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A Pragmatist’s Guide to a New America: Part 1

When politicians speak of a restored United States, they invoke an industrial fantasy — a time when Americans made not advertising copy, lines of code, or healthy patients — but real, tangible goods. Factories, assembly lines, and manufacturing plants dot the landscape of this bright American pastoral, the paradise from which a once prosperous and contented people have since fallen.

Though there is no getting that economy back, there remains no responsible political, social, or economic vision that ignores the erosion of well-paying and affirmative industry in the non-urban United States.

In Appalachia, they have lost the coal mines, while the water still carries the pollution. In Iowa they still grow corn, but fewer hands and even fewer owners are needed. Those affected by these shifts have witnessed more prosperous cities moving on without them. They are poorer, more neglected, and more confused about their national significance than they were three decades ago — or even one. In a democracy — a system of government that depends on citizens feeling an investment and participation in the future — this is a fatal direction to be moving in.

We live in a country where non-urban residents too often lack economic opportunity and decent wages. We find entrepreneurs and small-business owners struggle to compete against the resources of large corporations. Citizens in general too often feel undervalued, unfulfilled, and replaceable at work. These conditions are intractable from the prevailing feeling of disenfranchisement and anger in the country. To move in a productive direction, we have to mitigate these frightening problems. Despite all the bleakness, there is hope. One indispensable resource for the health of our future is a sector of the economy we call the craft industry.

One person leading the way in this type of work is Alex Matisse, a founder of North Carolina–based East Fork Pottery. He credits dropping out of college as one of his wisest decisions, one that allowed him to hop behind the wheel as a ceramist’s apprentice. Matisse first built his name as an independent artist (a natural choice for the great-grandson of the famous Henri), selling unique and museum-quality pieces at markets and conventions.

Matisse has since moved on to the role of both artisan and entrepreneur at East Fork, harnessing the talents of a dozen employees and artisans. “What we do collectively,” Matisse says, “is so much larger than what we could do with our own work.”

The scope of the craft industry extends far beyond ceramists like Matisse. Its members manufacture a variety of goods, such as furniture, beer, soap, textiles, liquor, ceramics, cheese, decor, and stationery. Its members include the vintner, the carpenter, the jeweler, and many others. Other professions, not quite in the craft industry, like electricians, handymen, mechanics, and repairers of instruments, also benefit from the healthful employment of both the hands and intellect. The simultaneous use of creativity and body, and the opportunity to build upon one’s talents every day, tend to make for workers who are paid decent wages and feel fulfilled. The quality of their products are almost always superior as well.

Despite the virtues of dignified work and better goods, craft industries have earned, and not unjustifiably, a reputation for being inefficient, even quaint enterprises. Their goods are more expensive, and workers sometimes require extensive training. (At East Fork, apprenticeships run over two years.) With a limited pool of talent and a lack of scalability, craft industries often fall short of keeping up with popular demand and exciting investors.

Most of all, craft-industry goods often fail to compete in a culture whose prevailing attitude prefers the most passable object for the cheapest price. Why pay $42 for a mug from East Fork when one can get a porcelain substitute for a few dollars and the labor required of being a #1 Dad?

Despite the drawbacks, an economy with a prosperous craft industry entails a better deal for all. Such businesses provide decent pay, dignity, and excitement to workers while offering beauty and quality to consumers. We ignore such benefits at a great cost in an era defined by polarization, resentment, neglect, suspicion, and anger.

We have seen radical economic transformation before. “It is a waste of time to try to express in words due contempt of the productions of the much-praised cheapness of our epoch,” the artist William Morris said in 1884. With the seismic changes brought by the industrial revolution, Morris championed the Arts & Crafts movement, which upheld values of creative and physical work that had been lost in the enervating maelstrom of smokestacks and assembly lines, physical exertion and repetition. “The pleasure of working soundly and without haste at making goods that we could be proud of,” Morris reminded his contemporaries: “the world has none like it.”

There is an enthusiasm — an immersion in worldly life — that conversations with craft-industry workers repeatedly unearth. “I love gemstones,” says Richelle Leigh Walk, a jeweler and founder of the Richelle Leigh Collection in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “I love the science behind them as well as their natural beauty, that they took millions of years to form in the earth.”

To begin a project, Walk takes subtle guidance from the qualities of her materials. “I usually spend a little time at my desk handling my loose stones and playing with them,” she says, “figuring out color combinations and considering their size and shape in relation to my piece.” After taking inspiration from the gemstones, Walk goes to her desk to begin the delicate process of carving the piece of jewelry from wax. It will be used to hold the mold in place, until, as it was done thousands of years ago, molten metal is poured in, destroying and replacing the wax form as the piece is cast in gold or silver.

Alex Matisse began East Fork by operating a vaulted kiln nestled in the North Carolina mountains. “The smell of the smoke and the wet clay,” he reflects, “it hits you on a visceral, gut level.” Now, the company uses a state-of-the kiln engineered in the Netherlands to keep up with their growing base of customers.

Matisse — whose mobile email signature reads “sent from the infernal device” — is aware of the distinction his job holds in an economy that prefers that workers use their minds or the bodies, but not both. As more of us spend our professional lives seated at desks, looking at screens, producing… well, something, right?, there is something radical, something healthful and wise, in dedicating oneself to the creation of the useful and tangible.

Matthew Crawford is a writer as well as a motorcycle mechanic. He has become a vocal proponent of the value of manual trades in our digital era, having written books about his journey from a director of a think tank to a mechanic-philosopher. Crawford has given affectionate description to occupations like the manufacture of pipe organs. He upholds these professions from a place of allegiance and sympathy. “Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop, under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck,” he writes “I suddenly don’t feel tired, even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day.”

This is not to suggest that craft-industries are immune to the difficulties and sorrows of work. Matisse acknowledges a certain self-loathing and frustration as pieces fall short of intention. “There’s a lot of drudgery to it,” he adds. They still have bills to pay and deadlines to meet like the rest of us. And like any business, success requires adaptation. As East Fork grows, Matisse has been spending more time communicating with investors and marketers than throwing clay.

“Jewelry making isn’t as glamorous as some people think,” Richelle Walk says. “My fingertips are calloused and I usually have to wash the dirt off my face before I leave.” For all this, Walk still enjoys the manual work of her profession, which involves everything from hammers to power tools to oxyacetylene torches. “There is only one downfall I can really think of: that a lot of the public does not appreciate or really consider what it takes to truly make something. The training, the time, the skill, the investment, and dedication. This part makes me sad.”

The corporation is necessary for large enterprises like building an airplane, shooting a TV show, or shipping internationally. But corporations’ ever-growing dominion over the economy comes at a cost to equality, opportunity, beauty, and our national imagination. Corporations squash small businesses. By their very nature, they care far more for stockholders than the employees they depend on. The corporate office is notorious for producing dissatisfied workers, and their cheap products, made of bright plastic and particleboard, exact their own hidden spiritual toll on the consumers who interact with them.

The craft industry has proven, especially in the last decade, that it is no quaint or backward sector of the economy. It will compete with the corporations, and propelled by superior products, excel. We may take as an example the craft-beer industry, which grew 22 percent in 2014, compared to 2.4 percent GDP growth.

The craft-beer industry has possibly underwritten the best era of beer drinking in history. It has been wise to embrace quality-boosting inefficiencies (months-long barrel aging, seasonal hop harvests), at the same time it has incorporated technical innovations (yeast biologists on site, newer and bigger facilities) to stay creative while meeting booming demand.

East Fork is itself a growing business, in the middle of changing its production practices to keep its growing base of customers happy. It’s incorporated its new, temperature-controlled kiln, and plans to open up a factory in the near future. Matisse assures me that improvements in scale and efficiency do not interfere with the ceramists’ involvement in the manufacturing process. “At our core we’re makers. We make it, we design it, and we sell it,” Matisse explains. “We will set up the factory how we want it, and we treat people the way we want to treat people.” Every day, the company of 12 employees pauses work for an hour to gather for a communal lunch, and Matisse has every intention to keep that intimate culture running through the boom periods.

It makes sense there is something of a deeper bond between employees in a craft-based workplace, as these jobs attract the passionate and dedicated. East Fork welcomes a burgeoning population of ceramists coming from places like New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere, and consider a trenchant enthusiasm to be an apprentice’s primary qualification. That’s no small thing, considering it takes about two and a half years to become proficient. But for those who really love it, who are willing to put in the work to learn, it makes all the difference. “It doesn’t matter if you come in with experience,” Matisse says. “We’re going to train you.”

As we find a more polarized, suspicious, and resentful America, it’s important we recognize the potential benefits of even our smallest actions.

When we purchase goods, we are choosing to support people. Those people may happen to be a small company of talented people who find contentment in cultivating their talents every day. The objects they make become endowed with an undeniable and rare humanity — and stand to make life more beautiful and ourselves more attentive, in however a small a way, when all else conspires to drag our attention to the virtual and the flummoxing.

As I write this piece, I have my morning coffee in a clay mug that feels solid, is well-made, and makes a small moment a bit better. It is a little delight at the beginning of the day. But there is more at stake, something else bundled into the purchase price. “I’ve never been more engaged or more excited about what I’m doing,” Mr. Matisse tells me. “I’m doing what I’m called to do.”