handiwork by Sara Baume (Tramp Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
There is an artist inside all of us. The art we create can be subjective, but that does not diminish the time, care, and functionality someone puts into the act of creating. That is just one of the lessons gleamed from Irish author Sara Baume’s nonfiction debut, handiwork. In this short narrative, Baume combines her mediums of sculpting, carving, writing, and photography to illustrate the trials and joys of being an artist. handiwork chronicles her thoughts on the universality of art and its struggles while working on a woodworking series about her fascination with birds. She even treats her readers with the fruits of her carving labors with interspersed photographs of her avian subjects.
Focusing on the human need to create, Baume cites several viewpoints on why she believes we are intrinsically drawn to crafting. This is best expressed by her inclusion of Jose Saramago’s words in his book, The Cave, stating, “That very few people are aware…that in each of our fingers, located between the first phalange, the mesophalange and the metaphalange, there is a tiny brain” (88). For Baume, of course, her recognition and understanding of Saramago’s statement comes in the form of her mixed media art.
Baume understands that when craftinig something from her soul, there is a lot of trial and error. She does not shy away from the frustration that comes with spending a whole day working on a draft or carving one of her birds only to realize there is nothing viable in her work. She also touches on the internal guilt artists face when spending a period of time crafting a piece only to scrap it and start over again. That feeling is no stranger to all of us, whether we consider ourselves artists or not. Who doesn’t wish they could take back the time spent working on something only to realize a piece is filled with errors? That time nags at our sensibility that we could have spent that time working on a more perfect version of a report or task. There lies a heavy feeling of loss at the necessity of discarding something one has worked so hard on. It can feel like a piece of ourselves gets chipped off and discarded along with it.
But alas, Baume reminds us that we can move on and learn from our failures as well as our successes. After all, how can people learn about themselves if not from their mistakes?
Baume’s choice of birds to represent her theme of intrinsic art is more poignant than taken at first glance. In discussing her fascination with the winged creatures, she details how today’s birds have age old traditions sewn into their very core. Birds still migrate in the patterns determined hundreds of years ago by their ancestors, albeit with each generation making their own unique detours before reaching winter retreats and summer stomping grounds. Humans are the same way, Baume posits. Although we evolve, the basic construction of our systems for living and innovating can be traced back to our ancestral roots.
As an example of this musing, Baume talks of her father and grandfather who used iron and wood respectively to construct objects for their trades. Although used for more practical and materialistic purposes, Baume reasons that their very act of forging in iron or carving wood became parts of her artistic heritage. Her need to create her own flock of birds through the skills passed down from her grandfather make him as much an artist as any other woodworker. Without the skills of woodworking at her disposal, how could she make something so precious to her?
Even though her artistic connection with her grandfather is more apparent, Baume also describes how her father’s work with iron was a practical part of her journey as an artist. She recalls how her father did not always understand her need to create art or recognize his own trade as an artistic form. However, he contributed to her creative tendencies by constructing a space for her studio, taking an old greenhouse and making it into something new and functional for his daughter’s passion. That experience has influenced how Baume chooses and organizes her creative spaces today.
Baume ends her narrative with her lasting thoughts on the diligence and flow needed to create art: “And it seemed to me, then, both obvious and strangely surprising – how my world appears to order itself around these poetic coincidences, whether I search for them or not…” (212). We all see patterns differently. Perhaps it is our ancestors imprinting upon our souls to take something ordinary and make it into something special. Or those same ancestors want us to continue their paths while incorporating our own special experiences into the tapestry of the world. All we have to do is be open to all forms of expression. Either way, our own version of ‘handiwork’ will continue to make a mark on those around us and maybe even inspire someone else’s medium or method of art.
Buy this book: Tramp Press