A Feet First School

In Episode 5 of Teach With Your Hands, Brandy Clements tells a story about how her aunt learned chair caning from the older members of her family. Brandy’s aunt was a nurse at the time, didn’t know a thing about chair caning, but she wanted to learn.

So, her first step was to put an ad in the paper: “chair caner for hire”. Naturally.

Soon, the orders started piling up. She had chairs in need of repair stacked around her living room.

And then she got to work “strong-arming the ailing men into perpetuating the family tradition.”* She learned how to cane on the orders she was getting, with the help of the experienced members of her family. Now she’s been operating a part-time caning business for more than 30 years.

What’s the lesson here?

For some reason, many of us have developed this narrative that learning and doing are separate. First you learn how to do something. Then you do it. But is that really true?

It’s easy to understand where we got this narrative. Many professional careers depend on getting a degree or certificate of some kind. First you go to school and learn, then you get a job and do. Even the way many university programs are formatted work that way. First you read the book, write the paper, understand the theory. Then, during the last 6 months of a 4-year program, you step into a classroom, an internship, a capstone project… and try actually doing it for the first time.

The problem isn’t as bad in art and trade schools. If you promised someone they’d learn how to build furniture at your school without actually building anything, or that they’d spend 3 years reading books before they sat down at a potters wheel, they’d laugh. For some reason, it’s easier to see how closely tied real learning and doing are in these situations.

But even these schools sometimes fall short.

Because as every professional artist or maker knows, the physical skills are only half the work of making a living.

Imagine an art or trade school where you not only learned to make art by doing it, but you also learned how to sell art, run a business, organize people and events, manage your finances, connect with a community, and do marketing… by actually doing it.

Imagine a school which enabled students to do what Brandy Clements’ aunt did: jump in feet first (or maybe hands first), gaining real and valuable experience from the first moment, all under the supervision of knowledgeable instructors who could give her fundamental knowledge, help her solve problems, and keep her out of trouble.

It wouldn’t be easy or efficient to run a school like this. It wouldn’t lend itself to quantification. But it would absolutely be the best way to become a maker or artist, one capable of adapting to changes in the marketplace, starting new ventures, and solving problems. One confident about their ability to be what they profess to be: a professional.

At least, I believe so. I’m jumping into this venture hands first, too, learning as I go. The best way I can imagine.

*Quote from Brandy’s website, silverriverchairs.com