Monday, November 21, 2011

Reflections on Craftsmanship

Travis Sheridan, Associate AIA (my photo)

One of the highlights of the 2011 AIA-SWO Craftsmanship Awards event last Wednesday was the keynote speech delivered by Travis Sheridan, Associate AIA. I don’t know Travis at all as he is a relative newcomer to Eugene and AIA-Southwestern Oregon. I do know that he works with Will Dixon, AIA and that Will speaks highly of Travis’ passion for architecture. This passion was evident as Travis addressed the Craftsmanship Awards gathering.

The following is a transcript of Travis’ insightful speech. He first thanks John Lawless, AIA for introducing him and then offers his reflections on the meaning of craftsmanship:  

Thanks, John for that gracious introduction. Thank you to all of our sponsors and the Ford Alumni Center.

And thank all of you for attending the 2011 Craftsmanship Awards this evening. What a wonderful event to honor some of this region’s outstanding men and women. Each of you truly earned your place here tonight. As John mentioned, I’ve been asked by the Southwestern Oregon chapter of the American Institute of Architects to present a few words reflecting on craftsmanship.

When I first began thinking about what I would say here tonight, I found myself repeatedly asking a very basic question, “What is a craftsman?” We all probably have different ideas of what one is and what one does. Surely, as we can see tonight, there is a wide array of people who fill the shoes of craftsman. So, I decided to start at the beginning, with the word “craft.” I find that reflecting on that word alone can open oneself to reflections on one’s own practice.

My understanding of craft relates to one’s ability to plan and build, both of which require authenticity. The words dexterity and ingenuity are both used to define craft. Dexterity, curiously enough, stems from the spatial relationship of the body to the hand—the right hand of mankind—an almost righteous or holy shield protecting all that is good. To be dexterous is to possess such skills of the hand indispensible to our cultural and physical survival. Your touch in turn touches the hearts and minds of others, reaching well beyond your physical grasp. Ingenuity describes a freeborn status of the will, a high-minded cleverness at inventing things, especially of a curious or unexpected nature. Ingenuity is also frank and candid, qualities so often overlooked. The honest ability inside each of us is what truly inspires people, and we fulfill our needs for expression by placing faith in the truly gifted. Both dexterity and ingenuity exhibit a quality of universalism. That is to say you can be born anywhere or to anyone and still, no matter the circumstance, the calling is within you. Not everyone is called and not everyone who is called answers.

All of you here being honored tonight for your craftsmanship have been recognized by colleagues in the trade—folks who depend greatly on you and your contributions. It is no simple task to create our physical world. The vitality of your role in that development is unquestionable. Like myself, I’m sure that each and every day you aspire to improve upon that world. But time creates circumstances that prove difficult to follow, and keeping ahead more difficult still. With all aspects of human existence experiencing exponential growth, one can easily become lost. Living and growing in our system also has its share of disadvantages with perplexing and, at times, absurd challenges. So to rise above all of that and produce an ever-improving body of work is a remarkable achievement. If my experiences thus far in our shared professions have shown me at least one thing, it would be that good work is actually not at all too hard to come by, but great work is.

As I looked deeper into the definition of craft I was surprised to find at the root of the Oxford description were three words: strength, power, and force. This seems to suggest that it is not necessarily what you craft, but most importantly how you craft. And how you create can be far-reaching into people’s lives, laying unquantifiable positive impact upon the community at large. Most of you here have never met me before tonight, yet my skills are measured against the power of your achievements. The force of your conviction has instilled itself into my sense of identity and duty and I can draw upon the strength of your character for inspiration and resolve.

Exploring this exercise further, imagine if you can a society without individuals of high-mindedness such as yourselves. We would still produce artifacts I’m sure, since we all need to eat, but I could not imagine any tools lasting long or working well. Nor could I foresee any spaces that provided function, beauty or even adequate shelter. Quite literally, craftsmanship, being above “well enough” saves humankind from utter infrastructure failure.

Never insignificant, your work does more than inspire, it provides real solutions to people’s everyday lives. This cannot be understated. How you do anything is how you do everything. The requirements and pressures placed on each of you every day are astonishing. You’re faced with a googolplex of details from the tedium to the sublime. You can roll with all the punches, like keeping track of the changing design intentions of a project, compiling effective building schedules, understanding code changes, researching and testing new materials, satisfying practical domestic needs, deciding which color produces a deeper spiritual introspection. And endless questions: What happens when the clients change their minds? Will this hold up in the rain? Is this material strong enough? When can I pay for all of this? How long will it take to build? In the end of all the discussion, the built environment exists because you stand up to take on the noble role of craftsman.

I share these reflections on craftsmanship with the hope of reflecting back to you the honorably straight-forward nature of what you do as craftsmen. Through your strength you influence those like me who follow in your footsteps, striving to be better and to search out higher standards. To soak in more beauty, to live and make living better: by you I am affected immeasurably, and so is our design community.

Thank you again for the work you do. May that work continue to provide us with yet another chance to experience superb craftsmanship.

Presented by Travis Sheridan   ©Sirideon
16 November 2011

2011 AIA-SWO Craftsmanship Awards at the Ford Alumni Center (photo by Jenna Fribley, AIA)

Thank you Travis for your articulate tribute to those who dedicate their working lives to giving material shape to our designs. You spoke on behalf of all AIA-SWO members who truly appreciate and recognize fine craftsmanship. I look forward to hearing more from you on matters related to design, architecture, building, and community.

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