Article by Astoria Jellett
True to Newton’s third law, every movement has its countermovement. In the digital age this has precipitated a trend toward everything physical, natural, human. Supposedly we’re getting even more sensitive to touch thanks to our smartphones. We see it manifest in design in the forms of hand lettering and specialty craft goods, from manual brew coffee to crochet socks. Sometimes we may even see it in a spinning top.
Collin Garrity is a woodworker who makes largely interactive pieces: spinning tops, ornaments, jewelry, lamp bases, furniture, bowls, anything to touch and hold. Woodworking has infinite potential. You can make anything, Garrity says, and there are dozens of ways to get the same result. But while he could easily churn out an assembly line of one-size-fits-all wood bowls, it’s what comes out of the wood itself that defines each object.
“Each piece responds differently to the same chisel, the shapes will vary even if I fight it, and that is exciting,” he says. “The ones with mistakes seem special and I usually like them more than the rest.”
But rather than make individual pieces meant to stand (or spin or hang) alone, he makes whole collections - and each collection feels like a series of paintings, separate but conjunctive. Unlike paintings, what ties them together is their tactility and a subtle demand for attention.
“Sometimes I’ll see well-dressed grandparents start spinning my tops and then look around, a little embarrassed, and keep spinning them,” Garrity says. “People will spin a top and then stand there looking at it, waiting gently and without impatience for it to fall; and in that moment they will think about whatever they like, in a literal way, they will think about whatever they like thinking about.”
It’s the tension of watching something defy your expectations: you know the top will fall, but it just keeps spinning, and you want it to, as long as possible. “I strive to make objects that defy expectations,” Garrity says. “Bowls that you want to pick up and hold, when the purpose of a bowl is, loosely, so that you don’t have to hold things… adult [jewelry] inspired by the toys we once played with.”
But woodworking has a steep learning curve. Learn to make a spoon and that’s pretty much all you can do. If you want to make a bowl, you’re back to square one. It’s a craft you have to pursue patiently and persistently, with plenty of that most popular of P words: practice. It’s a kind of discipline and humility most of us abandoned in the nineties, along with scrunchies and phones with real buttons.
“Our generation tends to take the first painting we do and frame it," Garrity says. (Maybe because our parents wouldn’t let us fail.) “Whereas old masters would paint the canvas white again, paint a picture, paint it white, and repeat.” Wax on, wax off. No wonder Etsy crafts and handsewn clothes are so in vogue: the truly high quality ones are damn rare now. At least we can still buy it with the click of a button.
“There are a lot of stores and websites that have started selling the ‘Maker’ and their story along with the product,” he says. It’s not just about the mastery, but the story of how the master got there. Garrity started woodworking because of a part-time job in his college woodshop (while he was studying poetry), but for every fifteen hours on the clock he’d spend twenty on his own projects. Graphic designer Karen Cheng went viral in 2013 with a video of herself learning to dance in one year; the reason it was so popular, she wrote, was because she included all her screwups along the way.
Instant gratification rules. No, really, it’s awesome. But as Cheng pointed out, “what you don’t see is the thousands of hours of preparation. You don’t see the self doubt, the lost sleep, the lonely nights spent working. You don’t see the moment [that person] started. The moment they were just like you, wondering how they could ever be good.”
We make myths about geniuses like Mozart composing whole symphonies instantly in their minds, or Michelangelo painting the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling, solo. A lot of us are still stuck on these romantic notions of mastery as something innate and as instant as ramen, but it feels like a copout, an excuse for those of us who weren’t “born with it.” The rest will just have to get Maybelline. And apply that shit every day.
“I think people have a tourist’s or even a voyeur’s relationship with good, honest work,” Garrity says. For every ten seconds someone stares in wonder at one of his spinning tops, he’s in his woodshop for hours, perfecting his craft.