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Soulknapping

A personal odyssey through 2.5 million years of creativity

by Geoff Kelso

"Artless art" is the artistic process within the artist; its meaning is "art of the soul." All the various moves of all the tools means a step on the way to the absolute aesthetic world of the soul.

The artless art is the art of the soul at peace, like moonlight mirrored in a deep lake. The ultimate aim of the artist is to use his daily activity to become a past master of life, and so lay hold of the art of living. Masters in all branches of art must first be masters of living, for the soul creates everything.

Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

So, what is soulknapping? Flintknapping is a process of striking and/or pressing off what are perceived to be superficial defects on a suitable piece of stone to reveal what the knapper sees as the tool or piece of art that resides in the core of the stone. I believe, as we grow from infancy, the naturally beautiful core of our soul is layered with the scars of abuse, lies and even well-intentioned misinformation. Even our system of public education, as positive an influence as it is supposed to be, is a propaganda machine aimed at programming conformity and complacency. To truly encourage people to think independently and creatively and to cultivate their own inner beauty is to invite disorder and ambiguity. We start life as sensory beings, absorbing everything. The stuff that tends to scar us is, initially, inflicted upon us. But as we grow into adulthood, we have learned these lessons so well that, more and more, our wounds are self inflicted and, ultimately, we are responsible for the fullness or emptiness of our lives. Soulknapping is stripping away the layers of scarring to once again reveal the beautiful core that is in each of us and through that core, which is our soul, be touched by and touch in a loving way all the beauty that surrounds us.

From a very early age, as I tried to find my place in the world, I can remember questioning my perception of reality - was our relationship to nature and each other always like this? If not, how was it different, how did we arrive where we are, could we have arrived at a different place? Not unlike most of us, I grew up in a dysfunctional family in which various kinds of lies were commonplace. So among my earliest questions were - what is truth, what is love, where do I belong? That is how my odyssey began.

Most of my 46 years have been spent in sickness. As long as I can remember, I have been plagued with severe headaches and depression. In the mid-eighties, I began to suspect that they might be related to food and digestion. This suspicion was confirmed in December, 1993 and, with proper treatment, I am free of pain and anguish for the first time in my life. But, as debilitating and sometimes life threatening as that aspect of my life was, it was a precious gift. It led me to question on a regular basis whether, and why, I wanted to continue living. The fact of my mortality has been present in every major decision I have made and I am unable to take life for granted.

I was an average student until my junior year in college when I discovered archaeology. It was the beginning of a life-long immersion in the prehistory and history of human technology. My efforts in the study and practice of tool-use have taught me much about the course of social and cultural evolution. And they have helped me discover and reclaim my keys to the universe. We are all born with keys to the universe. The typical process of socialization strips us of them and tells us we are nothing special. As adults, if we are to flourish in our humanity, our first task is to reclaim our keys - the special parts of our souls through which we come to know ourselves and our relationship to others. In studying, making and using tools, I discovered my own creativity and through that, my connection to the universe.

In 1974 I reached a crossroad in my life. Inspired by excavating and studying the tools used by past cultures, I decided to learn how to use tools. As I grew up, I was not exposed to even the most basic tools and the pleasure and power of creative self expression. I was in awe of people who made things and thought I had no creative ability. I struggled past my fear and enrolled in a farriery school in Olympia. Among our first tasks was making the various chisels and punches used in making horseshoes. To my amazement, I found that I could learn to make my own tools and that I was very good at it.

The forge was a very auspicious place for me to begin learning hand skills. It enabled me to experience the marvelous liberation of making and using my own tools and, because of the nature of forge work, I had my first exposure to the ritual and pace of pre-industrial life. Every time I built a fire in my forge I felt connected to thousands of years of practice and thousand of previous practitioners. I was also helping to preserve skills that are in danger of being lost. The pace of forging is the pace of the fire. "Strike while the iron is hot" has real meaning when one is working hot iron. It is a much more human pace than the one established by machines, which do not tire and will not stop until the power is shut off. The fire must be built properly or it will not work. The metal is brought up to heat and worked until it loses heat and then it is reheated and worked again. Through this process the smith has time to rest, consider what has been done and what should be done next. It is satisfying, well-paced work.

Every artist is making a statement and that statement reveals the artist's soul. What I learned about myself through my forgings is that my statements are centered on delicacy and grace and that foundations and details are very important. However, the dark side is perfectionism and I learned about that later.

In 1978 I acquired a metal lathe. I enrolled in machine shop courses at Shoreline Community College and, based on my performance, was offered a job teaching at Shoreline. I had never imagined myself as a teacher but found, through teaching, a powerful form of expression for the nurturer in me. I particularly enjoyed being able to identify with frightened, insecure students, leading them through their fear and showing them capabilities they never dreamed they possessed. It is has been the most rewarding work I have done and I believe my own journey prepared me to lead those willing to seek the artist within.

In 1986, funding for the classes I taught dried up and I turned once again to my creative abilities. One aspect of detail that is important to me is the manner in which various elements of a designed piece are joined together. I like clean joints and modern metalwork relies a lot on welded joints which are usually obvious and, to me, unattractive. I set about to devise a way to make metal furniture with very clean, precise, unwelded joints. The solution I arrived at required a special tool for drilling holes with a precise relationship to each other. I spent about two months designing and building this tool and was very excited about it. When I first used it and assembled the pieces I drilled with it, they didn't fit. I thought I had been very careful and that, if it didn't work, there must be something wrong with me. Up to that point I had proudly referred to myself as a perfectionist. I had made one of my best efforts and it failed. I was devastated. I tried the tool one more time and noticed that the piece I was drilling slipped under the forces of the press. All I had to do was add a clamping screw and it worked, dare I say, perfectly. I resolved at that point to never again exalt perfectionism as being other than destructive if taken seriously. I do very fine work and maintain high expectations and ideals, but I no longer allow results to be a commentary on my essential worthiness. When some aspect of my work falls short of my goals, I either decide it is good enough or I do it over.

In 1987 I fulfilled a dream left from my days as a student of archaeology. I learned flintknapping. Of the technologies I have studied and practiced, it is, by far, the most demanding and the most rewarding. It involves the totality of one's mind and body. To understand what the stone will give you requires absolute concentration. There are no shortcuts and the modern pace of life is of no use. It is a highly meditative exercise in which time almost ceases to exist. And, as with my experience forging, every time I knap I feel a powerful connection to, in this case, 2.5 million years of practice and to the spirits of my predecessors.

In practicing these technologies and studying their evolution, I have learned much about who we are, where we came from and how we got here. With the revolutions in agriculture, industry and medicine we have, over the past 15,000 years, made our world a vastly different place than it was for the past 2.5 million. Many of us are struggling with the loss that has accompanied these vast changes. Loss of meaningful rituals born in a shared and proud culture. Loss of true connection with the earth, our ancestors and our descendants. Loss of identity with our unique souls. I did not consciously set out to discover myself, nor did I see my path as an odyssey. But I paid attention along the way. I listened to my heart when it spoke loudly and I have had the good fortune to learn from masters of their craft. I have also learned that is possible, with hard work, discipline and a willingness to seek help, to regain what has been lost - realizing that it is a process, never a completed act.


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