Making & the Art of Transformation, with Nick Kary

by Nick Kary

The following excerpt is from Nick Kary’s new book Material: Making and the Art of Transformation (Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.


Lin worked as we talked, and I was immediately struck by our ability to do so without any noise to interrupt us. Her movements were purposeful as she clipped away the excess stems from the finished forms, and her focus was with both them and our interaction. We had met as makers with a shared language. We talked of process, of making a living, of lifestyle, of clients, of joy and of toil. We talked our way through five clipped baskets, through logs burning down on the fire and right through any timidity that might have stood between us.

I was grateful to be met with such trust and to find such communality. I was grateful to be privy to the intimacy of another maker’s practice, to their sacred space, that liminal place between the materiality of the physical and the ethereality of the spiritual. We talked of this also, of the senses and what lies beyond form, of the feel of a thing or of an emotion, of smell and sound and other factors that enter the subliminal world of a maker’s process.

The smell, something of the eucalyptus about it, sweet yet acrid, lingers in my memory, much as a vivid image does, or the memory of a conversation. It strikes me that texture for a maker is all of this: the smell, sound and touch of a thing. The smell soothed me, and reminded me of all the people who have entered my workshop and commented on how soothed they are by the smell they encounter. As I watched Lin’s hands work with dexterity and purpose, I realised that a maker’s art comes largely through feel, that in the moment-by-moment interaction with a material, its resistance, or surrender, guides our hands as they dance around the natural properties that we are in dialogue with.

It was a wonder to see the 4-foot-high forms that she was working on, and imagine how they had risen from the lashed bundles of sticks leaning against the wall behind her. Colours – reds, oranges and greens – varying shades of natural bark, and then the bleached white Willow stripped of its bark. The colours bunched at her side had come from the Willow beds in her garden, each colour a variety, cut while dormant, the sap still down, buds formed but no leaves.

The plants look a little sad now, pollarded back to a few inches off last year’s growth, all standing upright in regimented rows, waiting for the spring to reinitiate their growth. Lin and Jamie’s garden is a 3-acre plot populated with their house and various outbuildings, their workshops, Willow storage and the goats’ home. Goats and chickens, enclosed by electric fences, take up more space, as do the vegetable beds, Willow and coppiced Ash for firewood and green woodwork. 

When Jamie arrived after Lin and I had talked for some time, the conversation became a little headier, the two of us finding that we had enjoyed similar books, and pursued similar trains of thought. At one point Lin showed her exasperation, declared that it was doing rather than discussing ideas that appealed to her more. We came back full circle to meditating on what lies beyond the physical engagement, what it is that defines a maker, pulls them to the action of making rather than the result.

Their home, its history and the growth on the land confirms the impermanence of everything, challenges the idea that an object is something fixed, rather than just another stage on the road to decomposition. Lin spoke of her baskets returning to the earth after their purpose was complete, and there is something very beautiful in that. That the impermanence of what we create is merely a mirror of ours here on Earth, that one day we will all be repurposed in service to the whole. 

It seems that we can’t accept the idea of degrading, or of death. On buying timber we are assured that it will last many years, that there is a new product that will last even longer, yet we have never really known why! That there was arsenic or copper nitrate in these products was something of little concern or never known. Where had it come from, what harm had it done and what harm might it do when finally rotting into the earth? Under the house where Lin grows her baskets, copper was once mined alongside the tin, and there was probably arsenic present in the rock, and if not, there were certainly arsenic mines nearby. It is ironic that she is making with a view to the honourable function and dissolution of her baskets in the very place from which minerals were extracted on whom a narrative of immortality was placed. 

My first trip to see Lin was in March, the cool of winter still choking growth, the pruned Willow fallow and to my eyes empty of promise. After a six-month gap I was back again in September, the track even bumpier, the brambles wildly grown over the slag-strewn land on the edges. Walking with Lin in the garden after a meal supplied from her beds, I spotted the Willow, head height and abundant in the gloaming. She smiled with pride when I commented on it and on the beauty of the land, the abundance she and Jamie have created here amongst the fissured texture of past industry. She had opened the goats’ enclosure, and the dog, excited in its perceived role as shepherdess (lots of excited barking and tail wagging while it ran round in circles) inadvertently chased them to their pen. After they were safely locked in and fed, I had learnt a little more about life here, about what home meant to them, about belonging to a community of land, animals and family. 

When I left a little later, the proud bearer of a beautiful driftwood-handled basket of Lin’s, it held some of this life within it: Willow from the land, honey from Jamie’s bees, soap made using the goats’ milk, and all the purpose and commitment that living a materially meaningful life takes. 


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