Rena Tom Rena Tom

The Story So Far

It started with this image:

I was cruising around online shops, doing some scouting for Anthology, and I found this brush on a beautiful British site called Objects of Use. They advocate products “made in the same way, by the same people, for a long time” and that’s sometime I feel pretty strongly about as well.

I know that some people regard handmade and artisan-made as only for those who can afford it. I find this fascinating because we didn’t used to be a disposable culture, one of convenience over quality, and handmade used to mean “I can’t afford to buy it myself.” Quartz just ran a story called Here’s More Evidence That Americans Are Growing Fond of Soccer and my addled brain converted that soccer to sooner. Americans really are fond of sooner though, aren’t we? Good things are worth the wait but we are told every day, in our same-day delivery, printed-on-demand world, that we shouldn’t have to wait. Waiting is difficult, and difficult is not popular at this point in time.

Anyhow, the brush. It’s made in a German factory that’s been pretty exclusively been making brushes since the 1930s. That’s another funny thing; a factory or workshop used to be run by owners and gave employees the opportunity to learn a specialized skill, something they could take pride in. This particular brush is handmade from beech wood and crepe rubber. Rubber, if you recall, comes from trees, so this is entirely from the earth, from the people. Both nature and humans are silly, random, predictably unpredictable. And yet somehow, this beautiful, regular pattern emerged, so very beautiful that I had it made into a tattoo this spring.

The distinctive shape of the loops of rubber, the mesmerizing, geometric yet organic design, was derived by utility. It’s an efficient way to pack a lot of rubber into a small space, to clean, brush and restore the distinctive nap to suede. It’s also very striking. I know that design from utility is not the only way to create, but it is important. If there wasn’t a need for this brush, the pattern would not exist. This is a harmonic combination of the right materials, the right form factor, and the right pattern for the job. When something comes together that perfectly, I light up. Things in the universe just click into place for me, if only for a moment, while I contemplate it, and it’s a very fine feeling.

I’ve been engaged in a lot of activities that are not coalescing neatly. Knowing this brush exists restores a little balance and sanity to my life, gives me a little power when I feel powerless. I think we all need a touchstone that helps to ground us when we wander a bit far afield. Mine is a nine dollar German brush, and I just happened to get it inked, rather large, on my forearm. (Ink and photo by Ben Volt, who is a sweetie.)

So…what am I trying to say here? I don’t know. I’ve been thinking really hard about purpose, and making, about what objects teach us, and necessity, and what matters. I guess I hope that you find the thing that matters to you, study it six ways to Sunday, cherish it. It might take years to find that thing, and there might be sacrifices. The examination may take a long time, and there is probably no faster way to get there. You will work for it, and you will love it more because you have earned it.

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7 Comments

  1. agnes says:

    Fascinating image and great story for a tattoo (and a lifestyle!).  A touchstone of balance and grounding and reminder of a feeling of synergy was exactly the reason I got my first tattoo — though it’s less literally connected to my message and work at this point in time, returning to that feeling is always powerful!

  2. Whitney says:

    Really enjoyed this. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about process. I love incorporating logic into process. Sometimes if we just take time to think, we may find ourselves fascinated by what we come up with.
    Thank you for this.

  3. I just loved this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of handmade lately in terms of sustainability and integrity. I love when objects have been made for many years by the same people as well. There is also something about a $9 object that feels accessible to many.

  4. LB says:

    It’s funny, this post came along as I’ve been thinking a lot about buying versus making, objects that are created to last, cutting down on trash, lifetime practices, and tattoos. One conclusion I’m feeling strongly: If I can’t make it myself, I want to buy it from an artist or a company who made a product built to last, hopefully a lifetime. And what would it be like to build my own clothes and just have a set that lasted or, were modified throughout, the rest of my life? Anyway, it’s nice to read that someone else is thinking about these things too, and congrats on your new, gorgeous, ink!

  5. For a few different reasons I just really, really loved this post. Thank you

  6. Jenna Valoe says:

    Beautiful post! I recently gave myself a tattoo on my forearm as a reminder of why and what I make.  I look at it often when I’m having a “what am I doing?!” moment and ground myself in knowing that creating for me is important and I have to trust the process of growing.
    Thank you for sharing your story.

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