Artist or Artisan?

Let’s face it, those of us who work in the hi-tech world of computing tend to think of ourselves as being – well, not to put too fine a point on it – intellectual; even skilled artisans of our trade. We string lumps of extremely complex hardware together so they can talk to each other, write clever code that executes mind-boggling tasks in the blink of an eye, and build wonderfully intuitive and interactive interfaces for our applications. And all before lunch some days.

Yet once you step outside of our world of information technology to accomplish something far more down to earth, such as a task that is practical in terms of most people’s day to day lives, you suddenly realize just how little our skills have in common with the real tradesmen (and women) of this world. How something that seems like it should be really simple, compared to software design patterns and administering enterprise systems, is really much harder to do well than firing up Visual Studio and tossing it some code, or plugging network cables into a server and setting up the DNS.

OK, so I’m no great programmer. My IT skills tend to come into play further down the line, after some of the really clever people around here write the code. But, as I discovered, I’m not much of a carpenter or plasterer either. When you watch real skilled artisans at work, it seems like what they do is simple – until you try it yourself. I reckon these people are really artists rather than just artisans. They apply the techniques of their trade with an artistic flourish that belies the skills, years of practice, and experience required.

Like most DIYers, I realize that it’s reasonably easy to achieve a semi-professional outcome with some jobs. I can paint a door so there are no drips, blobs, or patches. I can do plumbing and house wiring with a confidence that it will work afterwards. I’ve even done gas fitting when we fitted out a kitchen some years ago, though I did get that tested by a professional afterwards. And I can usually mend simple stuff that breaks. I can even cut glass and do glazing work (after spending several years working with greenhouses for a garden supplier).

So when we took the old gas fire out a few weeks ago (see Firing Up the Imagination) and it left a two foot square hole right through the wall to the outside, I reckoned I could do most of the work to put it right. OK, so I have a pal who is a builder and I let him brick up the hole (I know for a fact that the art of bricklaying is not one of my proficiencies). But surely plastering up the remaining bit and putting on some new skirting board can’t be that hard?

Oh yes it is. Even after three attempts and half a roll of sandpaper to try and get rid of the bumps and rough edges, it still looks like someone threw a rice pudding at the wall. Luckily the new fire covers most of it. And simply fitting a new chunk of skirting board into the gap between the existing pieces took hours of work. Mind you, it didn’t help that the new piece has a slightly different profile to the existing stuff. But even careful shaping, delicate lining up, and half a tub of filler (plus, of course, the rest of the roll of sandpaper) couldn’t make it blend in.

The trouble is; what else do you do? Have you ever tried to find a plasterer who will come out and plaster a hole two feet square? Or a carpenter who will pop in and fit three feet of skirting board? Usually all you get is laughter at the other end of the phone. I suppose it’s like asking a developer to come round just to rename a couple of variables in your code, or calling out an admin guy in the middle of the night just to reboot your laptop. Or even getting your tame documentation engineer to change the formatting of two words in the middle of a huge help file. Err… just a minute – I have to do that all the time. So maybe I’m an artist after all…

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