I’m not a procrastinator by nature, but there are certain questions I’ve tried to avoid. Those are the deep down ones that you know you’ll need to answer sooner or later. It’s similar to the feeling you might have gotten in high school when you hadn’t read the assigned text and avoided eye contact, keeping your eyes focused on your desktop in hopes you wouldn’t get called on.

My moment came in 2015 when I was stepping down as director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, after holding that position for over twenty-five years. On that occasion, I was asked to be on Maine Public Radio’s call-in program Maine Calling to be interviewed about my tenure. The question that I had avoided answering for all those years was: “What is craft?” which among potters, weavers, jewelers, painters, sculptors, and others is a never-ending debate. Sometimes it’s related to economics. Other times to social hierarchies. The answer is elusive and the conversation always seems to go around and around. I’ve often thought the best solution is to call everyone a maker and then you’ve got it covered.

Of course there’s nothing like a deadline to clarify your thinking, and the answer came to me after my sixty-mile drive from Deer Isle to Bangor when I was walking from the parking lot to the radio station. Sure enough, the host, Jenifer Rooks, asked me what craft was, and I was ready with my answer. I said that it’s a combination of skill, knowledge, and intuition. It made sense to me in that on-air moment and it still makes sense to me now.

To make something you need to know how to do it. How to hold your hands, your hammer, your brush, so that you can create shape and form. And you need the knowledge of your chosen material; you need to understand its physical properties—sense what it can and can’t do. You need to learn what people have done before you, the questions they’ve asked, the traditions they’ve made or followed or changed. I think all makers feel this passage of information from generation to generation. It’s a way that our ancestors travel inside us. With practice and time, skill and knowledge enter your body. You can begin to know them without conscious thinking.

Then comes the third part, intuition. Intuition is the place where our work comes to life, becomes animated. Intuition is intertwined with imagination. Whether we find it or it finds us, it is always there, but you need some skill and knowledge to recognize it. Where does it live? Deep inside us. I’m sure it’s a place that neuro-scientists will find someday. If we were to give it a location, we might say that it comes rising up from somewhere. Or, we might say that it comes to us out of the blue, wherever that blue is, like the blue of the ocean or the sky, some immense undifferentiated space where we go beyond ourselves. Sometimes we can go within ourselves and beyond ourselves at the same time.

We search for the right word for the poem, the right line for the drawing, the right proportion of the pot, the right note in the song. We search for what needs to be there. It arrives to take its place and suddenly the work is alive in a way we hadn’t expected. I was going to write that it arrives unbidden, but that’s not true, because whenever we call on our intuition, we have asked for something unconsciously.

There are days—in fact most days right nowwhen it feels as if chaos and turmoil are everywhere. When I begin to write, it gives me some hope or courage to think that a response may come from a deeper place that holds both us and those who have gone before us.


Image at top: Stuart Kestenbaum, Stamping, detail of desk work surface.