Such a quiet, unobtrusive thing, so easy to miss or dismiss.
Just a small woodturned bowl, only four inches in diameter, two and a half high.
A brown bowl. The wood seems unremarkable. No showy lines of spalting or flamboyant colour contrasts or rippled figuring. But look more closely, see a pattern of darker stripes and ribbons, of grain and wood rays, coursing across the surface. It appears to float in the air: its narrow base is overhung, hidden. You must touch it. Cup your hands around it, caress it, feel the silky smooth sides swelling gently to the top. Stroke your thumbs across the rolling lip of the rim.
Close your eyes. Cradle the bowl in one hand, run the fingers of the other down the inside. Trace the curve, continuous, all the way down then back up and in. In: the rim is undercut, subtly. Open your eyes, now see how the shadow of the rim frames the interior. Feel its weight, its perfect proportions and balance, let it rock on your fingertips. Heavier than an egg, lighter than a pear. And it is deliciously erotic, its curved sides so perfectly hand-sized and tactile.
It is deeply satisfying, so deceptively simple and refined, self-contained, not screaming for attention, not posing. Clearly a bread-and-butter production bowl by some master craftsman, it is a distillation of technique and experience and exquisite sensibility. Our little brown bowl sits on my desk, in the top right corner, next to the computer, in its own space, clear of the mess of papers and cables. I leave it empty: it appears self-sufficient, a container of air. When I come in at night from my own woodturning studio and sit at the desk, I like to fantasise that it has been waiting for me, patiently and faithfully, like Silas Marner’s cherished water-jug. After a bad day it gives comfort and reassurance and every so often there are bad days.
Woodturners sometimes describe their craft as a dialogue with the wood: like a potter shaping a lump of clay on a wheel, a woodturner shapes a piece of wood on a lathe, the wood spinning terrifically fast and the turner removing long dramatic shavings with razor-sharp gouges and chisels. Woodturners try to work with the wood, to compromise between imposing themselves on the material and allowing the wood to have its own voice. On a good day there is a conversation, on a bad day there is an argument. The wood might split or reveal hidden checks or unwanted bark intrusions – or you might make a mistake, or simply be over-ambitious. And after a frustrating day like this, the little bowl lifts my spirits, brings me back to basics, tells me quietly that good design depends above all on line and form, that technique is a means to an end and not an end in itself. It reminds me of the observation by the woodworker and writer David Pye:
The difference between the thing which sings and the thing which is forever silent, is often very slight indeed.
I discovered the little bowl a few years ago in Dublin, in the old Oxfam shop in Francis Street, languishing incongruously among the secondhand bric-à-brac of teapots and mug trees and toast racks. Curious and delighted, I picked it up, and marvelled. When I turned it over, it made sense: neatly inscribed on the base were the words “Ciarán Forbes – Glenstal Abbey – Holm Oak”. A signed bowl by a legendary and hugely-respected woodturner, the most spiritual and spirited of monks, passionate and deeply serious about his craft. When describing what he aspires to create as a woodturner, Ciarán repeatedly refers to song, in particular to Schubert, which he says:
conjoins what I hear as a listener and what I endeavour to achieve as a bowlmaker: the production of a sustained, unbroken line from rim to base. Legato singing in the Western Art Tradition and the flowing line of a wooden bowl mirror one another.
This aspiration is perfectly realised in my little bowl – which I immediately rescued for all of two euros.
Recorded for RTE’s ‘Sunday Miscellany’ in Watergate Theatre Kilkenny 5.8.2011, broadcast 28.8.2011