In one of my conversations I had with Jill Thomas-Clark last week, she made the comment, “I only wish that Michael could have heard all of the wonderful things people have said about him.”
It made me pause and wonder, “Had I told Michael how often I pull one of his books down off my shelf when I need a piece of information on Charles Stickley; how dog-eared my back issues of Style 1900 magazine are from finding a date or a shopmark for the Majestic, Harden or Plail furniture companies in one of his articles; how many times I have tagged alongside his walking tour of the Grove Park Inn’s furniture collection; or sat in the darkened ballroom soaking in the information he and Jill had uncovered in some rusty, basement file cabinet in Bluffton, Indiana or Herkimer, New York?”
Michael’s death last week caught me off-guard. We had spoken, though not long enough, at Craftsman Farms about one of our favorite subjects, Arts & Crafts furniture. We swapped emails each time he and Jill found another shopmark for my book, or when one of you sent in a photograph of an unidentified piece of furniture that had that unique ‘upstate New York’ look to it.
Michael was proof that you can make a big difference in a small way. Michael would never have said that he was a ‘gifted writer.’ That’s a phrase that’s terribly over-used, and one that often intimidates people into not putting words on paper. Writing is not a gift, it is a craft. It is no different from learning how to play golf, how to be a woodworker, or how to embroider a table runner. The more you do it, the better you become at it.
Michael would tell you there is no secret to being a non-fiction writer. You simply gather all the material you can find, every newspaper clipping, ledger book, sales receipt and magazine advertisement; you organize it all in a logical manner; and, as you do, the notes, the quotes, the dates and the facts start appearing as sentences, the sentences start forming paragraphs, and the paragraphs start filling pages.
And no one knows better than Jill Thomas-Clark how she and Michael only scratched the surface of a relatively small number of obscure furniture companies. She and Michael demonstrated that the information still exists in libraries, family photo albums and on the internet. Jill is determined to continue their work, but we have lost Michael and the great service he has provided all of us.
It would be wonderful if, in recognition of Michael’s work, each of us would pick a little-known potter, metalsmith, furniture maker, artist or artisan, preferably one within driving distance of where you live. Make that person or firm your hobby. Start with the internet, but stop by your local library and museum as well. Find out who is involved with your local historical society. Start asking questions about surviving family members. Photocopy clippings, label a file folder or three-ring notebook, and start filling it with information.
And don’t worry about being a writer. Just be a researcher. Collect information with as much passion and determination as you collect Arts & Crafts. The more material you gather, the easier it is to write, for at that point you are just organizing information into sentences. In the end you may only have a page or two, but it will be a page or two that otherwise might never have existed.
And what then?
Why not a Wikipedia of Arts & Crafts?
Michael would have loved it.
Before next Monday,
Thank somebody who has made a difference in your life.