"Long White Cloud" Part 1 - Aotearoa - New Zealand
Kia ora koutou,
Greetings and hello. As you can see my spoon carving has taken me to far and away lands. I’m teaching my craft, and to do that right you need to learn new languages and dance. So far I can say hello in Māori. Off to a good start.
Where do all stories start? This one started last January on a typically gloomy grey afternoon in London at Nicky’s flat. I was into my usual morning routine of brewing really dark coffee, and finding my kuksa hidden somewhere under last evening’s wood shavings. Then I usually check my business emails, and check in on the day. I got a message from Juliet Arnott who is the founder of Rekindle in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Necessary Traditions Festival, and also gave a great TedTalk presentation. She wanted to invite me to this far off land where sloyd is new, and the trees are fresh.
“Rekindle creates opportunities for resourcefulness.”
She’s bought some of my work in the past, and really supports what I’m doing. She wanted someone to cohost the event with a similar drive, cause, or mission. It’s not just about making things, the focus is not on making a product. It’s really more about living life, how and why. This festival which is the first of it’s kind in the country, which got me really excited as it’s been one of my goals since I first started carving to bridge a lot of gaps I see in the carving world. I’d see other makers in other countries and wonder what makes them tick. I could also sense something was happening here. I wanted to go where things were happening.
Back when I became a road sloyder I didn’t see a whole of people really traveling far and wide to share their skills. The United States itself is almost the size of Europe, which can explain a bit. People stuck to their regions for the most part. Perhaps due to many reasons like the economy, popularity of DIY/Handcrafts, popularity of spoon carving, and things seemed to happen very regionally, even in the United States. I had an idea in my head, and obsessed over it for a long time. Cross pollination has always come to mind. So this whole plan started back in 2014 when I headed to the midwest to visit the closest professional carvers I knew in Minnesota. A far leap from New York being 1500 miles.
But now that I’ve been doing that for a while, it was time to expand a bit. So I was off to the Long White Cloud. It was November 2018 which is now some time in the past.
If you don’t know the history about Christchurch, in recent history they had a devastating earthquake which has left the city in a constant state of flux and rebuilding. There are buildings in town that still have giant gaping holes in them. It’s like something out of a movie. Of course you have to go looking for these as cities are always in constant motion and life goes on. But the constant reminder is there.
Juliet and her husband Greg’s philosophy is something I really connected with during my couple of weeks there. The idea of utilizing the natural surroundings with your hands to transform those raw materials into beautiful and utilitarian objects is part of what I consider my slöjd code. But I’ve always lived near forests where you can easily harvest any supplies I need, and this is a major city. I never really thought of transplanting myself somewhere where there is all this rubble, and debris from buildings and houses within reach and could be repurposed. Empty lots that no one has bothered to rebuild on, and so on. I see so much opportunity here, and I’ve noticed the main theme from talking to as many people as I could is that, there are still emotional tremors lingering about. Which is understandable, but some people seem to be stuck in that mode of thinking. Rekindle’s mission is looking forward and up. They started a little green woodworking school in this beautiful old gothic revival building, which was part of Canterbury College called the Art’s Center in the middle of town. You can make wooden chairs, spoons, turn bowls, weave baskets and now kuksas.
But I see a very common thread with craft being able to weave together a community and be some sort of grounding force for people to heal themselves by using their hands. This is something I was asked to come and talk about, in front of 200-300 people to kick off the festival. Which I’ll talk about a bit more later.
Rekindle reminded me a bit of the Greenwood Guild in London which is run by my good friends Barn the Spoon, Tim and Tom. Writing this, Im now recognizing how grateful and lucky I am to have worked hard enough in my own craft where it’s helped get me to a place where I can go the extra mile in the journey to connect and build relationships with other people that are in the same boat. There is a feeling of togetherness here.
When I landed in New Zealand, Juliet picked me up. I left Minnesota in late October. There were 50mph windstorms, it was already starting to snow. After about 30 hours of flying, I was in Kiwi land it was spring time. What a mind warp!
It’s funny when you travel and meet so many strangers. It’s really nice how people will come to pick you up from the airport. But when you land in a foreign country your and cell phone doesn’t work, how do you know where to go, or how do you spot a Juliet in the wilds of a big airport? I chuckled thinking she might have one of those little signs with my name on it. I was just in Australia the week before teaching and I was greeted at the airport by Pauly and his lovely wife Rachel with one of those signs! Mission accomplished, I could go home now. Also if you’re a bit confused I’m telling my story in reverse, because the muse struck and I’ll tell the story about Australia in another installment.
Just a side note before we carry on with the story.. I wanted to address something I seem to have got some flack for a handful of times. Three years ago it was my first time at Spoonfest in England. I’ll admit it was flattering to have been introduced to two or three hundred people as “The Kuksa King” by my friend Barn (The Spoon) who founded the festival. Sometimes recognition feels great and often it’s needed during your journey.
It was really flattering, and personally I’ve always had tons of respect for the great things Barn has done for the spoon world. So if he thinks that, then that makes me really happy, and I think he’s a king too, but perhaps king has different meanings? More on this in a bit.
I don’t really believe in kings or other ideas of a supreme ruler. But I’ve never called myself the kuksa king, nor can I identify as anything related to royalty. I’m one of the youngest green wood working teachers or practitioners, and I just do my thing. Traveling has been so great for me. To understand the world better, to understand myself better, and learning how to adapt to different lives. Believe it or not, I have even got flack about the traveling, usually something along the lines of “Must be nice..” as if things are just handed to you, but sadly it’s not that way, it’s what most of us call work.
The jet set, run around life looks like a rock n’ roll fantasy tour to some but I can relate it more to train hopping hobos. You work enough to pay for food and fare, then move on. I identify more with the nomad, or the gypsy carvers. Poor in the wallet, wealthy with knowledge and stories. Peasant carvers have been my biggest inspiration. King means a much different thing to gypsy’s as Barn has told me about in a recent coffee fueled conversation at his spoon shop on Hackey Road in London. I thought this subject was worth mentioning as I find this interesting and I rarely stop to reflect about myself and my situation at all. Plus I’ve heard it’s brought up some mixed feelings from other makers or people who know my work out there who got the wrong idea. Which I guess can happen from time to time since most interactions involve the dreaded social media, and in rare cases, things can get strange.
So a crowned king? ..no.. Unless you consider my Stetson - wool wide brim hat a crown. I will wear the drifters crown anyday. Well it’s an open crown if you follow hat history which I’ll admit that I’m obsessed with.
Is this really how scattered my thoughts are? Back on target kåsa man..
I landed in New Zealand and I spotted a woman with chestnut brown hair carrying a big woven basket. This must be her.
Turns out that was a welcome gift from me. It’s harakeke which is part of a Māori basket weaving tradition using flax leaves. Beth Homa, you are going to dig these weavers!
We had so much to talk about. I felt like I’ve known her for a very long time, and those connections mean something.
As soon as we got in the car she asked if I mind if we stop at the grocery story on the way back to the farm on the outskirts of town. I think she was surprised to find out that it’s one of my rituals when I travel. First thing you do is head to the grocery store. People are nice, you get to get your bearings straight, and you get to see if there are any goodies that you can’t find back at home.
I always go for the local craft beer, interesting vegetables, and some sort of dry cured meat. After I stacked up my rations, Juliet said “oh by the way, you’re going to be on national radio tomorrow.”
These are the kinds of things I like to get into. I’ve learned a long time ago to learn when to go with the flow. When you get in tune, great things will happen.
Years ago one of my great friends and mentors Del Stubbs who owns Pinewood Forge told me about his travels to New Zealand when I stayed at his place in Northern Minnesota a couple years ago. We must’ve talked about it for hours late into the night. He talked about that type of magic this place has, and how great the people really are. It has a lot to do with being open and looking for the right signs I guess. Connections happened to him there, things that were just too good to be true. He had some amazing stories really.. the kind that blow your mind.
So I said I’d do the radio gig if I could bring my tools in the studio and carve live on the air. Which they were totally cool with. If some of you have been reading my ramblings for a long time, you’ll remember me talking about my Treen Revolution philosophy. Kind’ve a playful idea of us sloydsters infiltrating modern society, saving humanity one spoon at a time.
Here is a link to their website, read a little snippet and below you can listen to the interview.
The radio gig was actually a lot of fun. I think I spread my message well, and also gave some plugs to friends who run other festivals in the world. The Milan Spoon Gathering in The United States along with Greenwood Fest, Spoonfest in England, The Great Scottish Spoonhoolie, Spoon Jam in Australia, and now Necessary Traditions Festival in New Zealand. For me, the whole idea since the beginning has been that traveling and teaching is a way of spreading the good word, for the good of the growing greenwood community. Dusting off this almost forgotten past of making things with your hands. Sometimes things can get competitive in the business, which it still feels weird to call it! But I just try my best to steer the other way and find calmer waters. I have a different thought on sharing, and helping each other out. The more of us doing this thing the better, and I’ve learned it’s much harder to do it alone. Plus, who doesn’t want to go to a radio station in a city, with an axe, cup, and some funny banter?
It was a neat experience and something I will tinker around with more in the future.
Now that I’m traveling so much, I am learning so much about how to smoothen the journey. If you don’t travel this much, there is a lot to learn! What not to pack, to have cash and a cellphone sim card ready when you land, how to dress. My suitcase is my home and my workshop..it’s a bit weird, but I plan on writing about this. I should make a travel guide book for the person wanting to become the weary road worn sloyder.
Im finding out more and more that I need some proper chill time to get my head adjusted to where I am, what’s happening, and my mission. I flew all the way across the world. What time is it? Am I tired? It’s often hard to tell.
I spent a lot of quality time back at the farm while the big festival was being set up. Company was kept with the infamous Pip the Dog! I see him a lot on Juliet’s instagram page, and turns out Pip is a swell guy that chases possums all night, rain or shine. Muddy paws, full sprint. He lives the good life.
Traveling is such a trip. So many things happen that you would’ve never thought about. Just sitting on the farm carving, cooking, listening to all the new kinds of birds, different smells in the air. Walks through the orchard where Gregg was experimenting with tree grafts, or picking fresh treats from the garden. I really connected with them and their home. We’d sit by the fireplace all night talking about life, the future, and I can’t wait to return.
An interesting thing about the Australian and New Zealand trip was that I warned them that this was an experiment as I’m bringing a northern craft to a place that’s never really had anything like it that we know of. Will the native trees behave for kuksas? It’s hard enough making a cup that works properly without them cracking to pieces. Kuksas seem to be the punk rock of the carving world. Typically in green woodworking we avoid end grain at all costs, but with cups you are forced to deal with a whole lot of it. Staring at it face to face, just asking it to explode! I felt a bit like an explorer with my students on deck to make this journey together. We carved beautiful cups.
Here are some sound clips I recorded playing an old guitar a great local mandolin maker let me borrow for the week. He was also at the festival. His name is David Simpson and you need to see his work! In the recording you can hear cooking, bacon sizzling, the fireplace cracking, dishes being washed, people working on some crafts, and some Kiwis speaking in strange tongues in and out of the recording. Atmosphere..
I get asked to share some of the sounds I make which I don’t often get to do, but I think the blog is a good spot for these things to live. This would be something great to play while you continue reading.
The beauty of green woodworking is you can take your entire kit anywhere. If there are trees, you’ll find some cobber [new vocab word Greg taught me] sitting under one making a pile of woodchips. After the last two years of non stop traveling and teaching, I had a hard time for a while keeping up with my actual “shop” hours. But there is my problem, I don’t have a shop, I just have a suitcase. So I’ve had to adapt to keep up with my kuksa order demand, and also keep my skills honed. If I’m not carving everyday, I don’t feel positive or productive. Sloyd and craft to me is practicing a way of life. As far as discipline, my health, how meditative carving is for me. I can keep grounded and feel at home no matter where I am in the world. But I also have to make a living, and there are no manuals on how to make a living in craft. Not many of us are doing it as our only means of income.
When I’m teaching I’m not making throw away objects that were carved in a quick simple way just to demonstrate a technique, which I used to do. I carve in real time. Quick, efficient, and I’m making blanks to finish later to fill up my webshop. I had talks with Del about that. He felt it’s really important for students to see you carve in your normal, comfortable flow. So they can really see the whole picture. It’s all about mechanics. How posture, rhythm, and process can really be honed to a quick efficient, and fluid motion. But it’s not easy to just turn that on, when you’re surrounded by people and you’re in a place that’s not your workshop.
I’ve had to change that aspect of my teaching, and make slots of time so students can sit quietly and take notes on my carving when I’m in that state. I used to toss away demo cups as they felt sloppy, or even better, I’d chop them in half at the end to prove a point. When you have to pay attention to ten axe wielding students, talk, keep the atmosphere cozy, and not cut yourself, often the carvings are sub par. So now I’m more focused on carving even better when I’m distracted.
I find that whole demo carving thing is something a lot of other makers can relate to.
It was also really nice to go into town and spend my downtime hanging around Rekindle. I got to know so many awesome artists and crafts people at a very personal level since it was quite the busy week with everyone arriving for the festival.
One evening we had to head into town.
Opening night was a really big deal. I was asked to do a talk called PechaKucha which I’ve done in a more casual setting with my friend Liesl up at North House Folk School in Minnesota. But this was an official one in front of 200-300 people. I don’t normally this type of thing really. When I’d be on stage in the past, it was with a screaming guitar and a band. I could hide behind the strings and decibels easily.
The idea was you have 20 slides, and 20 seconds per slide which ends up being around seven minutes I believe. I didn’t really get nervous until Juliet found me and said there’s someone really special she wants me to meet. It was a Māori elder who came to bless the great hall before the speech. We had a brief discussion and she thanked me for coming from so far away to help make this a special event. Our discussion meant a lot to me, and hit me even more later on that night when I was trying to sleep.
Everyone in the great wooden hall followed her in a line moving throughout the room while she sang. It was beautiful, and powerful all at the same time.
After she blessed this reverb filled hall, and they announced over the PA system they wanted to thank me for being the guest of honor, that’s when a bit of nervousness kicked in. I guess I will never get used to that sort of thing, even though it was a really beautiful thing. I wrote out what I was going to say, but after the first page, I got distracted, decided to drop the pages on the podium and I just improvised. Sometimes you just have to roll with it, and just have a conversation… to a room of 300 people.
I won’t lie, when you have to sitdown and listen to someone go on and on for forty five minutes, using fluffy industry terms, it goes right over my head. A lot of us would just fall asleep.
I guess that is the whole idea about a Pecha Kucha. It was designed by Japanese Architects to avoid all of that. This is more of a chit chat.
It actually turned out really well, and I connected with a lot of deep inner thoughts I’ve had about why I’m doing what I’m doing.
You can see my slides and hear my talk here on the Pecha Kucha page.
My talk was called “Spoon Medicine, Axe Carving, and Slöjd”
The festival was to begin in a couple of days, and I’ll save that portion for the next installment.
What are my thoughts about all of this now that it’s been some time since I left New Zealand?
I didn’t want to listen to the recording for a while, even though I felt I did pretty good. The thought of having to listen to yourself, yuck. But after listening recently, I realized how important story telling is. Kevin Kling who is someone I met up at North House is a professional story teller amongst other things. He gave me wise words about stories and how they are a great bonding glue for communities and people in general. I realize listening to the talk that I sound really vulnerable but also laid back. Life has it’s rocky paths, that we must all tread through, but it’s been an exciting ride.
I wanted to talk about Spoon Medicine, the healing qualities of a craft life. For those that know my story, I know deep down that handcraft has kept me on the right path when time was tough or things got weird. For myself, life after the house burned down was strange times. I know many other people who have their own reasons why craft was a medicine for them. In this age of technological confusion, these things are even more important than ever.
I think in this odd world of social media syndrome (fakery and competition) people aren’t really truly open and honest half the time. I also don’t think most people have malice in mind, it’s just a new trend that seems to have stuck. It just feels like everyone is trying so hard to sell something, coming up with another way to market, or become an “influencer”. It’s like that classic used car salesman stuff. I’m talking specifically about social media in general, as in people that want to be models, companies , and corporations. I’m not aiming at the craft community online although on occasion it happens there. The glittery “Everything is great” perfect looking lifestyle isn’t real. Life isn’t perfect. Period. I think now it’s even more crucial for us to actually communicate, show your humble side, show some vulnerability, show the hurdles and failures.
There is a lot to learn there, and I hope that the right message comes across in my writings. In the age of outrage culture it just seems more and more that people will find any little thing to squabble about, but my message is a positive one, or at least it was intended in writing this. So this is why I have always shared honest and truthful thoughts, images, or films to the world. But believe it or not, with all that said, I’ve had a few grumpy trolls over the past couple of years that can’t just keep some toxic opinions to themselves. As if all of this is some marketing ploy that was all scripted by some hollywood professional marketing firm. To those few that don’t get me, or have even gone ahead to spit some hate or rage at me, just reread what I wrote above. I believe in Sloyd love. Come carve spoons and actually have a conversation with me, and you’d probably change your mind about it all. I think everyone should do great, even if their thing, isn’t my thing.
I have another article almost finished that’s taken a while since it’s really a longterm thing to write about failures in my specific avenue of craft. Cups can break, and they aren’t easy to get right. I’ll get that finished up soon as I have more thoughts and images to produce.
Technology and it’s unprecedented rooting in our daily lives has caused a lot of distress in the world. Of course many good things have come from it, like the digital green woodworking community. But we’re becoming very disconnected as a people, even though we’re virtually connected 24/7. Fred Livesay had an outstanding talk on this a couple years ago at the Milan Spoon Gathering called “Craft and Fruitcake” I hope to film it someday to put on the blog.
Craft for a living?
I only know a handful or two of craft people that actually do make their sole living through handcraft. The plane rides and travel make things look a bit glam, but I’m on a carver’s budget. So, I won’t be going on any vacations, but to be honest, if I did go on vacation, I’d grow bored really fast and I’d be carving anyways! A lot of the time on the road you are roughing it, skipping meals, and sleeping in your truck like the ole rock n roll days. So I wouldn’t be able to travel unless my teaching was paying for it. I can’t lie though, I wouldn’t trade this for a normal job. But it’s certainly not a “normal” job.
Longer hours, it’s physically demanding, I’m my own shipping department, customer service rep, manager, you name it.
Is making a living from craft the thing you should do? It’s often a popular goal for someone just starting out, and I would know because I get a lot of questions about it which is great. I’m always happy to talk to people face to face about it. The general consensus would agree that monetizing something you do for love or relaxation often tarnishes it. Luckily for me I carve everyday no matter what the reason, it’s for love. I also have rituals if you will, on how I keep craft pure for me. But I can see why the daily grind of trying to be a salesman can get old. I’m glad I’m not one of those. Plus as a traveling teacher, I’m starting to see how much this craft is improving people’s lives.
This also this brings up thoughts on that whole hobbyist vs. professional thing that seems to happen from time to time. I don’t think being a '“professional” crafts person should be the ultimate goal when we first start out with carving as a hobby. I think focusing on just being a good craftsperson is all that should matter. Selling or not.. just craft. Good.
I hope that from writing from an open personal level that we all try a bit more to share real talk, get inspired to pick eachother up, promote eachother when we can, and also respect eachother’s work, and designs. It’s not exactly a breeze spending years coming up with your own signature carvings, planning your own courses, having to climb mountains to compete to get into certain schools or festivals, help plan other fests, travel, fell trees in each location, and make it work so you can pay the bills. So I have been doing everything I can to use whatever pull I have to help others. This is why as part of the Milan Spoon Gathering Committee, I invited Jane Mickelboro from France to showcase her folding spoons last year. This year we had Adam Hawker from England to strut his stuff. I love the idea of cross pollinating cultures with craft. It’s not a new idea really, and think about how much more fun it is when it’s a party versus a one man show.
I’ve also been talking to the other folks planning festivals to take a trip and visit eachother. Let’s make it one big sloyd party I say.
Bridging communities can never be a bad thing. Think how much more we can learn, how much faster we can learn it, and also share some laughs.
With all that said, Juliet a month after I left posted this..
I also wanted to take a moment to personally thank Juliet and Greg, and the rest of the Rekindle gang. You guys worked so hard to make some magic happen for this craft community you helped build. So to be a part of it was a huge honor. This festival was a huge undertaking and one of the best I’ve been to. Something really unique was the amount of really talented crafts people and artisans all in one space. Everyone gathers together and sort of creates a tribe. The amount of collaborations I got into on this trip was just amazing.
Juliet and Greg thank you, for inviting me into your home, and sharing this bright shining star you’ve created. I really look forward to what we create together in the future.
On a side note, after this trip I went back to London for a couple months. Then back to Upstate New York where I am now writing this and in a couple days I’m driving 1600 miles back to Minnesota where I was in October when I left. So I’ve successfully traveled around the entire world. What an odd feeling.
You can see my flight paths in the photo below.
The next installment of this story will be in a couple days. The Scottish Spoon Hoolie was a month ago, then a week after was the Milan Spoon Gathering in Minnesota, then a couple weeks after Klipnocky Wood’s gathering in New York last week. Now I’m off to London again for Spoonfest. Hard to believe in October I will come full circle and return to Australia. It’s been quite the journey.
Thanks for reading, and coming along with me for the journey. I’d love to see some discussion in the comments section. I always welcome other’s thoughts.
If you’re interested in taking home one of the kuksas from this trip, there are some in my webshop and a couple below.