When one takes a step back and realizes all that’s going on in the arts in Arkansas, it borders on breathtaking for a state of just more than 3 million people.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at Bentonville, which opened in November 2011, now attracts visitors from around the world. A major expansion is about to occur. Its sister institution, The Momentary, is finally coming into its own after being slowed by the pandemic. Add to the mix the amazing transformation of what’s now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (formerly the Arkansas Arts Center) in Little Rock.
There are the tens of millions of dollars in Walton family gifts to significantly expand arts offerings at the University of Arkansas. Add in the additional tens of millions of dollars in gifts from the Windgate Foundation for arts facilities on college and university campuses statewide. Few states, regardless of size, can match what’s taking place here. To say it’s the most exciting time for the arts in state history would be an understatement.
While celebrating these huge institutional advancements, it’s also important that we support individual artists across Arkansas, including those who specialize in crafts such as woodworking. I was reminded of that as I read “The Wisdom of Our Hands: Crafting, A Life,” the latest book from legendary woodworker Doug Stowe of Eureka Springs.
“I’ve had 20 great years of teaching at the Clear Spring School in Eureka Springs, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the parents, board, administration and staff for providing an environment where my philosophy of hands-on learning can be practiced and mature,” says Stowe. “My program has received the support of the Windgate Foundation. I’ll forever be in its debt.
“Then there are hundreds of people who have advanced my work by buying it or reading about it or by joining me in class. My students include children from preschool through high school, and adults of all ages.”
In 1998, Stowe was a founder of the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. Three years later, he started the Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring, a private school. In 2009, the Arkansas Arts Council named Stowe an Arkansas Living Treasure.
“I set about making a life for my hands and for the rest of myself at the same time,” he writes. “In the early winter of 1969-70, I went home with the idea of telling my parents I was dropping out of college. There I had a talk with my friend Jorgy, who had helped me to restore a 1930 Ford Model A Tudor sedan. Jorgy asked me why I was studying to become a lawyer when my brains were so obviously in my hands.
“That simple question led to my changing course. I went back to school and adjusted my focus from sociology and political science. I managed to make that senior year tolerable and more interesting by taking classes in creative writing and ceramics. Through the good graces of a compassionate faculty, I was able to graduate and move on. I ended up putting my life on a healthier course.”
Stowe received conscientious objector status to the Vietnam War after graduation from Hastings College in Nebraska and moved to Memphis to fulfill an alternative service requirement at a children’s home. He began studying pottery. A visiting artist told him he should move to Arkansas, which was becoming popular with so-called hippies and those in the back-to-the-land movement. Stowe, now 73, came to Eureka Springs in 1975 and never left.
“As I began to awaken to the transformative powers of my own hands and brain working in partnership, I realized that the brain was much more potent a creative force when the hands are involved in the brain’s deliberations,” Stowe writes. “I became a potter and then a woodworker in Eureka Springs, a small town dedicated largely to the arts. … Attention to the ways these transformations are shaped can allow you to become better at what you do and make your life more meaningful.”
Stowe worked on “The Wisdom of Our Hands” for almost two decades.
“I began working on this book around 2001, concurrent with my decision to teach woodworking at Clear Spring School after 25 years as a self-employed craftsman,” he says. “Observing my own learning in my own shop and witnessing the broad array of interconnected disciplines connected to woodworking–marketing, math, physics, literature, psychology, design and more–had given me the impression that I knew a few things about how learning worked. That led me to what seemed a preposterous notion that we might revise American education to make better use of our hands.
“I realized, however, that without actually becoming involved in American education, my own voice would be hollow. In order to present a new model, I would need to flesh out that model through actually teaching kids. My idea was simple: The use of hands is essential to learning, and parents, teachers and schools that chose to ignore that put severe limits on their effectiveness and their children’s futures.”
Reading this book convinced me that our schools must emphasize working with our hands. But it also caused me to realize that we must support state treasures such as Stowe. I’ve written before that for Arkansas to thrive–attracting and retaining talented young people–we should focus as a state on our outdoor recreational attributes and the arts. That’s the path to a new Arkansas.
For now, we can all support arts-centric places such as Eureka Springs and call for more state support for institutions such as the Ozark Folk Center at Mountain View, where native crafts live on.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.