24th August 2017

An unexpected journey from tree to chair

An unexpected journey from tree to chair Cover Photo

Dr Mandy Nelson, Director of Research and Collaboration at Ruskin Mill Trust, joins students on a task – and realises the power of the activity...

I was invited to spend a week in a woodland making a chair. This seemed like one of the more unusual and potentially challenging staff development activities that I had ever been offered. As the Director of Research and Collaboration, my role is predominantly office based, and I have spent most of my working career in the comfort of an office.

The idea of making a chair filled me with both excitement and horror. I did wonder if the fact that my Dad was a carpenter would make me pre-disposed to woodwork – as if it would be in my genes. The purpose of making a chair was not so much about skills development for a future career as a chair maker, but was more about the experience. The chair itself was a ‘pedagogic decoy’. Key to my learning was the experience of engaging with the material and tools (cognitively, emotionally and physically), rather than simply making a chair.

Reflecting on my experience of making a chair, not only did it provide useful personal insights but it also showed me that the experience of crafting a chair replicated that of undertaking any project.

My starting point was an idea (to make a chair) and material - a tree trunk, which days earlier had been a living, breathing, growing tree. That was quite a sobering thought. A tree had been cut down for me to make a chair – I guess I had to honour the tree. The first step of the journey was to enter into a process with the material, some tools and with a guide who was going to lead and support me through the process. I started by splitting the logs with an axe. This required a lot of effort, but there was very little to show for it, other than a pile of split logs and aching arms. We were not quite at ‘chair stage’ yet.

After the axe came the cleaving, splitting the wood. This required consideration of angles of movement and the careful application of pressure – akin to negotiating processes and politics, opportunities and constraints. At times, I had to step back and reflect, and then change my stance (or position) in order to get the wood to split in the direction I needed it to. This required careful consideration, negotiation and re-appraisal of my position and activity. Throughout this process, I had to be mindful of the grain of the wood, its natural patterns and behaviours, and at times, of its tolerances and resistances. We were in this together, and I had to listen to the wood.

As I worked to transform the material from tree to chair, I did so in the company of a guide and fellow traveller on the journey. Sitting in the sunshine on the shaving horse, engaged in conversation and relaxed in the rhythm of the draw saw, the strengths of working together were apparent. At times, the movements were long, arching, slow and effortless. In contrast, there were times for precision and careful measurement. Sometimes there was a need to step back, to respect the grain and work with the material rather than fight its inner nature.

As the chair started to form into recognisable component parts, there was the opportunity for reflection and fine-tuning before assembly. Putting it all together was a task that could not be rushed or completed alone. Like any project, there was a need for a plan, for teamwork, for external support and for all the component parts to assemble in the right place, in the right order and at the right time. It reminded me of project plans long ago completed.

What had been a tree only days earlier now started to resemble a chair – but it was not finished. The legs needed levelling, the seat needed to be woven and the wood needed to be stained. I had not yet completed the chair. Then, after five days of making… there stood a chair. It looked like a chair, a chair that I had made myself. It stood up and didn’t wobble. It held my weight. It was a real chair! I was rather pleased with what I had made (as shown by my multiple chair photo posts on social media).

On reflection, I could never have made the chair without starting with an idea and then engaging in a collaborative dialogue with the material (the wood). In addition, the chair would not have emerged without the tools and without the guidance, support and companionship of my colleagues. Like any project, there were challenges, resistance, times I had to start again, and battles (with a knot in an intended chair leg) I could not win, but there was also fun, enjoyment and laugher, companionship and collaboration, and achievement and celebration – and a well-earned sit down on my chair with a cup of tea.

For most of the students at our colleges, young people with autism and other learning disabilities, this kind of outcome is impossible to imagine. Many have been excluded from traditional educational settings and have a huge range of barriers to learning. By transforming the material, they begin to transform themselves. I experienced it myself as I had to learn the nature of the wood and respect its tolerances. As I watched the chair take shape, I made discoveries about myself and in the finished chair was a reflection of me. Engaging with the material gave me a greater sense of myself. To a young person who has spent much of their life labelled and marginalised, this is the greatest lesson we can teach them.

Ruskin Mill Trust operates seven provisions across England and Wales for ages seven and upwards in both day and residential settings. If you’re interested in discovering more about the potential of practical skills in education, contact us to enquire about our Masters programme, delivered in collaboration with Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences.