materials. 

To make the dress form, I first (with help of course) cast my torso in plastered gauze to create a shell of my torso to use as reference. I then made a simple plywood frame onto which I bound wadded newspaper with twine, building up a form that was close to the shape of my body.

I then drafted a very basic dress pattern in my size, sewed it in canvas,  and put it on my own body. I next  made repeated alterations to this simple body suit so that it closely and snugly fit my the contours and shape of my body. Once this body suit was fitting me like a glove, I then zipped it onto the dress form, and did the final stuffing of the form to evenly fill out the shape of the body suit. 

Once the dress form was correctly shaped, I was then able to drape the pattern for this dress rather easily. Its the first clothing I've made in years, and I was delighted by how easily the task was accomplished. The process of its making was informed by the skills that I have gained through furniture making and upholstering. Tailoring fabric to a form is the same whether that form be human or furniture. Designing and planning the construction of a three dimensional object, cutting out its parts, and then joining them together is in essence the same, be the materials wood, fabric or otherwise.

Maker's Risk

While studying fine woodworking abroad in Sweden, I had a classmate who was in his first year of study. We were all beginners in the scale of things, but this fellow was starting from a particularly naive place. He had produced a handsome little marquetry piece that was going to become a simple serving tray. He used veneers that were quite thin, maybe 1/32 of an inch.  He had joined the veneers and glued them to a substrate, but was tentative about moving forward to the next phase, sanding and finishing.  He approached a cluster of classmates that I was amongst and asked,

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“What do you do if you sand through the veneers?”

We told him, “You don’t.”

He then said, “Yeah, but, what if you do?”

And we again emphasized “You just don’t.”

He had accomplished something important by joining those veneers, but was afraid to move forward for fear of losing the ground that he had just gained, the work that he had just done. He had made something fine, and in it, now had something fine to loose. But to stop there, to not complete the tray for fear of sanding through the veneers, would be a greater failure than to have never joined the veneers at all.

 This paralysis, this doubt, this inability to move forward for fear of messing up what hasn’t even been done yet, is an old ‘friend’ of mine, one that I’d rather not keep around.

 Being artists, being makers, we must continuously, continuously confront the fact that we might totally screw it all up at any moment. We could pour blood, sweat and tears into a piece, and when it is done, it might be really ugly, or not work right. Or, maybe we could be sailing along making something that is truly perfect and resonant, only to drop our scissors, or make a bad cut, or spill our coffee, and ruin what we have worked so hard to create. 

 It is a brave thing to be an artist. The deeper we go, the farther we reach, the more we invest of ourselves, the higher the stakes, and the more we have to loose.

 And yet, all this chance for failure really only serves to highlight our brilliant and resilient ability to succeed, when we hold our dreams and our visions high in our hearts. If we succumb to our fears of failure, give in to the paralysis, we will travel little within ourselves and never really know what we are capable of.

Consistently Inconsistent

I am awed by flawless craftsmanship. I look for and expect it in craft. Yet I find that too much allegiance to perfection yields lifelessness. My eye is always searching for signs of struggle when I evaluate fine craft. It is an indication that the craftsperson is not in command of some fundamental aspect of what it is they are trying to accomplish.  The path of the artist is to dig ever deeper, and when this is done truly, signs of struggle become harder and harder to spot. What begins as struggle and sloppiness, evolves into process, and can become the voice, and source of beauty and personal expression in that artist's work.

I am constantly surfing the aesthetic boundary between craftsmanship that is absolutely clean and true, and yet holds life and character by being consistently inconsistent- perfectly imperfect.

This ottoman was designed and built by a friend, for his sweetheart, as a surprise gift. The piece is constructed from red oak salvaged from pallets. He requested my artistic license in upholstering the cushion. I enjoyed the chance to play around. I've been quilting in monochrome in my creative upholstery for some time now, enjoying the repetitive lines, patterns, and texture that it creates. I took this process a step farther this time, continuing to draw from traditional quilting themes, by topstitching the pieced fabric. I really like the added dimension and life that was brought into play. The top stitched arcs were all done free-hand.....consistently inconsistent.

Handmade Ottoman

This ottoman was commissioned by a couple who I respect and admire as some of the finest craftspeople I know.  He is a woodworker without who's tutelage I would still be sinking lag bolts into logs, thinking my work was fancy, and she ranks among the finest of quilters. They have each  in their own ways held torches that have illuminated my path as a maker. This ottoman is also a continuation of a design theme that I've been hung on for several years now.

Florence

The Florence Thomas Art School has recently moved to a new location in the old Ray Hardware building in West Jefferson, NC. Its a beautiful space with worn and polished wooden floors, a hammered tin ceiling, and lots of natural light. With one big open room for the school, they commissioned me to make these large curtains creating the option of privacy between classroom and gallery. Check out their class schedule. This is a real gem in The High Country.

These curtains were an interesting challenge because of the large scale that I was working on. Careful attention was given to cutting square with the grain of the fabric and having then tension set just so on my sewing machines. There is a fine balance that must be found between the weight of the fabric, the gauge of the needle, the type of thread being used, and the tension between top and bottom threads. I take the time to sew test samples with machine and materials every time I start a new project. One can often get away with mediocre set-up on a machine when sewing short or curved seams, but poor set-up shows on long, straight seams, especially when those seams are hanging, as is the case with these curtains. I used french seams, top-stitched for flatness, to join the gray panels. That meant three passes on the sewing machine for every one seam.

The most exciting part of this project was setting the 2" grommets. I had to buy a special set of tools for setting these large grommets, and when it came to hammering them together, I was whaling on them with a rubber mallet, full force.