Josh Vogel makes beautiful wooden spoons, and in The Artful Wooden Spoon: How to Make Exquisite Keepsakes for the Kitchen he explains how he does it. But the book tells more than the type of tools and carving technique that Vogel uses; it also reveals the pith of his philosophy as an accomplished craftsperson. In the mode of Thoreau’s Walden, Vogel’s Artful Wooden Spoon tells why craft – the act of creative making – is meaningful: Carving a spoon connects us to the natural environment, to each other and ourselves. The maker becomes a link in the continuum of creation. Craft demands both a physical and spiritual engagement, and most important of all, it’s fun.
No Luddite, Vogel writes that “Efficiency is a big part of the equation.” He places spoonmaking in the biggest context possible, noting that “Within the bigger picture, part of each of our responsibilities is to become the catalyst for change ourselves, and to become the vehicle for a larger creative energy.”
Recently published by Chronicle Books, The Artful Wooden Spoon is lavishly illustrated by Seth and Kendra Smoot’s photographs of Vogel’s spoons, none of which are alike. Shortly after starting the Black Creek Mercantile & Trading Company with his partner, Kelly Zaneto, five years ago, Vogel decided to make a spoon each day for a year – a departure from the turned bowls and balls, some of them striking abstract forms, that initially were the basis of his business.
Some of the spoons were sold at March, a store in San Francisco, where they were discovered by an editor at Chronicle Books, also based in San Francisco; the company subsequently approached Vogel about writing a book. The Artful Wooden Spoon is for sale in local bookstores, and an installation of spoons from the book will be exhibited at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz in February.
Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently spoke to Vogel in the Black Creek Mercantile & Trading Company shop, located in a light-filled industrial space in Kingston:
What was your reaction when Chronicle Books approached you?
Since writing is difficult for me, I said no. But Kelly said, “Are you crazy?” I wasn’t comfortable with the whole thing. She said, “You need to think about this and pitch something you are interested in.” At first I thought I would treat the book conceptually: I’m going to make an array of spoons out of an array of materials and an array of processes, which we’d document with photography.
Chronicle wanted to push a lifestyle-type book. The editor and I had a great conversation about how a huge part of this book is this notion of craft and what that’s all about. To me, a lot of the core of that is: There’s this shared experience we have, and that act of sharing is important. So I loosened up to do some component of the how-to.
What prompted you to make spoons?
I started out with furnituremaking, then opened up this studio to do sculptural woodworking. I was doing turnings and abstract work when I started getting obsessed about the notion of toolmaking and wood sculpture as a reductive process. I tried to capitalize on what wood does best, which led to this series of sculptural kitchen tools. I could see doing a whole bunch more spoons, since there’s no end to this shape, and so I made a spoon a day.
As a craftsperson, I’m drawn to the language of shape or form: that you can learn a shape, learn how to make a shape, then play with the basic language.
What’s interesting about the form of spoons?
The categorization is interesting: Is it a spoon or a scoop? Or when is it so big it’s a shovel? With two points it becomes a fork. You can drill a hole in a spoon and it still works. Only once did the store send one back because it was too radical; maybe it was a two-headed spoon.
For me, craft is the notion that things can have a soul: That’s what I’m trying to get at. If you make that spoon yourself, it has such a deeper personal connection than if you just bought it. It doesn’t have to be a spoon; it could be a well-composed letter.
The Artful Wooden Spoon is a how-to book, but it’s useful even if you don’t intend to make a spoon.
Step by step, I’m trying to describe the arc of the thought process. It begins with “Going with the Grain,” to “Destruction and Creation,” “Movement and Balance,” to “Innovation and Tradition.” I’m trying to do a different type of step-by-step. The lesson of going with the grain is the process of this knife-whittling, but it’s also a metaphor that carries through without me having to belabor it.
In the “Destruction and Creation” section you make the observation that there’s always a moment when everything is going wrong – when you realize you’ve destroyed a perfectly good branch – before the spoon has appeared. You also observe that “You are a failure only if you quit.” You suggest that in those moments of chaos and doubt, it’s imperative that one continue.
One bit of advice I have for anyone creating is learning to stick with it. As I was telling the guys in the shop the other day, for anything I do creatively, there’s a little voice in my head that says, “You have screwed it up and something is wrong.” In that moment of transformation, you’re aware you’re destroying a branch; but then you realize you’re creating something new. When you recognize the spoon, it’s a magic moment. Many people get very frustrated and stop when it’s still a stick, which is on the wrong side of the scale.
Your last chapter is titled “Innovation and Tradition.” How are the two connected when it comes to craft?
I’m not a purist; a lot of folks get really stuck on hand tools. For almost everything we do, we are using some kind of tool. It’s how we employ these and to what end we employ them that’s more of the question.
You read this online, that spoonmaking or carving is a traditional idea that has to be done a certain way. But it’s more about your economy of energy. The Shakers are an awesome example. In retrospect, their lifestyle is viewed as quite spare and romantic, but from their perspective it was progressive. They were creating the machinery to create a table saw to make cutting shingles for the roof more efficient. The washing machine is a Shaker invention because they were doing a colossal amount of laundry. You can think backwards to how wonderful all these handcrafted wood implements of the Shakers are, but they had a totally different idea of that.
I’m a person who seeks balance in everything, which isn’t to say it’s got to be square; if it’s going to be an oblong, then you need something at the end that supports the weight.
Was the book difficult to write?
Initially it was like pulling teeth, because writing is such a different creative process for me. I started writing the book in longhand. The editor helped me with the Table of Contents, which was the outline. That helped organize the disparate thoughts. I planned to dictate to Kelly and she was going to type it, but I ended up learning word processing and typed it on a computer. My brain is nonlinear, so being able to cut and paste on the computer helped a ton.
I wrote everything inside of six months. The pictures were done first, so I could write to the image.
So are you thinking about another book?
Three-fourths of the way through writing this, I went from never wanting to do this again to having all these great ideas for books. We went to a book-signing in San Francisco last month and finally met the Chronicle people for the first time. I suggested another idea, which I’m keeping on the back burner. There was a chapter of this book that got cut that was devoted to truisms, and it seems like they cut it because they might want me to develop that into another book.
Do you worry about revealing your trade secrets in your detailed descriptions of three ways to make a wooden spoon?
People say, “Why share all your secrets?” But I don’t own them. You can give the same recipe to two different cooks and get two different dishes. Why be so protective? It’s just spoons; I’m not divulging any secrets about our business.
Was it hard spending time out of the shop on the book?
It was a fun project. It got me out of the shop in a way I would not have done previously. In retrospect, it was a totally healthy challenge for someone who likes to be buried in dust most of the time. It was good to be out talking about ideas, and having discussions with people out of the shop publicly was really enriching for me.
Black Creek Mercantile & Trading Company is located at 32 Cedar Street in Kingston. For information, call (917) 797-1903 or visit www.blackcreekmt.com.