A Thing of Beauty

It is a thing of beauty.

And as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

And as we further know, some beholders have better eyesight than others.

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, stand and tell everybody else where they’re going wrong. They’re called critics.

And I don’t mind what critics say as long as they’ve been through the process – if they’ve created something from nothing and had the guts to lay it before others for judgement.

But I do mind if they are just professional opinion-givers. The object of the exercise with them is to glorify themselves, not to encourage or improve the work of others. It’s about them, not the thing upon which they give an opinion.

And that’s all it is – an opinion. Not fair appraisal from a member of the peer group, or constructive comparison based on study and research. No. It’s an opinion. It has as much or as little validity as ‘I don’t like liver, but you might.’ No, no, not even as much as that, because that case allows for the fact that someone else might like liver. The professional opinion-giver will say, ‘I don’t like liver and therefore liver is worthless.’

Oh, admittedly, they may give reasons why they don’t like it – the size of it, the shape of it, the colour of it – but it all boils down to eight words. ‘I don’t like it therefore it is worthless.’

And that’s what she said. ‘I don’t like it therefore it is worthless.’

Except she said it in two hundred supercilious words in a national newspaper.

But back to the thing of beauty. It’s a cabinet, as tall and wide as a doorway, and it would enhance any palace in which it stood. And she dismissed it as ‘an up-ended giant toy box with painted squares on the front’.

A ‘box’. She called it a box’.

It’s a thing of beauty. I know, because I made it.

‘Made’ is such a small word, don’t you think? Four little letters to convey the fact that, using years of experience and knowledge, I planned its design and chose the perfect slabs of oak, surveying their history and glimpsing their future in their grain. To complement them I selected contrasting pieces of dark bog oak, light maple and red padauk; I measured them, marked them, checked them and rechecked them, sawed, chiselled, hammered, planed and sanded. I fashioned rebated dovetails that can only be seen from inside the cabinet and fitted concealed hinges so that the sleek lines of the outside are undisturbed. I created fifteen panels for the front of the cabinet – five each from the dark, light and red woods, all of them different, all of which slide and move and are intrinsic to the locking mechanism I fashioned; I smoothed, oiled, polished, rubbed down, smoothed, oiled and polished again and again until the cabinet glowed as if it held the sun.

From raw timber I wrought this cabinet with the all the care, love, heart and soul of me.

And in essence her opinion was: ‘I don’t like it therefore it is worthless.’

So, putting education before retaliation, I invited her to take another look at it, and she came to my studio. I showed her the grain of the oak, and she learnt that it was from a tree grown in the centre of a forest, because they grow straight and true as they reach up for the light, and don’t cast branches out to the side as a tree would at the forest’s edge. I encouraged her to feel how each of the panels she’d scorned as ‘painted squares’ was an exquisitely carved masterpiece in its own right, and she learnt that the fifteen panels provide over a trillion combinations of design as well as being a functional lock. I cast a bright spotlight onto the interior and invited her inside, and she learnt that there was an undiscovered world of hidden craftsmanship in the intricate, elegant mechanisms and precise carvings, one of which might be her.

She was too busy seeking her own image to notice me step back, and too self-absorbed to marvel that despite its size, the door of the cabinet could swing on silky, silent hinges and close with the merest sigh of air. She learnt just how dark it was once the cabinet was closed and locked.

The cabinet’s going in another exhibition next month. This time it’ll be labelled as ‘The Maggot in The Heartwood’ and people will be told that any smell which comes from it – any last faint vestige of the once reeking, pungent odour of decay – is an artistic element of the whole piece, conveying the bitterness that can hide in a thing of beauty.

Carol Carman’s splendid new novel – Gingerbread Children – is out now, published by McCaw Press.

Some Amazon reviewers have said:

“What a delightful read”

“Wonderfully written”

“Such an amazing book from start to finish”

Picture source: Auckland Museum