You may recall from TMC 04, Tom Mix is a retired Captain of the United States Marine Corps. who builds replicas of Burlington and also Colorado and Southern steam locomotives in quarter-inch scale to exacting standards. Tom’s medium of choice is brass and he can fabricate whatever he needs for a project rather than rely solely on commercial components of questionable quality.
Over the decades, he has steadily worked to improve his skills and understanding to the point of mastery. He’s acquired a deep knowledge of the craft and can do whatever he wants with the medium. Having said that, Tom would be the first to balk at my use of the word mastery. Over many communications, I have the sense that he thinks of himself as mostly a beginner, even though his present skill set leaves the rest of us in the dust. He would be the first to point out his mistakes and shortcomings on a model and share how his early work was crude.
Looking at the precision of his work today, it’s hard to find words that express the depth of feeling it evokes. As the saying goes: “I’ll know it when I see it.” In his work, you see it. When I think of the idea of deep knowledge, Tom’s work comes to mind.
To do work like this requires a deep knowledge of materials, techniques and the process of bringing both together. There is no shortcut to such knowledge; it is acquired piece by piece over time and with effort. Hard won as it often is, it’s also available to anyone willing to invest in the process.
Investing ourselves in mastering a skill has fallen out of fashion now. It is just as unwelcome in general society as it’s become in many quarters of the hobby.
In his book, “Mastery”, author Robert Greene suggests that the global forces at work today can leave people feeling overwhelmed. He asserts that as we deal with such feelings, we often resort to surrender types of behavior. In other words, we tend to behave passively when we feel important choices are out of our hands. Perhaps if we don’t try very hard, then we can tell ourselves that it might mitigate any feelings of failure or helplessness. He further suggests that today we don’t have to expend a lot of effort because of the numerous labor saving technologies at our command. If I have a question, I don’t have to do hard or extensive research; I can just ask Mr. Google or hop on some forum and let others do my thinking for me and be comforted by how efficiently I’ve worked.
Carried to its logical end, this mindset eventually reduces our capacity to act rather than building it. Our expectations are lowered and in time, we just come to expect that things will be of a lesser quality, leading us to expend even less effort. We can also stop listening to or having faith in our own thinking and place too much value on everyone else’s. In the long term, our choices are greatly diminished.
I agree with much of what Mr. Greene outlines in his book, including his comment that we are in danger of losing sight of something important: the idea that we get the mind we deserve by the quality of effort we bring to developing it. Like any other muscle, our minds need exercise in the form of effort applied toward challenging tasks including our work as modelers.
Within our craft, much of the commentary surrounding this whole topic centers on the idea that a majority of people just don’t care anymore. The claim that the abundance of ready-to-run products has destroyed the need for advanced skills has almost become a doctrinal truth for some people. There is truth in both assertions but I think they only scratch the surface of things. Plus, something to remember is this: The hobby isn’t as monolithic as many want to believe it is.
The rise of online forums plays a role here. The nature of forums tends to foster a monolithic view, as small groups of like-minded and vocal people eventually dominate the discussion, even to the point of shouting down (outright shaming in some cases) any opposing views. If all you look at are beginner-oriented forums, you’ll get the sense that things have gone to hell in a hand basket. As a veteran modeler, the often banal answers to legitimate newbie questions can leave you wondering what happened to all the knowledge gained over the last 60 years. Names of hobby pioneers like Jack Work, Paul Larson, Lynn Westcott and many others are virtually unknown among today’s generation of younger modelers. It gives one pause. Clearly it’s a different landscape than what we’re used to and it seems a lot of valuable knowledge isn’t being passed on to the next generation.
Or is it? The rise of Railroad Prototype Modelers meets suggest otherwise. There are also craftsman level forums, where the membership and discussion is actively monitored to maintain the quality of information and the group. For the serious craftsmen, these are a valued resource and also a refuge. What the Internet has enabled is the opportunity for like-minded people to easily find and connect with each other. This is simultaneously, its greatest strength and greatest flaw, in that the world is wide open, and yet can quickly become very small and self-absorbed.
Returning to the topic of deep knowledge, what motivates one to do their best?
You can’t develop any level of deep knowledge overnight. The brain doesn’t function that way. It’s acquired bit-by-bit, over time through sustained, focused effort. It’s my view and experience that the motivation that sustains you through long periods of failure and frustration is internal, bar none. Something inspires you, and from that point on you’re hooked. A spark has been ignited and you want to develop the required skill to do similar work. The thought, the idea, the muse, whatever you call it, has captured your imagination and won’t let go. The rest is simply putting yourself in a chair with the materials at hand, and working with them until the process is internalized. In other words: Practice, fail, practice some more, fail again. Keep practicing and keep learning from the failures. This is how skill and mastery is built.
I’ve always been drawn to ridiculous levels of detail. My strongest influence as an artist was the work of Andrew Wyeth. Studying his work trained my eye how to search for the essence beneath the surface of an object. My dad’s collection of Fine Woodworking magazines taught me about the nuance of craft, along with ways to achieve it. My modeling influences included the late Bill Clouser and Bob Hegge.
The work fed something in my soul and produced a desire to do similar quality work. That desire is internal and motivated me to probe deeply into what this level of work and quality was about. Over time each of these influences carried over into my practice of the hobby. I stopped thinking of the knowledge gained from one source as separate or not applicable to other areas. For me, a model railroad is a three dimensional canvas on which I can craft a tangible, moving image. I find this approach fascinating and deeply satisfying.
Are we focused on the wrong thing?
Looking at Tom’s work, it’s obvious he loves what he’s doing. How do you explain the care and amount of work he puts into each build? To the topic at hand, how do we do better at sharing stories like his? How do we share the joy and sense of deep satisfaction that such craftsmen experience?
I’m reaching the conclusion our (my) focus is misplaced. We can bemoan the loss of craft and it’s impact on the future of our craft, but each of us is free to pursue this hobby to whatever degree we desire. No one can take that away, or dictate it for another. External circumstances are far less relevant than we are led to believe. Further, we can and should, find ways to tell a more engaging and compelling story.