Spending increasing numbers of hours on the computer, over many years, one can forget (like the proverbial frog in the hotter-and-hotter water) just how far away from home one actually is. For the first thirty years of my life I made things with my hands. For the next thirty, I've made more and more of those things inside this box, including the work of my profession. Graphic design, when I began, was the province of ink and paper, knives and rulers, glue and wax and ruling pens. Even when my own work was done, there would be more ink-on-paper during the printing process: a process that designers needed to understand from start to finish.
We drove past the printing plant of the Montreal Gazette yesterday, with its oversize photographs of newspaper-carrying readers in the windows, and I asked J. how long he thought newspapers would keep on printing paper editions. Not that much longer, he replied, and I agree with him. We haven't gone to an offset printer for a press check in years. Like so many others, we're living and working more and more inside our computers, which have become laptops, and are shrinking further into palm-sized computers masquerading as phones. We walk around the streets holding this customized, self-contained world in our hands, often oblivious to everything else around us - and why not? Everyone and everything we care about, practically, is right there...
But I've noticed, in my recent forays into drawing and printmaking, how much my hands have missed the feel of real materials and the pleasure of movement that turns raw substances into something different: a dress, a knitted hat, a 2-dimensional depiction of reality. I've missed the smell of printing ink, whether relief ink for a linocut or the characteristic smell of a pressroom and newly-printed press sheets in the back of the car. Sometimes, I think, only cooking remains for a lot of people as a way to experience the transformation of ingredients into something we can use in a different way, and enjoy not only for its aesthetic and sensory qualities but for the fact that we can feel, in our hands and bodies, that we made this thing ourselves, by hand.
There's plenty to do in an art studio, even when the muse hasn't come to work yet. Today I opened up (that took some doing) some cans of old relief ink that I thought might be unusable, cut off the thick skin that had formed at the top, and discovered perfectly good ink hiding underneath, away from the air. I cut some new wax paper "skins" to put over the top of the ink, and cleaned up my tools and my hands, covered with smears of oily black and Venetian red. There's something profoundly satisfying for me about even a simple task like that.
Hands are astounding -- have you ever really thought about them? I think we're meant to use them, to experience the most primitive of creative acts, like thrusting them into a vein of clay or mud in the earth and feeling, beneath our fingers, the lump of earth we pull out slowly form into a shape. My mother and I used to dig our own clay from a streambed, and then clear it of pebbles before making it into a figure, or a pot. How many people today have done something like that? This seems, to me, like a much greater change and loss than the printed book or newspaper, and I hardly know where to begin in writing about it, or what it must be doing to our brains and to us as a species. Can we appreciate creation if we don't know what it is to be a creator?
It's not that the computer isn't often a better way - in design, for instance, I'd never argue that digital page payout and typesetting aren't more accurate, easier, faster, leaving more time for creativity and imagination. The results are better, cheaper, more flexible in a lot of ways. I'd go nuts if I had to write this blog post wthout the benefit of a digital text editor! It just strikes me that we aren't using our hands and the brain-hand connection (that seems so intrinsic to the design of the human body) in the same ways anymore, and that this change has taken place, in an evolutionary timescale, overnight.
In the deepest sense, I wouldn't know who I am - I would be an entirely different person - if I had never made things from scratch, using my hands; it is so fundamental to me. I'm not mourning, I'm just rather astonished. And I wonder if the pendulum will swing back again, with young people looking for crafts and artistic pursuits -- as in the revivial of urban knitting -- that show them something different about what it is to be human.