Shoulder to the Wheel
Curated for the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham, and the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, 2019. Following is my introduction to the catalogue, which also features a terrific essay by Paddy Bullard and a conversation with the three makers involved in the exhibition. (The book is available from the Crafts Study Centre.) Maker images are by photographer Jon Stokes.
There is no point, the old adage goes, in reinventing the wheel. Whoever first said that must not have met a wheelwright. Though apparently simple in its design, consisting only of four components - hub, spokes, felloes and rim – the supposedly traditional wagon wheel is a thing of incredible beauty and sophistication, a technology that was constantly refined over many centuries. When George Sturt published his famous book The Wheelwright’s Shop, in 1923, this extraordinary body of knowledge was being shouldered aside. The advent of the automobile, and of rubber tyres, made the trade all but obsolete within a generation. The goal of the present exhibition, first presented at the Crafts Study Centre in Sturt’s own town of Farnham, is to revisit this domain of material intelligence, and explore its wonders.
To do this, we have taken an unorthodox approach. In collaboration with the Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) at Reading University, which also serves as the second venue for the show, we have selected a single antique wheel dating to the era of Sturt’s involvement in the trade. We then invited three contemporary makers to create a work in its image: Greg Rowland, Zoe Laughlin, and Gareth Neal. Each is a specialist in a particular aspect of craft and design; their competencies are quite different, though overlapping. Together, their responses to this historic artifact represent a multidimensional mediation on making, and the many ways that the past can inform and inspire present-day creativity.
Rowland is the latest in a long lineage of Devon wheelwrights – long, in this case, meaning right back to the 14th century. He has made a close study of the wheel from the MERL collection, and then a close copy. Indeed, it is probably as close as anyone living could achieve, not just because of Rowland’s skills but also his workshop, which is fully equipped for the job. Our request did not present him with a wholly unprecedented situation. Like artisans of any era, much of his work consists in repair and replacement. His shop is often called upon to provide wheels to match an existing vehicle, and part of his expertise consists of connoisseurship, an intimate and detailed understanding of regional and chronological variants, so that he can provide an appropriate restoration. Like so many traditional makers, he says that he learns something brand new each day.
Rowland has also served as an informal chief advisor to the project. During our first team meeting at the MERL, he walked us through the basics of wheel construction – such as its “dish” or concavity, which increases its stability and weight-bearing capabilities – and noted particular (specific? Repetition in the sentence) features of this particular wheel’s style and condition, which marked it out as a rural product made entirely by hand (it was made not far from Rowland’s workshop, in Somerset, in the year 1894). What had been an inert museum object recovered something of its originally intended life as he canted it forward and rolled it side to side, mimicking the motion that it would have had when mounted on a vehicle. It was in this moment, thanks to Rowland’s lifetime of experience, in combination with the historic artifact and Sturt’s beautiful text, that we began to understand what we had got ourselves into.
The designer Gareth Neal is a woodworker of quite a different kind. He knows his way around old furniture, to be sure, and often refers to it in his work. But he makes only forms of his own devising. One constant theme in his work has been the use of technique to imply a temporal shift. In his well-known George chest of 2008, for example, he sculpted the profile of a 1780s commode using a series of parallel cuts executed with a computer-driven router. The object appears to have been excavated from a block, as though it had been there all along. The partially distressed surface suggests the passage of time, an object either falling into ruin or emerging into reality.
In his response to the exhibition, Neal went back to basics, imagining himself back to the very moment when humanity discovered the wheel. As he notes, this simple device could be considered “our greatest achievement,” as it has been instrumental to nearly every cultural advance we have made since – from grain mills to chariots, the printing press to the industrial revolution. In honour of this momentous breakthrough, and as a way of highlighting the technical sophistication of the MERL wheel, Neal began all over again. He simply fashioned a great round cross-section of timber, and then allowed it to have its way. Of course, wood is a living thing, contracting and expanding with humidity, so this monolithic disk (disc? Although Sturt says disk) immediately cracked. Curiously, once repaired with self-consciously “primitive” techniques, this archaic ur-object looks suspiciously like modern art.
Zoe Laughlin works in a seemingly magical yet utterly pragmatic place called the Institute of Making. Think of it as a materials library, like one you might find in any art school, brought to a slightly illogical set of conclusions. It’s a laboratory filled with tools and physical specimens of all kinds, with Laughlin and her colleagues presiding over a constant flow of students, staff, faculty, and other interested parties. The space positively fizzes with possibility, and that was palpable when our team gathered at the midpoint of the project for a conversation – transcribed in this volume.
If Neal decided to look into the deep past of the wheel, Laughlin leans just slightly over the parapet of the future. At her request, the MERL wheel was brought to the Institute of Making and digitally scanned, transforming it into an abstract set of data points. Laughlin, who has just as much of a head for concrete processes as her two fellow makers, was intrigued with the ‘scaffolding’ that the scan contained, part of which captured the rough stand she had built to hold the wheel upright, and part of which was a purely digital effect. She decided to give this messy virtual object an actual, three-dimensional form, without editing it in any way. Initially she hoped to render it in a high-tech material – perhaps space grade aluminium – but this proved impractical, so she instead executed it in cheap and cheerful modeling foam. [to confirm] The resulting object is the antithesis of Neal’s wheel – insubstantial rather than massive – yet equally fragile and impractical. It has sprung from the computer’s brain like Athena from the head of Zeus, but seems to have only barely registered in the physical domain.
Taken together, our quartet of wheels – the same number required for a functional wagon – pay elegant testimony to the poetics of making. They seem to converse with one another across time and space, converging on a prime object and staking out various positions in relation to it. The historic wheel is variously treated as a craft model, a design archetype, and a quarry of raw information. Even so, we have only barely scraped the surface of its potential. Sturt, I think, would want us to imagine the hands that made the wheel, and the life it had over the decades of its use. He would want us to imagine it revolving slowly down a road, in perfect synchronization with its three mates, with the wagon and its load, and with the landscape all around. And he would want us to ask what we’ve made, out there in the world, that could truly be said to better it.
In 1956 a folklorist named George Ewart Evans published a book called Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay. Written that much deeper into the twentieth century, it is even more heart-brokenly elegiac in its portrayal of a disappearing agricultural life. Yet Evans also adopted Sturt’s anti-romantic stance. He approached the old ways of the countryside not in mourning, nor even in a preservationist mode, but rather in a spirit of active learning. “Since its fragmentation village life, and therefore the life of the nation, has suffered, because nothing comparable has taken its place,” Evans wrote. “And while it would be foolish to wish for its return, the gap it has left nevertheless emphasizes the need to build up a conscious community to replace it… We cannot build the future unless we know the past.”
The need for “conscious community” still exists today. As it happens, a wagon wheel is not a bad metaphor for a functioning society: a disposal of counterbalanced forces compounded of diverse materials, anchored by a shared center yet radiating outwards in every direction, flexible but strong, capable of bearing great burdens when necessary. Also, a wheel, even when well-made, creaks a bit in use. Any decent artisan, like any honest citizen, knows that the goal is never perfection. In craft and culture alike, we speak rightly of the importance of tolerance. Finally, we might reflect that when a wheel does get stuck in some rut or other, all is not lost. All that’s needed is for people to get together and put their shoulder to it. Then, the journey may continue.