Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How did I get here?

In one sense the ride has been very linear. Each step leading to another, and another, and another until the beginning has become a distant memory. A memory that seems familiar like an old story repeated many times, but it's just that, an old story as if experienced by someone else. I can see how the beginning relates to what is happening now and there are a string of experiences that tie the two together, but it is not a recognizable continuum. It's more like a jumble of short stories where some of them leap forward as others end, and others run simultaneously side by side some ending for moments and then lurching back to life later on to run contiguous with new stories.

It was 1969 and I was standing in Jimmy's half dirt, half concrete floored, garage. Jimmy was pretty skilled when it came to Volkswagens. He could pull an engine in a view minutes in his dark, old garage and start stripping it before I realized what was happening. He wasn't an old pro; he was the same age as me. But somehow he had gained enough knowledge to be able to diagnose problems and go after them with confidence. He'd gone a couple years to college, but part of a liberal arts education didn't get him where he was. In fact it most assuredly had gotten in the way and working on cars was one of the reasons that he was no longer in school. Fixing Volkswagens was a full time job for him. When I asked him about it, he told me he started by fixing the little niggly problems that were a constant with old cars. He couldn't afford to pay someone to do it so he did it himself. That made sense, but he was doing stuff no weekend mechanic could dream of doing without leaving half the parts he started with on the floor with no clue as to where they went. Then I found an old spiral bound book on a shelf above his work bench. It looked like it had RC Crumb comic type caricatures on the cover peeking through layers of greasy fingerprints. It was How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. Here I thought he was a genius and he was using the first "SOMETHING for Dummies" book. The reason I was there, beside the good conversation, the brakes on my VW Bus were mushy and I was hoping Jim could squeeze me in. He saw me with the book and said "why don't you look up bleeding brakes in the back?" I did and started reading about some no nonsense descriptions about how to and how not to bleed brakes. I had used tools before, but not on something I depended on as much as I did my old VW Bus. The descriptions were kind of funny and wise at the same time. Like a friend telling a joke about how he screwed up trying to do something ending with the clich├ęd, "Well, I'll never do that again". Here was a book telling you a couple of bad things along with the good things that could happen if you did a certain procedure. Every technique book I had read before had been very linear. If you do 'A', then 'B' will happen. This book was like "If you do 'A', then 'B' or maybe 'C' could happen, but you better watch out for 'D' 'cause that could cost you a couple more days and a lot more trips to the parts store".

This was a book that thought like me. I could always see a couple of different ways of looking at things. I knew one or two were better then others, but I didn't always know why. This book and another that just recently came out, Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford, talk about making choices that can have more then one outcome. They both give value to the experience of making mistakes and the knowledge gained. In fact Crawford's book argues that there are many situations where the written, analytical logic will tell you one thing, but the 'doing' and the combination of physical and cognitive experience learned by 'doing' will tell you different. This is because analytic logic is linear and the real world is always throwing a curve. There are always more variables then can be written down in a manual.

Another data base or source that I have repeatedly gone to in the past was "Fine Woodworking Magazine". It seemed early on, every time I was looking at a problem in my woodworking, there was an article or section that addressed that specific quandary. The problem was putting the information provided by the words into something that made sense in the midst of a 3D problem in a 3D world. The pictures helped, but something was still lacking. It was my deficiency of experience to plug the information into that kept me from making sense of my problem.

This leads me to the question, "How do I acquire knowledge?" And by 'knowledge' I mean 'tools' that I have with me (information, successful experiences, mistakes made, etc) and information bases (for detailed explanations, and speculations) that I know I can use because I have been there before or have heard about them and have recollections of general information headings which may have details that might be helpful. Then there are two more questions: "How do I retain that knowledge?" and "How do I apply that knowledge to a new situation?"

First of all, to be open to acquiring knowledge you always have to accept that you and your choices may fail. Not because you are a bad problem solver, in fact a good problem solver is someone that can postulate several scenarios try them out and see which ones have a chance of working and carry them out until they do or don't succeed. If they don't, start making more educated guesses and…..You see where this is going. Secondly, to allow yourself to gain knowledge you have to be active. You have to get your hands into the middle of it all and "mess around".

I found I could acquire information by watching other woodworkers do there work. I asked them questions and watched what they did. The watching made so much more sense then their words. Once that process was over the trial and error period began where I would try out what I thought I had seen and heard. This was when all the information started to become knowledge. This is when the information I had received through my filters and prejudices was tested. When the processes worked as I thought I had seen or heard them described, my experience validated the information and became knowledge that I could use again. But just as trustworthy a tool as success, failure could give me enough information to back track and make different choices to seek out new ways to validate the information. It seems that speech and writing are very limited when trying to teach or learn how to craft a thing or even diagnose a situation to make good choices to resolve a problem. These processes are cognitive and sensory all at the same time. Each decision becomes reinforced by an action and the analysis of the result. These are micro and macro. A process is made up of small steps. Each step has to be evaluated as to its effect on the success of the larger procedure. The successes or failures of these steps reinforce the choices made in a string of actions and analysis that can be productive in solving the present situation, as well as, future situations. And the ability to recognize similar situations allows one to apply the accumulated knowledge that is continually reinforced by success and near successes. The real pleasure is recognizing an application of knowledge to a new problem or situation that on initial analysis doesn't seem to apply. It seems that by putting together two or more seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge can address a problem from an up to now unseen direction. To keep this knowledge current and accessible I have to practice the several elements that make up the decision making, the application of choice, and then the analysis of attaining the desired outcome. This practice deepens the quality and quantity of my experience.

This is all leading to how I became an apprentice coffin maker. While in graduate school I was studying the arts of the Yoruba groups of Nigeria. While on the internet looking at sources, up popped images of colorfully painted sculptures from Ghana that were also coffins. I was stunned. I had not seen imagery like this before and certainly not anything like it for the ritual of burial. There were fish, trucks, bottles of beer, boats, writing pens, almost anything one could imagine were assembled out of wood, carved and painted to be used as caskets. The more I learned, the more amazing the whole story became. It seems that a man named Kane Kwei was a carpenter in mid-20th century Ghana. He was well trained by the best carpenter of the time. That carpenter had made among other things, palanquins for chiefs in the villages and towns around and in Accra. One palanquin was made in the form of a cocoa pod and delivered to a chief just before his death. The chief's family decided to bury him in the cocoa pod.

Some time later Kane Kwei's grandmother died and inspired by the cocoa pod palanquin that became a chief's coffin, he decided to make an airplane coffin for her. Her long held but unrealized hope was to fly in an airplane so Kane Kwei gave her dream to her after death. Many were taken by his idea and his sculptural talent and encouraged him to make more. From this a business grew and his work became known not only in his home town of Teshie but around the world. Examples of his work were the amazing things I was finding on the internet and eventually in a book I found by Thierry Secretan.

Less then a year ago I found a website by a woman, MaPo Kinnord-Payton, who often traveled to Ghana leading groups of students studying different arts. She had images of the wonderful fantasy coffins of Teshie on her site and I contacted her. I asked if anyone of the artists she knew would be interested in having someone come study with them. She did, and she gave me the email address for Eric Annan Kwei, the grandson of Kane Kwei. This was an opportunity for me to learn first hand how these amazing sculptures were designed and constructed. I emailed Eric and he responded favorably. During a several month period, we communicated back and forth to work out all the details. And, in a short time, June 15th arrived and I was on a 20 hour flying marathon that put me in Kotoka International Airport in Accra.

The first four days seemed like a month. I was immediately welcomed. I have met many of Eric's family (there are many more), begun an airplane coffin, been initiated as an apprentice and eaten with great pleasure Banku and FooFoo, and will soon visit his family village. I am staying in his father's house which is a few kilometers from the shop. The shop is in Teshie on the main highway from Accra to Tema. It is the same place his grandfather had his business until his death in 1992.

The initiation started by gathering all the material and objects and …. a sheep. The material and objects were gifts to the family and apprentices. The initiation included the elders of Eric's family; Cedi, his father; Adjetey, his uncle from his Grandmother's family; and Adjei, his uncle from his Grandfather's family. They gave prayers and spilled libations on the ground to honor the ancestors, not the least of which is Kane Kwei. After Eric presented the new apprentice and the giving of gifts to the elders, pencils were given by me to the other apprentices, to me and also to make a connection of sharing work. Then I gave each apprentice two boxes of matches to help light his fire. The women of the house, members of Eric's family, who live next to and behind the shop were each given three boxes of matches for their fire. This introduced me as a new apprentice and let them know I will now be around. Then everyone is given a gift of soda.

The beginning of the last part of the initiation starts with my taking the sheep to a table to be sacrificed to connect the ceremony and the apprentice to the ancestors. I took off my shoes to connect with the earth. Spilling the blood of the sheep on the earth is to honor the ancestors and I placed both feet under the dripping blood to make a link through the sacrifice with them, a very serious moment. The sheep is then prepared and butchered for the feast of a cassava root/corn paste and a spicy hot sheep stew. The paste is balled up in the right hand and dipped into the sauce and eaten with occasional piece of meat. This feast is a communal occasion and anything but serious. Around the table sat the master, an uncle and the other apprentices all telling stories and jokes on each other. As one said next to me "It is boys being boys".

The first thing I started as an apprentice was an airplane coffin. I started with the window section of
each side, extending the section forward and back until there were two pointed ends. When the two parts just forward and behind the window section were to be cut to the angle that would begin the narrowing of the plane body toward the front and back points, Eric asked his senior apprentice, Elias, to come look at the frame from the front end and judge whether the angles were correct. Instead of going to the existing plane coffin, taking off the lid, and rather awkwardly projecting a measuring tape in toward the back and front to measure the distance between the sides, he judged the position of the four pieces by eye. I asked why he didn't measure. All Eric said was, "He just knows".

Then the upper sections are formed using a wooden hand plane to bevel the edges and then nailed one on top of the other starting at the base. The result is an approximation of the roundness of the fuselage but in a faceted manner. The middle section is built up until a 3" to 4" wide opening is filled at the top with a key piece beveled on both edges. Then the front and back sections are built piece by beveled piece to each other as the each piece's end is beveled and connected to the mid section. Once this is done, it will be turned over for a similar process until the fuselage is complete.

The manner in which the edges are beveled is again by eye. A bevel square is taken to an existing plane coffin and the angle that the two faces of edge joined pieces create is captured by laying the two connected parts of the tool, one on each face directly across the joint until each part lays flat on each conjoined face. This angle tool is then taken to the newly constructed base frame and one piece is set one on top of the other and the top piece tipped until the two pieces approximate the angle on the tool. The gap between indicates how much is to be taken of the back edge of the top piece to create the correct angled bevel. Now I would ordinarily measure this gap and transfer with my measuring tape the gap size to the back edge and with a straight edge or marking gauge draw the line. But Eric and the apprentices are teaching me how to approximate the gap by eye and with the last two fingers grasping the edge and the other three fingers keeping the pencil at the "eyed" distance draw a parallel line to indicate the stopping point of my bevel that I will create with the hand plane. Now, if that was hard for you to read it was just as painful for me to write and I still don't think I did a thorough enough attempt at explaining it. Needless to say it took less then 30 seconds for the demonstration and about the same time or less for me to get a reasonable approximation of what was desired. After a few tries I was beginning to get it and each time I do it I am more efficient and accurate. It wasn't explained to me verbally; in fact communication is hard because of our different accents and choices of words to explain things to each other. But the demo and practice with a few words of description, encouragement, and "No, no, like this" and then another short demo. I am doing exactly the same thing demonstrating and encouraging everyone to try a power grinder that I brought to help shape wood. Up until know they have used hand planes and spokeshaves to shape. The grinder can the same operation faster and in most instances can be more accurate. The same sort of non-verbal communication is going on here, as well, to great effect. Some are picking it up quicker then others and this seems to relate to experience, touch, and a 3D physical sense around an object.

Also, during this last week Eric and I have been running back and forth to Accra (Teshie is about 12 or 13 km outside of Accra) by taxi trying to help him prepare for going to Belgium the 3rd week of August for a month long show of his and his grandfather's coffins in a gallery in Antwerp. He and I will leave Aug 19th for an opening on the 21st. I will stay until the 24th and Eric will stay for the month long duration of the show.


  1. Wonderful posting, Michael. Thanks.

    Lucky that you have such strong basic woodworkiing skills; they seem to have put you to work doing some seriously complex tasks already.

    It's encouraging that such an old fart can still marvel at the gift of learning (speaking one to another). I expect you will return a changed man, but then again I understand that is your objective. The best part is, I can foresee changes occuring to unexpected areas. I wonder, looking at the fellow workers surrounding you, if you haven't discovered an extreme workout regime.

    We will do our best to take care of Susan. Enjoy. Immerse. Learn.


  2. Yes, Craig
    I expect to come back ripped abe to qualify for middle weight instead of heavy weight.


  3. Way to go Michael! This trip is so great - no beating around the bush - just go for it.

    Check out the new ocac wood shop blog in the next few days - there should be a few ladder pics.


    Keep having fun, keep taking lots of pictures of handsome men,

    Amanda (Wall-Graf)

  4. Hey Michael,
    What an incredible experience! I'm jealous of your travel/cultural/life altering experience!
    Enjoy the journey!

  5. What a neat experience!! My favorite is the sacrificing of the lamb. You can't beat that!! You seem to know what you are doing with that airplane. It shows that you don't have to be fluent in a language to communicate!! Enjoy!!

  6. What an adventure! Way to grab life by the horns and take on something new and exciting.

  7. btw, this is the big (older, wiser) Lindsay Baker.