Friday, July 24, 2015

Art and Craft (and Hymns)

There's an old dresser in the guest room of our house. To an untrained eye, it looks "nice," perhaps "pretty" in an antique sort of way, and certainly functional. Look closely and you'll notice artful stenciling on the front that says, "John Kinsinger" and "1876." (Look even more closely and you'll notice that the "s" in Kinsinger is backwards.)


John Kinsinger was my great-great-grandfather. The dresser was made for his 18th birthday by his grandfather, Jacob Knagy. Jacob, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, lived from 1796 to 1883, so he was around 80 when he built this piece. He was a prolific furniture maker, and his work is now considered quite collectable.

Beyond its functionality and basic visual appeal, people who know anything about wood-working get very excited about the dresser. They pull open the drawers and marvel at the hand-carved dovetails, which line up perfectly. They touch the wood and comment on its durability. They look at the underside and back and see that nothing was skimped on it the crafting process.

Most of those details are lost on me as a layperson until they are pointed out, but they all contribute to a perfectly crafted piece of art. Unlike the cheaper snap-together-yourself furniture that populates most of our house, this piece has lasted 139 years. The detail and care applied to it at its creation gave it the potential to endure for generations, while I will be lucky if my $20 bookshelves hold up a decade under all of my hymnals.

I use this dresser as an illustration when I offer fellow hymn writers comments and critiques on their work. There are elements of our craft that infuse our work with durability, sing-ability, and aesthetic appeal. Many of these would be lost on the average singer, or would seem unimportant. But I think there is a strong analogy between a perfectly tight dovetail and a perfect rhyme (or smooth rhythmic accents, or proper grammar, or . . .) The analogy can extend to material, design, tools, and on and on.

Approaching the work of lyric writing as a craft does not mean leaving aside artistry; it means applying skill and hard work to the art. In my experience, honing a text to "tighten the dovetails" always pays off in the end. That process generally requires the help of other skilled crafters who can help me spot the loose connections. (This is certainly an aspirational process; I don't expect to achieve perfection!)

I don't expect that much of my work will endure as long as my dresser. I would guess that Jacob Knagy would be surprised to learn that many of his pieces are still around and highly valued. But when a well-crafted piece of art finds a home with people who love it and care for it, it can serve its purpose long beyond the life of its creator.

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