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Some thoughts on tools

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So as you might have gathered from the title, this post falls solidly into the category of “shameless self-promotion…”  But aside from that it is also a good chance for me to talk about tools in general, and the Cool Tools blog/podcast specifically.  To get the self-promotion out of the way, I was recently featured by Kevin Kelly (Founding editor of Wired Magazine, formed editor/publisher of The Whole Earth Review) and Mark Frauenfelder (former editor of MAKE magazine, co-owner of boingboing.net) on their podcast “Cool Tools”.


The podcast asks their guests to pick four tools and talk about them, ostensibly these should be “favorite” or unique tools.  When I found out I was going to be on and they asked for this list in advance, I realized that picking four “tools” that felt unique, essential, and interesting was more of a challenge than I had anticipated.  I use a lot of things that could be considered tools, and I wanted my choices to reflect my practice but also to be accessible.  As much as I love having access to and using the Tormach PCNC1100 CNC mill here at Anderson Ranch, I have to admit that I likely won’t have one in my own shop any time soon, and as a $20,000 plus machine, accessible is not a term that comes to mind when I think of it.  

I dug deep and I came up with four tools that I feel are relatively affordable/accessible, and are things that have made my studio practice that much more pleasurable.  I felt pretty clever including my favorite drafting film in that bunch, as it sits squarely outside of what I typically associate with the category of tool, but is an incredible asset to have on hand, and does the jobs I give it with ease.
This experience got me thinking though, in the last year and a half here at the Ranch, I have been able to work in a shop that is well appointed.  I am able to complete complex fabrication and machining tasks with ease and efficiency, and I have been aware of this.  While I do take advantage of this fact, I want to remain as independent as possible, making sure that my practice is not unduly reliant on external resources.  I love to be self-contained.  Not because I particularly subscribe to or admire the myth of the individual as it exists in US culture, but because I want to make sure that my practice is personally sustainable…   When I say “personally sustainable”, what I mean is that I want to be able to continue my practice without a lot of outside support.  I spent nearly ten years between undergraduate and graduate school working in my own studios.  This time really cemented in me the importance of being able to produce on my own.  My work was sometimes defined by the tools that I had on hand, but more often I found that as I looked at problems in search of solutions, rather than problems in search of particular tools, I was able to make work that did the things that I wanted it to.  

Looking forward to the future, this ethos remains important to me.  I will never be wealthy, this is a near certainty given my chosen course in education, my family background, and the fact that wealth isn’t really something that I aspire to.  This means that tools have to count.  I like that, I enjoy feeling as though my collection of tools (though vast by some standards) is paired down and lean, sinewy even.  I am becoming more conscious of this as I age and as I move around.  I was reminded again of this a couple of weeks ago when I went to go look at some tools that a semi-retired engineer had for sale about an hour or so from here.  He had a great collection of hand tools and electronics tools as well…  As I was going through drawer after drawer of stuff, he gently reminded me that I should only buy what I will use and that collecting tools does no one any good.
I suppose the point of all of this (aside from self aggrandizing) is that tools want to be used, and should be.  As such, tools are choices that represent others choices declined or not made.  It is as much a reminder for me as it is a warning to others to bear this in mind when it comes to making these choices. 


Progress at a snail’s pace.
Sometimes it can feel like the things I am working on are grinding on forever, it takes a lot of time for some of these ideas to manifest themselves fully, or even to the point where they are recognizable in some physical form…  Shooting some video of this piece in action made me feel like progress is being made, which makes me feel better about the other unfinished, in progress things in my studio and in my head.

Teaching again.

Modular block for printing designed in Autodesk Fusion 360, milled in acetal with brass press-fit threaded inserts and 2-56 machine screws.

I love teaching.  Bearing witness to the failures and successes of students, seeing them work through frustration to something new is exhilarating, and in fact, energizes me to be more present and engaged in my own studio practice.  I generally subscribe to Chuck Close’s philosophy on inspiration:

Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up

That said, I think that being involved in someone else’s learning and growth truly does inspire me.  It drives me to better my own skills, to hone my thoughts and words to be more clear and more present.  I am truly grateful for the gift that this represents.

I am thinking all of these thoughts because for this week my role at Anderson Ranch shifts from being the administrator of the sculpture studio (from the physical facility to the programming, supplies, and budgeting–I do most of that) to teaching a one-week course on the role of prototyping in art-making.  The class is one that I conceived of and am co-teaching with Carter Hopkins.  We are working with students to not only educate them about shop technologies like CNC mills, routers, plasma cutters, 3d printers, and laser cutters but also how to think through designing an object in a smart, efficient manner.  People who know me know that I love technology, I am fascinated by new things because I am insatiably curious about how they work.  In studio art, my experience has been that when artists discover a new technology, it can eclipse their vision and supplant existing technology or processes that may be better suited to their projects.  A great example of this has been watching multiple students at different institutions of higher learning cut rectangular shapes on a CNC router when a table saw sat dormant nearby.  So teaching this class that integrates contemporary rapid prototyping technology with traditional hand and shop tools has been rewarding and reassuring.  I have watched students work through the process of design and iteration, often employing a variety of tools and processes in concert with one another as they discover how to design not for a specific process, but for an end result. Seeing them realize that doing this without the expectation of working in a singular or limited mode can really inform the end product as well as their thinking throughout the process and about the object that comes from these things.  This kind of discovery is nothing short of magic, it has not ceased to hold my attention, and it continues to teach me things about my own studio practice and about myself as a maker.  The dynamic of a classroom environment where students and teachers are responding to one another’s knowledge, experience, and skillsets is electric.  This is a small part of why I believe in the institution of higher education, despite its foibles.  For now I am happy to be as involved as I am in education, and look forward to a time when teaching consumes my life more fully.


Modeled and tool-pathed by a student who prior to this class had never modeled in CAD or tool-pathed a CNC machine


New News.


I recently had a conversation with Doug Casebeer about what it is that I want for myself in the future.  It was a rich conversation that reminded me of a few things, one of which is that part of the reason that I make work at all, that I enjoy teaching as I do, is that the exchange of ideas through conversation and writing sustains me.  As a result of this I decided that my website ought to reflect and foster this.  I have made attempts at “blogging” in the past, but I feel as though this go-around will be different in that I want to focus my efforts on things that exist specifically in the orbit of my studio practice.

What does this look like?  The easy (and coy) answer is “stick around and you’ll find out.”  The more useful and pragmatic answer is that it will include periodic updates about works in progress.  I find that posting to Instagram is a bit hollow for me (though I will continue to do so, for a variety of reasons).  I want to be able to add some explanation occasionally to studio process photos rather than just leave them as cryptic, voyeuristic entries into a public journal.  Sometimes posts here will be musings about tools I use in my practice, or intend to use.  There will be reflections on experiences I have with other artists, students, and mentors.  All of this wouldn’t be complete without some inclusion of my unsolicited thoughts and opinions on the state of art, education, and the world.

Eventually I would love for this to become a dialog, using comments, and potentially other mediums to open a two-way conduit for my thoughts and postings to be catalysts for discussion–more on this as things develop.  In the meantime, any feedback that you might have for me is welcome and appreciated, send it on to me:
m (at) justanassembler.com


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