Finding God In The Grain

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Sometimes, I wonder if the closest I get to the experience of God is when I’m making stuff…

 

I was an artist and a maker as a kid. I’d paint all the time, draw, doodle, make Frankenbikes out of spare parts from the junk yard and built pretty much anything I could imagine. That process takes me somewhere. Always has. It opens a door to something simultaneously internal and primal, yet also expansive and universal.

I’d find that place often in my youth. Then something happened. I grew up.

And I’m not alone. The older we get, the more we leave making and art behind. We trade it for knowledge-work. Which has its own value, but it’s different than the experience of making not just an idea or story, but a thing. One that exists materially in the world. Born of  body, sweat, hands and tears. And maybe a bunch of wood, paint, metal or whatever canvas calls you.

There’s something about the smell of fresh-cut wood, WD-40 and danger.

Increasingly, I’ve been missing being in maker mode. So I took our recent move to a new apartment as an opportunity to re-meet my maker-side. We gave away pretty much all of our furniture, so we needed a bunch of new tables. I decided to make them. Not the easiest thing to do in New York City, where parking spaces sell for $100,000 and sighting of bigfoot outnumber listings for workshop-space. But, we’re a highly-adaptable people so why not?

Little did I know that table one, which would come to be known as the concrete behemoth, would end up six feet long and tip the scales at 150 pounds.

We started the hunt for parts online. My wife found these amazing hand-crafted, powder-coated steel legs from a guy in Turkey. We bought a pair of vibrant purple ones and they arrived at our doorstep four days later. Amazing.

table legs

Without a maker-space or co-op workshop loaded up with power-tools, you need to do a bit of delegating. So I headed over to Home Depot, had them pre-cut sheets of pine to size, screwed and glued them together to make the “sub-top” and then drilled and screwed the purple powder-coated table legs. So far, so good.

Now, what to do with the top? My wife and I talked about different ideas. Lacquer, oil, wax, paint, but we wanted to do something unique. What about concrete? Wouldn’t it be cool to give the top an artisanal troweled concrete feel? I’ve never worked with concrete before, but hey, how hard could it be?

Famous last words. Oy!

So I went online and searched “how to make a concrete table top.” This led me to a great DIY tutorial on making concrete counter tops and tables. Still this was pretty much all out winging it. And that’s also where I hit my first snag.

Turns out, when you use concrete, the thing you’re covering needs to be a a “stable substrate,” meaning it can’t have any give or flex or expand or contract. If it does, that movement will crack the concrete. Now here’s the thing about any kind of natural wood, except for very expensive hardwoods (which I wasn’t about to buy just to cover with concrete), they flex, expand and contract in response to humidity.

So the pine top I’d planned to coat with concrete was out the window. Bummer. But, not really. One of the best parts of making is winging it, making mistakes and then having the chance to problem-solve. That’s much more fun than just following a set of rules where you’re fairly certain of the outcome, but you also end up learning less and diminishing the possibility of genuine awe and surprise at the end of the process when you step back and say to yourself, “holy shit, it worked!”

It’s a bit like creating your own recipes. You make awful, barely-edible concoctions and then something clicks, you get the mixture right and angels sing. But the fact that you got so much wrong along the way is what makes the angel’s song so transcendent.

I think that’s why master makers never stop experimenting. Because it’s the process, as much as what the process yields, that drops them into the playful pulse of the universe where everything is as it should be.

Tinkering is like a beeline to Source and surrender.

Back to the concrete behemoth. What to do? Much as I don’t like using the stuff, I had to revert to particle board. It’s heavy as hell and some particle boards can “off-gas” volatile compounds (as can some people) that aren’t all that healthy for you. But I also knew the top would be sealed with 1/2 inch of concrete and I’d just have to seal the bottom with something else.

I ended up finding a 1 3/4 inch thick industrial particle board slab designed for warehouse packing tables. Three days and 125 pounds later, I swapped the new top on. With the steel legs, this thing now weighed in at around 140 pounds. And that’s before I poured and troweled three layers of concrete.

For the most part, I was enjoying working with my hands again, problem-solving and seeing something physical starting to emerge. Something I’d use every day. Something my family and friends would gather around for years to come. Something I could step back and think, “I made that.”

Why just “for the most part?” Because making isn’t my one thing these days. I was building in the middle of the total mayhem of our move and the larger gorgeous, yet complex mosaic of being a dad, husband and more than full-time entrepreneur, producer and writer. My mind doesn’t just drop into that special place where the world falls away and it’s just me and my craft. It takes time.

When making is your one thing, your profession or at least something you do in a substantial way every day, you build the physical and mental space into your life that allows you to drop into the process on a different level. When you’re making in the margins, though, you don’t. So your inability to fully honor the “ramping time” and preparatory rituals, coupled with the likelihood that you’ll get pulled out of the process prematurely can be frustrating.

Once you’re ready to go, you just want to go. And stay there for a while. You want to get lost in the process. You want to be there long enough to find God in the grain.

It’s harder to get to this place once you’re a bit further into life and you’ve made the call to make on the side. You can fight it. And I have. But reality always wins. A better approach is to own your choice and all that comes with it. Including the gift of having people around you who want so much for you to be a part of their experience that they keep asking for your presence. And you, theirs. Love trumps stuff. Even stuff you make.

So you do the dance, knowing that some days you can drop deep into the maker zone, others you’ll stay surface-level and still others, you’ll bounce back and forth. If there’s a way, bring the people you love into the process. And, there is, of course, the nuclear maker-option. The one that finds you so called by your inner-maker that you decide to make making your life. You turn it into your one-thing. There’s actually a fantastic book about this called Shop Class as Soulcraft, about a rising star in knowledge-work finding salvation as a vintage motorcycle mechanic. I’ve been tempted in this direction more than once. And I can’t rule out someday making a similar call.

That’s why I used the qualifier “for the most part.” But there was also something else. I wanted to do right by my materials and those who’d enjoy what they turned into. You probably get that last part, but what about “my materials?” Why would I want to do right by my wood and concrete and water? Because there’s something inside of me that says, on some level, every resource is worthy of respect. Even inanimate tubs of concrete. Sounds weird, I know, but that’s just how I’m drawn.

Back to the table…

It’s make or break time. My concrete mentor, a/k/a the interwebs, tells me my ability to trowel the concrete in just the right way will make or break the whole project. I learn that the material will only be workable for about 20-minutes, so I have to move quickly. I mix up the first batch.

It’s like a thick gray mud. I pour a long, oozing swath down the middle of the table begin to work it out toward the side. At a certain point, I get frustrated with the trowel so I reach down and use my fingers to spread the stuff around. I don’t realize my paw-marks will be so apparent—you can see them in the picture below—until the first layer dries and I see how much every movement shows.

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At first, I think it looks like a big, fat mess. It looks terrible. But I know it’s just the first coat. And, more important, I also feel like a part of me, my imprint, is being layered into the table with every stroke, streak and roll.

Twenty-found hours later, I layer on the second coat. And that’s when the magic begins to happen. It starts to look like concrete. For the first time I start thinking I can pull it off. Create something that people can gather around. And make my girls proud.

Still I notice my trowel work continues to leave all sorts of lines and patterns that will remain in the table. I wonder how much I should leave in and how much I should sand out. Then I think more about what I like about things that are hand-made. And it’s not that they look store-bought.

I like it when you can see and feel the mark of the maker.

So, on the third and final coat, I try to make the marks more evenly spread and multi-faceted, more visually interesting, rather than just a series of long streaks and lines. But I also decide to keep them all visible and tactile. You can run your hand over it and feel the areas of effort and ease.

I sand a bit, then let it all cure for another 72 hours. Then, armed with a thin, 6-inch roller, I layer on three coats of a special food-safe concrete sealer, then seal the bottom of the slab as well. I’m a bit bummed once the sealer goes on, because I love the lighter color color and grainy feel of the unsealed concrete and the sealer darkens and smooths the top. But, in the end, it still looked cool and, if I hadn’t sealed it, the porous nature of the concrete would have left it marked and stained within days. Here’s the finished table…

IMG_1787

IMG_1794

Over the next few weeks, I find myself working with my wife and daughter to modge-podge and resin-coat a kitchen table. And, as I write this, we’re prepping to make a four-foot mosaic coffee table, built on pine and set atop another set of powder-coated steel legs from Turkey, these in a fun turquoise.

In case you hadn’t guessed by now, this isn’t really about building tables. It’s about reconnecting to Self and Source through the process of making. When we honor that primal desire to turn raw materials into something beautiful. When we strive not for perfection, but connection. Engagement. Absorption. Elevation. That deeply experiential and irreverent full-mind-body-massage that comes from breathing and thinking and sweating and toiling and working something into existence. Not just with your mind, but with your hands.

I need more of that. And, if you’ve read this far, it’s a pretty safe bet, so do you.

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Special Note – If you’re interested, we’ve created a powerful opportunity to reconnect with your maker-self, rediscover kid-level fun, moments of awe and melt into amazing new friendships. It’s called Camp GLP. Love to see you there.

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42 responses

42 responses to “Finding God In The Grain”

  1. Camille says:

    Jonathan, great article. Isn’t it nice to discover you’re still an artist? Good job!!!!

  2. Jonathan, your article reminds me of a time I used to go to Omega where they had classes integrating spirituality and sports.

    One year they had one with basketball and in sharing what we wanted from the class, I said to find god. It was in the coordination of the sport as a player and a teammate (see San Antonio Spurs) that i was hoping to go deeper.

  3. P.S. The table came out beautifully. Very impressive Jonathan.

  4. cynthia says:

    Ahhh! someone who absolutely understands just where i am today! thanks…i needed this!

  5. This is great. As an entrepreneur, you’re solving problems like this all the time. But when you’re working with physical materials like this, it’s different.

    I love hearing about this process and how it sparked a sense of connectedness for you. Thanks for articulating it this way. Enjoy many meals around that table!

  6. Pamela Miles says:

    Using my hands always settles me, whether it’s creating a project with lots of challenges to solve, offering healing, or washing the dishes (yes, by hand).

    When my hands are active, my mind is quiet, and my eyes see from a different place.

  7. Lisa Milich says:

    I so get this! I too have gone back to the artist I was as a child through the expressive arts. I create through play and the discovery of what my soul truly wants. Thanks for sharing and enjoy the table!

  8. Jennifer says:

    Beautiful, in every way.

  9. MBR says:

    Hi Jonathan – loved this blog! I, too, miss watercolors and embroidery and playing around with things. Recently had 2 oak chairs sanded, primed, and now I’m painting each rung a different color. Looks so cool! Will put clear sealer on them and have them upholstered. My fun chairs. Doing this work very much taps into something else.., and the joy and confidence of knowing that whatever you create, it is solely yours, alone.

    Great job on the table. Love the steaks and marks left. Thought you might do some doodles on it before it was finalized.. or have the kids do that. !!

  10. Mike J says:

    Very nice work Jonathan!

    I totally agree with the feeling of connection and satisfaction with “working with your hands” – I have been in high tech for almost three decades now, and I spend my days working in virtual worlds, and to balance that I also need to work in the physical world – wether it’s a renovation, welding up railings, working on cars, pouring concrete walls – it does not seem to matter. I even owned a construction company for five years as a “sabbatical” from high tech which was the most fun I have had in years, but as that became less hands-on and more knowledge based, I was not getting the same satisfaction as working directly with my hands.

    One company that seems to be really helping support the Maker movement is Techshop.com. They are in planning to build a facility in New York, and that may be interesting (and possibly addictive) to you as an enabler to let your “inner-child-maker” out – I would be all over this if one was close!

    I too have read “Shop Class as Soulcraft” and can totally relate to this pull to the physical world. I also think that the skill (and courage to learn) to make physical stuff is diminishing, and one of my missions is to teach people how to be comfortable to Do-It-Yourself, and not to be afraid. I often have people over to my shop, and it’s amazing to see their eyes light up when success happens.

    Thank you very much for all your contributions – I learn something from you all the time!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      No doubt, there’s an interesting judgment that’s made about people who work more with their hands, that they only do that because they didn’t have what it takes to do the more “valued” knowledge work. Kind of sad, but that’s the way society, at least in the U.S. is going. Though, with the resurgence of the maker community, I do think we’re seeing a lot of people saying “not so fast.”

  11. Jonathan ~ First off, thank you! For the reminder, for your “back story”, for your process and for your beautiful table and all.

    My “back story” ~ many years ago I took an evening class at the Rhode Island School of Design in painting. We made “funny looking” things – I once painted a bear over the image of the original home of Betsy Williams, in Roger Williams Park, in Providence, Rhode Island. I took another painting class second semester. Quite a few years later, as a graduate student in writing at Brown University, I took two semesters of studio work as part of my MFA fulfillments, not wanting to take any more classroom work while I worked on my thesis. Great combination — using my eye/hand/Spirit in two related yet different ways.

    Since then, from time to time, as I’ve journeyed ’round the US and elsewhere, instead of taking photographs, I’ve taken out paper, cardboard, postcard stock, etc. with whatever medium and “made the picture” rather than “taking the picture”.

    There is something irreplaceable about “making with hands” and saying, “I made that.” that is archaic, atavistic, centering and (sometimes) “useful” (but, not necessarily).

  12. Jonathan! This is absolutely delightful! I loved it. And I LOVE those table legs! I hope you will share your other tables with us. I was thinking when you were doing your concrete top — which is really cool — how pretty glass tiles to other tiles would be or broken old china worked into the concrete so I’m really excited about your mosaic. You GO! My house burned to the ground in February and I pretty much lost everything and all of my furniture was old vintage furniture and handmade and funky stuff that I had searched for for years so I want to take my time, buy the basics, and make upcycled and recycled art and yarn bombing. It’s so much more fun to do your own things and make it your own. Bravo! Keep us in the loop with your handmade journey!

    Blessings to you and your girls…

    Maitri

  13. Micky Wolf says:

    Beautiful table, Jonathan! You gift us in sharing your experience. And then there’s that aspect of God which speaks of His ‘drawing straight with crooked lines.’ I finished painting a room a few days ago and lived this, but the end result was worth every learning/problem solving moment along the way.Thanks for sharing!

  14. Nikki says:

    YES. Just Yes.

    Beauty is not optional. Especially not the beauty found in the heart of making.

  15. Alex says:

    Totally in synch, J.
    A beautiful table and beautiful story.

    I recently started going back to watercolor classes again.
    It feels great to just play with color, water and paper.
    No monetization, no purpose other than to play and create.

  16. Jill Rowe says:

    Wonderful post! And I feel ya ~ last year when I moved into my own apt. For the first time in my life! (long story) I painted the entire place myself ~ each room a different color that connected them all visually. I chose words that embodied what I wanted to feel in each room and painted those on the white walls before I drenched them in color. I got out the sewing machine and made custom curtains for each room. A bed skirt for the bed. I went to the Nut House in NYC (a gold mine hardware store!) and had metal pipes cut to size with matching elbows to create curtain rods. I did the same to make a beautiful canopy bed. The rods suspended from the ceiling and draped with gauzy white curtains. I had created a sacred space for myself and it was an amazing feeling!

  17. This is relatable on so many levels, Jonathan.

    I started working full-time, from home, with my husband when our daughter was still a toddler. I was so focused on her one minute and so focused on work the next, I felt like I was playing myself in a tennis match — and filling in for the ball, too.

    Now that Katie’s home from college and spending hours a day with us, her parents (did that investment of time pay off, or what?) I’m getting a ridiculous amount of pleasure from — of all things — arranging the stuffed animals on her bed in a different scene out of a movie, every night.

    What we’re making? Happy memories. That’s it. The secret to life!

  18. Kara says:

    Thanks for this beautiful post, Jonathan. I’m totally with you. For me it’s my garden. The feeling of working alongside nature, nurturing, loving and facilitating her magic by problem solving, creating from scratch, and ultimately learning the precious and elusive gift of patience. Mmmm. Love it. And so appreciate you.

  19. Wow, Great post Jonathan!

    I’m gonna read more from you!

  20. Wonderful post! It kept me interested until the end (which is rare with this creative grasshopper). I don’t share this often, but my husband and I dream of having our own homestead – exactly for this reason. There’s just nothing more sacred than working with your hands, and there’s such joy to be found in it, even if it is backbreaking, exhausting work. You can put a piece of your soul in anything you build, but it’s just so much easier and more primal when it’s through your hands and when it takes actual physical shape. Thank you so much for sharing!

  21. Hi Jonathan,
    Loved reading this story and process of “it’s not about the table, but about connection”. We say that a lot at Minddrive – “it’s not about the car, but the students connecting with mentors during a project”. All the while, you’re learning and teaching at the same time.
    Personally, I get so much more JOY out of working on projects with my partner, having joint ownership in the finished project. While it can sometimes be difficult to generate the same enthusiasm over each other’s ideas for projects to do together, the process is always so worth it.
    I wonder what we’ll create this summer…

  22. Dean says:

    Wowsers this is good. For the last 5 months I have been struggling with this tension between knowledge work and making.

    I became aware of the lack of “God in the Grain” in my knowledge work. It began to feel as if trying to create value in the world with just my brain was totally inadequate.

    Particularly in contrast to the affirmation and infinite power I feel when dancing with my muse, when making.

    I felt perhaps I was doing my family a disservice by trying to provide for them using only knowledge work and failing to enlist the support of the muse, the creative genius that comes aboard in maker mode.

    In my mind it became polarised, analogue v’s digital.

    While it makes sense to seek a middle path. i.e. put more making, more creativity into knowledge work for greater satisfaction and to create more value. However as you point out it’s not necessarily that simple.

    Ironically New Media and the so called Connection Economy (which drive knowledge work) provide great opportunity for makers. They also contribute significantly to pulling makers away from making as a vocation and “God in the Grain”.

  23. Cathy says:

    Nothing like sitting behind my sewing machine, singing along to my favourite tunes, creating a quilting masterpeice! haha
    I can totally relate!
    Thanks for motivating me to start another project!

  24. Fantastic, Jonathan. Making is my vocation, although I need to support it in corollary ways, so the tug is still there. Great table.

  25. Jonathan says:

    Jonathan,

    I loved this article and resonated with it. I too have been feeling the pull of the “maker”. Not THE Maker 😉 but the desire to use my hands and make something. I keep adding “work with craft project for 20 minutes” on my to do list and it keeps getting deleted, sadly. However I sometimes find the time to pull out the paints and get lost in the work and although I believe that the artistry is crap, I’m really enjoying the process. It brings me into the now and that makes me happy. Thanks for sharing your experience and I look forward to hearing more about what you and your family make.

    Cheers,
    Katie

  26. Darin Bradbury says:

    My first post from you Jonathon and already you have inspired me…thank you.

  27. Tom Bentley says:

    Jonathan, I’m the guy who should leave the power tools unplugged, yet I felt so much resonance with the post. The kind of truth that comes from working with your hands in the world isn’t deep—it’s simple. Those motions that draws on our central self (or shared selves).

    I’d be afraid to put a plate on a table I built, but I love to prune the old, craggy fruit trees in my yard, to chop the vegetables and sizzle them in the pan when it’s my time to cook, to put a bright coat of paint on a faded wall.

    Keep singing through your hands and thanks for the mind-paddle.

  28. Vanessa says:

    Jonathan!
    I so connected with your post! When I’m doing my art, either drawing or making a book, I feel at peace. It’s meditative and soothing to both my hands, mind and Soul. Still, I love how both of my brains are married in this one purpose – to create this piece. There’s not disconnect. Left brain does the troubleshooting. Right brain takes care of the images.
    I’m a firm believer that for our own mental sanity we should all do something with our hands. Gardening, cooking, pottery, the list is endless, and so are the possibilities.
    Create work on the table!

  29. Mark Newsome says:

    Jonathan, while I am not particularly a fan of Tolkien’s writing – elves, hobbits, and the like are just a bit much for me – he had some interesting thoughts about God as the ultimate maker/creator and we mortals as sub-makers/creators…when we create things we somehow tap into – if just in a small way – that universal creative force that brought us all things.

    Your post reminded me of Tolkien’s ideas. He had a short story called Leaf by Niggle where I believe an artist ends up living within his own painting. It would be awfully cool to find a particular concrete table top in the hereafter, wouldn’t it?

    While I’ve enjoyed the Good Life Project immensely, this was my first read here. Many thanks.

  30. Beautifully said! There is something transcendent about making with your hands and the connection you, and others, feel to the end result. But for the maker, it’s all about the process. I love your story and how the pieces you’re making will be a part of your daughters’ lives and memories for keeps. You’ve created appreciation. Mahalo for calling attention to artists and makers. They are truly my favorite people to work with and serve. Inspiration in every moment!

  31. I’m pulling out my jewelry supplies tomorrow!
    Thank you for continuing to inspire, Jonathan.
    I dig your table.
    VERY cool.

  32. Jonathan,

    There are many things I enjoy about your work and mostly I love the way connect an experience from deep inside of you and turn it into a beautiful table. Soul Craft as a way of being in the world, where One has this God idea and applies as a living creation into the world. This is juxtaposed from some Ego creation where the purpose can tend to be as benefit on some personal or material level. I am not knocking the material side of things, I am just saying your work comes from the heart of creation, which is why I believe so many of us are attracted to you, your work and your creation.

    Cant wait to see what happens when people sit and converse at that awe inspired table.

    Blessings,

    Stephen

  33. Marti DeMoss says:

    Jonathan, there are just so many things I love about this post/this table/this experience.

    Thank you for the glimpse into the deliberate, communal creation of what’s inside at the Fields’.

    I’ve longed for all things cement–floors/tables/countertops/houses–since living in Tucson. It’s crazy practical. Sustainable. Contemporary. And looks great with strong pops of color. And now, I’m equally obsessed with those Turkish legs!

    But before I purchase brilliant X’s and set about cementing, I need to clear out some space.

  34. Jonathan,

    I’ve been a subscriber for a short while now, but I LOVE your recent content. It’s exactly the message I hope to convey to people myself as an educator. I’ve seen SO many students and former students (cough, cough, adults) who do not acknowledge, celebrate or encourage their creative interests because it’s for “kids.” And yet. Dr. Stuart Brown (book: Play) has even found a correlation between violent crime and lack of play in the lives of criminal offenders. I spend a lot of time imagining a world where people acknowledge and celebrate their creative interests, building a table, trying the guitar, drawing because they want to (not because it has to look good), and all I see is a better, brighter place. Thank you for spreading that kind of message. Best wishes.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Carrie – I was actually just turned on to Dr. Brown’s work, so interesting. And welcome to the gang! 🙂

      • Thanks Jonathan! Yeah, I’m really interested by his work. I know he speaks about play in general, but I’m using his argument (and Hoehn’s) as a means to help people justify their sometimes secret desire for creative play. It’s great to see others sharing in their interest to try things like building tables!! It looks beautiful. 🙂 Best wishes.

  35. Tony says:

    The table looks great! I love doing projects around the house, it helps me relax in a way I can’t find anywhere else.

  36. Scott Asai says:

    It makes sense to feel closest to the Creator when you are creating. It’s also the best way to learn anything…by doing it yourself!

  37. Andrew Bank says:

    I am also in need of a new, magnificent kitchen table where my family and friends will congregate for many years. Can you point to some of your sources (like the legs) and give me an idea of what this cost you (in hours and money)? I also wonder if you could have done colored concrete. I’ve heard/seen this recently — did you consider? Thanks so much. It’s pretty beautiful.