One week ago I sat at a table at my reception for my friend, starting a Masters in Architectural History at the University of Washington. To my left was a woman in her mid-40s, a practicing architect, well established in the world and returning for a degree in Architectural Preservation. After some introduction she asked me what I did for work.
I love this question.
“I’m an artist.”
I watched her calculate, find a way to relate, saw her settle, “Ah! My sister is an artist… she doesn’t make much money. Good thing her husband does!”
I smiled and looked her in the eye.
“That’s nice. In my household, I am both the husband and the wife.”
Nervous laughter and we turned away.
It’s true that I am a self-supporting, unpartnered 26 year old artist and builder, but my quip ran deeper than feminist economics. I am a non-binary trans person.
I came out as trans and became skilled and economically sufficient in my work in the same six month period. The two are not unrelated.
One week before the reception I was in a car, driving west from Chicago, moving my friend. We were driving through the Dakotas when I picked up a book I had ordered through Chicago Public Library and looked forward to reading, ‘Shop Class as Soul Craft’ by Matthew Crawford. I read ten pages and then threw it behind my seat.
“I can’t read this!”
Sam looked up from the road. “Oh yeah?”
“He literally says, in this book that he wrote himself, ‘While most of the people in this book just so happen to be men….’” My suspicion that Crawford saw little place for women in craft was confirmed when he waxed endlessly about how learning a craft turned a boy into a man and exclusively used men not only as his “real people” examples but also as his imaginary ones (With one notable exception--- a passage where he described a musician learning competence by “submitting” to a teacher. That imaginary person just so happened to a she.) But even a broken clock is right twice a day, and Crawford did score at least once-- when he casually mentioned that women would “probably” benefit just as much as, if not more than men from learning a craft.
To be born into modern intellectual capitalism is to be born into dissociation. Crawford knows this. A thing he doesn’t know: to be born in a body that is assigned femaleness is to be born doubly dissociated. To be trans: triple it.
Our bodies are not own. We have to run so far from them in our heads to survive them. I spent twenty five years living in a five inch by five inch space at the top of my head. The rest of me was terra incognita.
Learning a craft is the opposite of running from your body. In learning a craft you learn to embrace yourself. You have to. There is no alternative, no other path. Craft is learned through repetition, mistake, forgiveness, awareness. You have to learn every tip of your fingers, every bend of your spine. If you do not have an ideally able body, you have to learn the rest extra well. You have to learn how to tip your toe just right to lift the slab your back never could. You have to learn how to adjust a world of spinning deadly tools to your exact needs.
Craft is physical made material. When you achieve it, you cannot be erased. When you can manipulate your materials, you can manipulate your world. You are embodied. You are real.
One week before I threw Crawfords book to the back of the car I was at a high end craft fair, selling my work. It was the end of the weekend. I was tired, happy, two beers in.
A customer wandered into my booth with a friend. They looked around. They were impressed. They were also a little drunk. They wanted to talk.
“Wow,” she said, “This is so amazing.”
“Thanks. I make it all myself, here in Chicago.”
“Wow.” Again, I watched her think. “I’m sorry, I know this is rude. Can I ask you a question? Are you a boy or a girl? I know this is rude.”
I smiled and looked her in the eye.
“It’s okay. I understand why you are asking that. Thank you for asking kindly. The answer is complicated,” I said. And then I explained.
She listened. How could she not? She was receiving me on my own terms, through the work I choose to make, the material embodiment of my physical experience, my emotional heritage. My position required her respect, engendered her understanding. There is little room for animosity when you are standing in front of someone's soul in the form of a table. It is too real.
My skill is not just my livelihood, my therapy. It is the force behind everything I say.
Every confidence I have comes from my ability to manipulate my tools and my body to make valuable forms from rough material and thin air.
One week before the craft fair I was in my workshop, in the basement of my Chicago brownstone, surrounded by earth, rock, plaster, 150 year old wood.
I was wearing a t-shirt and running shorts. I was working hard and I was hot.
I did what every sweaty over-heated man at work has done since the beginning of shirts-- I took off my shirt--- but I did this with the full weight of my past, the full weight of not being a man at work, nor a woman, but someone else altogether.
Shoulders, chest, back, stomach free, I shaped my forms. Mallet met chisel. Bandsaw hummed. I made objects, I made worlds, I made money, I made a self. For a few hours, gender was over.
In the six months since I came out and started woodworking full time my body has changed. I have forgotten what it was supposed to be. I have celebrated what it has become. In my shop and in my work I am the husband and the wife, the provider and the provided, the ideator and the executor. I am design and build. I am money and art. I am the duality made whole. I am so dirty, dusty, hot, but I am clean, and I can smile and look you in the eye.