Wabi-sabi is the belief in the beauty in imperfection. The ancient Japanese philosophy seeks charm in the incomplete object, in the worn and weathered – products with a storied past. A growing movement is championing wabi-sabi, and it is being largely led by generations fatigued with the fetishization of busyness and the cult of perfection. Echoing the Arts and Crafts movement that came before them as a reaction to mass industrialisation and ruthless commercial expansion, today’s social rebels are purposely disconnecting from the hollowness of the corporate world. Instead, theirs is a slower life choice found, also, in the art of craft.
‘Perfectionism is such a funny thing,’ says James Otter, surfboard designer and maker, and founder of Otter Surfboards. ‘Our western cultures celebrate it – tirelessly. But it is a completely unrealistic target for any of us to aim at. It is an unhealthy and often damaging way of thinking.’
Otter has recently authored ‘Do/Make: The power of your own two hands’. by Do Books – the publishers of pocket guides designed to inspire action and positive change. He offers a simple guide to making while posing a compelling case for embracing a life in the arts and crafts. Otter is an award-winning designer who works with wood, sourcing ecological timber and making sustainable surfboards that celebrate beauty in the process.
‘I used to take pride in considering myself a perfectionist until I realised that this way of thinking revolves around judgment from others and when you feel things aren’t perfect, you feel a sense of shame,’ he says. ‘So your options are to achieve something that is technically impossible to reach.’ That doesn’t sound productive, I note. Otter agrees. ‘I found that reframing my making into a journey of achieving excellence was a much healthier way of thinking.’ Otter is also an advocate of the wabi-sabi philosophy. ‘I think it would be amazing if our cultures could move to a place where experimentation and striving for excellence were revered far more than the outcome.’
Our entire education system is geared towards promoting perfection though, I say. Otter agrees that we are all likely to suffer from the fear of non-achievement – that at some stage in life our creativity has been knocked back by someone or even ourselves. ‘But what if we lived in a society that celebrated play – a place where having a go, and making mistakes were acknowledged as a way to progress? What a wonderful world that would be!’
Even before the pandemic took us by storm, many of us were reconnecting with the art of making, and the process of creating. Otter’s book happens to coincide with our current crisis. ‘As we progressed with the editing phase during the start of the pandemic, we noticed how people were reconnecting with their local environments, taking time to be with the people around them and reconnecting with the art of making,’ he tells me. ‘There is such a mental, physical and spiritual benefit to be found from reconnecting with our hands,’ he adds, ‘and there is no better time than now.’
Then there are the health benefits of creating. With wellness and mindfulness becoming increasingly pivotal in our lives, the art of making can cultivate a healthier lifestyle. If mindfulness is the idea of being in the present in each moment, regardless of activity or state of mind, then what could embody the spirit more than taking up a slow-motion craft.
‘Mindfulness is about being able to calm the mind, recognising thoughts, acknowledging them, then letting them pass,’ agrees Otter. ‘So, when we embark upon any journey of making, we are given the opportunity to be completely absorbed in that process and by doing so, we can be present. With that in mind, the more opportunities we can create to make things, the more chance we will have of forming lasting habits that keep us making and provide us with the mental benefits for years to come.’
It seems like a win-win situation but I’m interested to know the necessary steps towards cultivating a passion for making. How do I know what I want to make, for instance? Otter has some helpful tips: ‘The first would be to pick something you are already excited or passionate about. For me, this was surfing. Then create a space to work in so that you can keep coming back to it as and when you are able. Then schedule the time to devote to it. Then release yourself from judgments by others and yourself.’
He says it is the fear of not being good enough that likely stops most of us in our tracks. ‘So, recognise this and let is pass. Finally, get stuck in – there is no right or wrong way to do this, mistakes made whilst making provide an opportunity to learn and help with the continual development of your skills. Enjoy the journey.’
The art of making ought to have some purpose too. Finding happiness in making also entails thinking about the larger picture. ‘As someone who designs and makes things for a living, for me it is so apparent that every decision I make along a product’s journey has an environmental impact,’ says Otter, ‘and if we want to continue to make things – and survive on this wonderful planet – we need to put the environment first, always.’
Otter’s craft of choice has the added power of being a rather evocative product. His current favourite surfboard is designed to be versatile and withstand most wave conditions. ‘I spend a lot of time in the ocean with it – interacting with the wonderfully dynamic environment of the sea,’ he offers. ‘There is such magic in moving across the ocean, riding on a wave of energy that has travelled hundreds, if not thousands of miles to reach the shore before it rises, peaks and folds in a way that we can utilise. It is my happy place!
John Ruskin, William Morris, and their Arts and Crafts comrades fought tirelessly to bring back the joy of craft and celebrate the natural beauty in materials. They understood the relation between art, society and labour, and in the darkest hours of industrialisation applauded the art of making. As we head deep into the machine age, begin to see the effects of globalisation, and try to salvage a climate in crisis, echoes of the movement continue to shine some light on life.
‘Do/Make: The power of your own hands’ is published by Do Books