In stark contrast to model railroading, the applied and performing arts view qualities like craft, skill and mastery with deep respect and treat them as something to aspire toward. I’ve recently discovered a wonderful magazine called American Craft, published by the American Craft Council. Like the work featured within, it is a beautifully produced publication, dedicated to the work of some of America’s finest craftspeople. While I don’t find all of the work featured in each issue aesthetically pleasing, I can’t ignore the level of mastery and skill these artisans bring to their chosen craft.
Reading through the various articles I began to wonder why concepts such as mastery, skill and craft are held in high regard by some disciplines and reviled by others.
For decades the conversation about this hobby has been framed around the ambiguously defined idea of fun, with the result being an increasingly passive level of involvement on an individual’s part. Essential skills once taken for granted are now virtually unknown among a large segment of hobbyists. Further, they see no need for such skills given the abundance of ready-to-run products. Those like myself, who advocate for a more thoughtful and considered approach are demonized as elitist snobs who want to take all the fun out of the hobby and are ruining it for everyone.
Today, you would have to be a willfully blind fool to ignore the fact that the hobby as fun mindset has won the hearts and minds of the majority. Given the human condition, it’s hard to argue against fun. It’s hard to seek the high road when the low road whispers more seductively. For all of its enticements though, the easy road always presents unintended consequences that have to be dealt with in time.
I’m not opposed to fun. However, my remaining time in this realm is painfully short and I have no time for an easy hobby that leaves me empty and always wanting more. I don’t have time to waste on passive mediocrity that merely panders to my momentary whims. Nor do I have time for a hobby that has become a caricature of itself; one that’s had the character and depth sucked out of it to the point of irrelevance.
I’ve concluded that it’s a tactical error to demonize the idea of “fun” along with ready-to-run products as the source of the problem. That battle has already been lost and they are only the visible symptoms of a deeper disease that is robbing us of our depth as humans: Our addiction to cheap and easy solutions for everything.
Like any activity, this hobby will reward you according to what you bring of yourself to it. Bring an attitude of indifference and you will see results that no one, not even you cares much about. Bring a spirit of inquiry and curiosity and your rewards will be equal to that spirit. Bring a dedication to excellence and you’ll be richly compensated.
These days, I’ve been thinking about the subject of craft and what it means to me. I’ve been thinking about how the admission price of the skills that lead to excellence is steep but worth whatever the cost may entail. I’ve been thinking of what it means for my practice of the hobby. It means freedom. Freedom from the gnawing hunger of wanting it all. Freedom from the relentless compromises that cheapen my enjoyment and understanding of railroading in miniature.
It means a respect for the process and materials along with the time and effort required to use them well. It means an attitude of humility, of knowing I will always be a student of the work and, that the outcomes are out of my control. Ultimately, it means a respect for the depth of what it means to be human and of how to bring that meaning to an activity I deeply enjoy. Seen in that light, this hobby is worthy of my time and I’m enjoying it immensely.
Booker T. Washington
You are not alone!
Are you familiar with the ballad “Thomas the Rhymer”?
Towards the end, it contains the following, which has stayed with me since my early teens:
To me, that is “fun”.
But then, I am funny like that…
Thanks to your thoughtful blogs Mike I have faced the hard reality of beating my head against a wall trying to build a “craft” layout since re entering the hobby in 1984. That’s almost 30 years…and it all started with a handful of N scale Micro Engineering flex track and skeleton turnouts, custom painted (Ma and Pa) diesels, track plans from the Historical Society, craftsman wood kits, a narrow shelf layout around the spare room. Family, career moves and work schedules/commutes, finances…it just never meshed with our lifestyle. Approaching retirement I think I owe my failing eyes, broken, bruised and frustrated psyche some “fun” in OST-influenced O scale Hi Rail, especially since discovering nearby MTH has a whole slew of local Maryland road name steam and diesel motive power releases, and I’m pondering a shelf of G scale “fun’ as well. Thank goodness I never discarded my “craft” materials as well as Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazettes, Narrow Gauge Down Under, RMC’s, UK International Model Railroading, newly subscribed O Scale Trains magazine etc mags; these will serve for side projects to satisfy my undeveloped craftsman itch…kind of having my cake and eat it too even if but a small slice. It’s lonely being old-school…my competing past time amateur astronomy just completed a multi year project (really a life long dream since I was a kid) completing a very large backyard- observatory-housed classic refractor telescope, built and hand-figured by one of the last remaining three Master Optical Craftsman in the USA (everything else has moved overseas). I get all kinds of grief from fellow stargazers for such a neanderthal-like instrument choice but it’s the right one for me. My two past times have a lot in common i.e. frustratingly slow to realize personal abilities and needed patience…but it’s nice to pass a little time off-the-rack understanding that the main course lies in the gourmet section.
I’ve been awfully hard on the 3-rail side of the hobby. It holds no interest for me personally, however, at the end of the day, if someone is enjoying himself, is growing and goes to bed satisfied and happy; that’s all one can ask of a hobby.
I’m glad you are pursuing things your way. That’s the core of my approach: think for yourself.
I love craft in all its many forms from pottery to woodcrafts, metal work and so on. Your telescope sounds awesome. It must be a joy to gaze at the wonders out there in the night sky.
I encourage you not to give up on the pursuit of finer skills. We all start somewhere and grow at our own pace. I don’t consider myself a craftsman, at least not in the way I would like to be. How much and how fast I improve depends on how I challenge myself to grow. Keep at it.