Wall Motto

For a good while there has been a Latin quote on my workshop wall.  I’ve completely forgotten how it got there, but I do know what it means.  It says ars longa, vita nostra brevis est, literally “art is long but our life is short.”  I know that because I took Latin in high school and, although my main memories are of the good-looking teacher, I have discovered in later life that I can entertain myself quite well with a Latin book;  yet another of the surprises of adulthood.

After an Internet search, I think this quote is a variant of a motto ascribed to Hippocrates, ars longa vita brevis, which says essentially the same thing.  The evolution in meaning from the Latin ars to our modern word art is interesting;  for the Romans it seems to have meant primarily the skill associated with a craft or the art of a profession, so in Hippocrates’s motto it would be the art or science of medicine.  At any rate it seems to apply  to what I do, and I guess that’s why I put it up on the wall.  Lately this quote has started popping up in semi-hidden spots on my furniture, engraved by steel stamp.

wall motto 2 

Our word perfect, I found out recently, comes from the past participle of a Latin verb usually translated as “do thoroughly.”  Thinking of our word that way, rather than as an abstract ideal, is strangely comforting;  it makes perfection seem like a manageable goal, a matter of doing thorough work, which is under one’s control to a certain extent.  The Romans were more down-to-earth than we modern people, who have discovered the need to distinguish perfection from thoroughness and art from skill.

I myself have an ambivalent attitude toward skill.  Skill alone is lifeless;  there must be a fresh application of that skill to an interesting situation.  The things I find visually arresting often involve what used to be considered defects.  Most people nowadays think that knots and irregular natural edges are attractive.  I have always felt that way, and actually I think many people thirty years ago would have agreed that knots were interesting, just not what they wanted in their offices or living rooms.  There has been a shift in popular tastes in furniture, which is probably my biggest discovery since returning to full-time woodworking five years ago.  People are more open to stylistic discontinuities, especially ones that remind them of the actual trees that their furniture is from.  Here is a detail of a recent piece, with a waney board edge incorporated into a slightly curved table edge.   

phoenix table detail


The Internet age keeps stirring up our popular culture and squeezing it out into new shapes.  I’ve been noticing lately how the way I buy things has changed, even when I’m buying from an actual store in the old-fashioned way.

The other day I wanted some plain steel bolts for a dining table I was making, where I wanted the hardware to look sturdy and ordinary.  My local hardware store doesn’t carry plain steel hardware, as a rule;  it’s not used outdoors because it rusts.  I did find a specialized nut-and-bolt store that had what I wanted at reasonable prices, but there were hurdles to be got over. 

The salesperson who helped me needed about 30 minutes to create an account for me, look up what I wanted on the computer, write up a quote (for a total under $10) and print it out for my inspection.  We had to do most of that twice, because her knowledge of the stock was not great and she made a mistake or two the first time.  I am sure that the IT system used by this company can do what the company wants quite efficiently, but in this case it seemed to be our common adversary, doing its best to thwart us both.

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