The Case for Craft - An Interview With Andy Tirado

Andrew Ramiro Tirado’s studio is unassuming, as is he. An extensive backyard houses a small, 20 square foot studio that is shielded from prying eyes, if eyes knew where to pry, by an ordinary house, indistinct from the houses surrounding it on a street that is indistinct from those paralleling it like Q-Tips, lined up straight and fresh in their plastic box. But if eyes knew where to pry, if the feet transporting them walked between two such non-descript domiciles, cautiously tip-toeing along a well-worn path that dips to the right of a small shed, they would inevitably land on the studio. The building, crouching against the fence bordering the back of the property, looks like nothing more than a second shed, the kind I have in my backyard at home that houses flat-tired bikes, my brother’s old Opti, gardening soil and tomato cages and a small colony of spiders. In contrast, Andy’s shed houses a giant hand and the means to create it. From a distance, looking into the doorway, just the fingers are visible, motionless in a perpetual curl like a wave frozen mid break. The hand seems to beckon me, both in the welcoming furl of the gesture and by the curiosity it naturally arouses. At the same time, the sheer size of the hand, filling the entirety of the door with pads and wrinkles and fingertips, bars me from the space. My curiosity is overcome by intimidation at approaching the hand, at asserting myself into a space that already houses such a large presence.

There’s so much to learn from things that take time

Once inside the studio, the hand, at least ten feet long, and probably fifteen if the fingers stretched themselves out to relieve their cramped muscles, as I imagine they must do in the middle of the night, aching from hours of holding the same pose, and its creator tolerate me graciously, although obviously unaccustomed to having a stranger in their company. Small piles of wood shavings scatter the ground in a space that is, if not organized, not messy, and their clean, earthy smell rests unobtrusively in the air, lending a humility to the giant hand. Andrew, or Andy, as he introduces himself, nonetheless apologizes for the mess, confessing that this is the neatest it has been in months, since he finished the majority of his work on the hand. He reaches up to a small box hanging above the door, pressing a button that quiets the hum of the filter.

How to be a craftsman

Andy creates beautiful, giant hands out of reclaimed wood, hands that are frozen in different postures, usually seemingly halted in the middle of an action. “I’ve just always liked working with my hands.” This sentiment is verbalized multiple times over the next few days, and for me illuminates the first few steps of a path down which Andy is already miles along, the possibility of which I am just beginning to explore. For Andy, it started with a fascination for canoes, an appreciation for the streamlined beauty of their natural shape, and a desire to work with his hands in a way that painting did not satisfy. Andy depicts a scene when he was working as a studio assistant for Chuck Close, right when his early interest in canoes began, of Close painting on one wall as Andy intermittently built a 16-foot wood panel canoe in the middle of the floor in his time not assisting Close. Andy is drawn to craft, and hands in particular, through the image of vessels. He connects this image back to Scripture, remembering, “I started thinking about all these metaphorical things, like the idea in Scripture of a broken vessel, and the idea that we are like these jars of clay. That if you’re impregnable you can’t let in the things that need to come in and you can’t let out the things that need to come out. If you’re broken that’s the posture where things can really happen. A broken vessel.”

My personal journey with craftsmanship began less than a year ago when I was first exposed to clay through a Colorado College art adjunct. I was instantly smitten with it, and spent nearly all of my free time and a solid chunk of my unfree time down in the studio, making dozens of wobbly mugs with uneven walls and thick bottoms. Beginner pots still hold a fascination for me, even as I have outgrown them in my own practice, as endearing reminders of the beauty of imperfection and the stripping down of a work to its basic purpose: a vessel.

Clay has a memory. When a ceramist begins to work with it on the wheel, to form it into a vessel, it matters how well the ceramist wedged it beforehand to equalize the consistency, and how well they centered it before even beginning to raise any walls. Even the attitude with which a ceramist encounters the clay has a distinctive effect. I have found that if I approach clay in a hurry, or frustrated with my day, the clay seems to absorb my sentiment, become hurried or frustrated itself, which reflects in my work.

There is a knowledge to working with raw materials that Andy echoes. The material responds differently in every new piece, however many times the craftsman has repeated the same design. I interviewed another craftsman, Geoffrey Keating, who is a fifth generation woodworker in Colorado Springs. Glancing at a set of stool legs lying unstained on his workbench, Geoffrey agrees, “As a craftsperson, one of your primary functions is problem-solving. It might be counter-intuitive because you’re working with this predetermined set of skills that have been passed down to you and honed and refined over centuries, but you still have to assert yourself into that and become a problem solver.” He continues to connect this act of practical, hands-on problem solving as the elusive missing element that is causing so much dissatisfaction. “One of the things people miss is they go to their jobs and think you could just plug someone else in and they could do the same thing, whereas if you’re making something by hand, what you make is going to be a little bit different just by the fact that it’s you making it.”

It is entirely too easy to become disconnected with where the things surrounding us come from; where our food comes from and how it happened to end up speared on the end of our fork. Convenience is king and hangs a curtain to hide the process by which the box arrives at your house, foam peanuts that have protected the immaculate furniture spilling over your threshold, whatever you ordered emerges, shiny and fresh, seemingly birthed and new to the world the moment you unwrapped it.

When I asked Andy his opinion on the importance of learning hard skills, he replied, “There’s so much to learn from things that take time, that can’t be learned overnight. You’re learning things that are good for you too, developing patience and learning all these things that are great for you. I think that there is something very meaningful that comes from a lot of the things we have discarded as being old.” Yet time and patience are elements of which we are in short supply in a society, and especially a higher educational system, where a constant output of work and progress is demanded as a prerequisite for success. As interaction, within the physical world, grows decreasingly relevant to those spending an increased amount of time in front of screens, established craftsmen like Geoffrey and Andy are seeing a countermovement of renewed interest in their work, a result of dissatisfaction with the malady of disconnection.

Both Andy and Geoffrey are self-taught craftsmen, having received liberal arts degrees they both went on to pursue woodworking instead of an office job where the majority of liberal arts graduates find themselves. Geoffrey mentioned that the amount of people contacting him, interested in what he does or seeking apprenticeships, has grown steadily in the eight years since he went into business.

“I think we went through this stage culturally where we were severing ourselves from any tie. People moved away from their family, and the sense of natural resources went from wood-based products to plastics. Capitalism has driven this sense of everything is disposable, planned obsolescence. I think there’s a huge renewal of interest that I see, driven by a pushback against all of these decisions and moves we’ve made culturally, intentionally or not, but people just have a sense of dissatisfaction.” The dissatisfaction pulls at me too, rearing its head at the mere thought of pursuing most of the careers being marketed to those graduating liberal arts colleges. I am exhausted by the competitive and repetitive nature of the job market before I have even begun. Geoffrey however, speaks of an individuality found in craft, in creating something that is solely yours, that no one else could have done in the exact same way, and I find myself being pulled further into his world.

Moving towards instead of away from family, creating a space that is both lived and worked in, “All that flowed from an idea of our craft. There are values inherent in what we do, and you extend that a little bit, to your larger life. To us, that became the most transformative element of extending these values of craft into a lifestyle rather than turning it into a business only.” I can easily see the appeal of his lifestyle, especially with young children. I am someone who has always been drawn to craftsmanship and the simpler lifestyle epitomized by such careers, and have been searching for the value of craft in my own life and through the work of others. Both Andy and Geoffrey share with me the undeniable value of learning from tradition, in contrast to the trend of dismissing old ways for new ones. They give voice to a dissatisfaction I feel with other career options and help my worries about abandoning my environmental science major for a perhaps less "acceptable" or "practical" major in studio art and journalism begin to fade away.