Wall Motto

by | Jan 11, 2014 | Personal, Tables | 0 comments

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.

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


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *