Surfer, craftsman, innovator. James Otter is a man who has made his life about, well... making things. Creating his wooden surfboards is a painstaking labour of love, and a tactile experience the likes of which many will not have had since childhood.
In an extract from his new book Do Make, the award-winning wooden surfboard pioneer invites us to rediscover the joy of making.
“Through the act of making, we reawaken our hands and minds to reconnect with the beauty of the natural world around us. Making allows us to slow down, offers an opportunity to grow in confidence, and can lead to a deeper sense of purpose.” - James Otter
When was the last time you created something you were willing to put your name to? How far back do you have to go? Yesterday, last week, last year… maybe even back to school? If you cast your mind back to your childhood, do you have memories of making and creating? Clicking Lego pieces together, digging your fingers into Play-Doh, or running them through paints and across pieces of paper?
When we are children, play and creation seem to fall hand-in-hand. Through play, we interact with the world around us and become aware of our own sense of uniqueness. The marks we make on a piece of paper with our fingers dipped in paint, the shapes we squeeze and mould out of dough and the structures we build by clicking blocks together have come to exist through us and our hands. In their own small way, they stand as a physical representation of how we have made our mark on the world around us. And as children, we have no problem presenting them to the world: ‘Mum! Dad! Look what I made!’
Those early memories will almost always be connected to a person or people with whom the experience is shared — a parent, sibling, teacher or best friend. With these people, we are exploring our impact on the world, collaborating and interacting to create shared visions. They are also the people whose judgement ultimately has the strongest impact on what we decide to do next.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.” — Pablo Picasso
The reason we all struggle to remain artists as we grow up is that we learn to fear judgement. We get caught up in trying to create something that’s perfect, so it isn’t judged negatively. At school, especially, when we start to compare our creations with those of our friends, we begin to believe the story that maybe we aren’t quite good enough. That perhaps our talents lie elsewhere. So gradually we stop creating. We stop making.
In order to create and make again, we need to understand how to release ourselves from the judgement of others and, more importantly, of ourselves. We need to see that the pursuit of perfection is not a healthy one. We must recognise the story that we are telling ourselves — the one we are now living — and work out how that needs to change in order for us to believe that we can do things. We can be creative. We can make things.
“That slow tempo of craftwork, of taking the time you need to do something well, is profoundly stabilising to individuals.” - Richard Sennett
The idea of craftsmanship is to continually work on a process, seeking perfection through a feedback loop that requires judgement from yourself, while acknowledging that true perfection is unattainable. So craftsmanship is a celebration of judgement and an intrinsic understanding that things will be ‘wrong’, yet we do them anyway.
Anthropologist Alice Roberts once said that we humans are thinkers and makers and those two things combine uniquely in our species.
For me, the two things are inextricably linked. The act of making, actively using our hands, gives us the opportunity to think. It creates a point of focus for the conscious mind and the physical body that allows space for the subconscious mind to wander, much like in meditation. As a result, it is recognised as a process that can be used for therapeutic purposes. In fact, the practice of occupational therapy was born from the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth century, which actively promoted a return to handcrafting as a response to industrialised production.
Yet here we are, almost 150 years later, and as a society we are even more disconnected from our hands, from materials and from the earth. However, the connection isn’t completely lost. Creativity is very much all around us. More than likely you are practising it already.
Do you remember the last time you tried a new recipe, when you cracked open a favourite cookbook and thumbed your way through its pages until something jumped out that you wanted to try and recreate? You followed the instructions as best you could, step by step, likely adding your own twist by replacing an ingredient with something you actually had in the cupboard. Smelling and tasting it as you went to try to get a sense of where the dish was headed. You tried to wrap your tongue and taste buds around the flavours that were being filtered through your senses until, excitedly and nervously, you dished it out onto a plate.
As you ate, weren’t you often wondering if it might have been a little more tender if you’d taken it off the heat sooner, or maybe the sauce would have been richer in flavour and texture if you’d left it to simmer for a few more minutes? Whatever happened, you’ll either have created a delicious meal and discovered new ingredients and a process that you will replicate another time, or accepted it’s not the best thing you’ve ever eaten and you’ll look to find ways to improve it next time. Whatever the outcome, you gave it a go and most likely learned something to enrich your understanding.
“Humans do two things that make us unique from all other animals: we use tools and we tell stories. When you make something, you’re doing both at once.” - Adam Savage
Working with raw materials to produce something that didn’t exist before is a form of making that most of us engage in on a daily basis. Taking those materials through a process that delivers a desirable outcome may seem basic, but it can be incredibly rewarding. If the headspace and sense of satisfaction that cooking gives us can be celebrated and enjoyed, making something — anything — will benefit our mood. In fact, engaging in this kind of meaningful, practical activity is not only of benefit, but essential to good mental health, and making doesn’t need to stop at the morning cup of coffee or the evening meal.
Now more than ever, as a society — as human beings — we need to recognise the physical and mental benefits of making, and support and encourage each other to give it greater prominence in our lives, and create time for regular practice.
When we were children, making came naturally. All we need is the space, encouragement and confidence to get started again.
This extract is taken from Do Make: The power of your own two hands by James Otter.
Text copyright © 2020 James Otter. The full book was published by the Do Book Co on 3rd September 2020 and is now available to purchase from Otter Surfboards, the Do Book Co, Amazon and all good book stores.