The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Material Matters

Material Matters

One way to find out what you're made of

I love working with my hands. Coming from a tap dancer, this might be a curious statement. After all, I’m not a fashion designer or a sculptor. You might think I should be a foot-focused kind of cat. Your assumption wouldn’t be wrong, but from blocks in kindergarten and legos as a kid (even today), to wood-working more recently, I’ve always enjoyed building things. The tactile experience of working with materials has been something key to my work. I approach the creative process as a builder, as well. I have been known to say, “I build shows,” and talk about “the design of this or that step.” The language grounds me. I think about the materials necessary in the building. The process of building – of design – guides my process. My dad’s work in the home construction, renovation, and design businesses may have had something to do with this, and it’s been reinforced over the years.

One of the benefits of having gone to the School of Visual Arts for my BFA is that I learned to approach creating from a material perspective. While materials are important in tap dance land – variations in the floor and shoes changes the craftwork – my approach there attempts to keep the materials consistent. I keep the same shoes and aim for some consistency in the floors I dance on. That way the craftwork rests in the creative choices of movement and sound. This is different than visual forms of art in which a variety of different materials – charcoal, pastel, paints of various kinds, clay, stone, and more – are learned and chosen specifically to create a variety of outcomes. Some visual artists even make their own materials for the purposes of particular outcomes! Materials are so important in the world of visual arts that a significant amount of time is dedicated to learning how materials work.

In The Shop

I was working part-time in a woodworking shop. Think saws, drills, screws, t-squares, sanders, and more. There were more ways to injure yourself in that shop than I ever would have thought to encounter in a theater. And there I was, being apprenticed to build cabinets and drawers, and learning how to avoid hurting myself in the process.

My bosses and the team of craftspeople there were great. Supportive of my journey as a newbie, and eager to teach me all the skills. As the new cat on the floor, every day at the shop was different. I would check in with the foreman and be assigned a series of tasks. Things ranged from building boxes, installing sliders, building shelves, sanding doors, or cutting wood. If the task was something I hadn’t done before – particularly with a tool I didn’t know how to operate – I would be taught through a demonstration, and then observed, and then left to work it out on my own.

I learned all sorts of things at the shop. How to keep your fingers away from an active blade. How to make sure a box is square. How to use a tape measure properly. How to move material and how material moves. A short story to illustrate:

One morning I arrived at the shop and checked in. My task for the day: cut down a stack of raw wood into usable sticks for doors and shelves. The raw wood was precut. The pieces – some upward of 10 feet long – were straight on their ends, that is their tops and bottoms. Around their edges they were cut so that one long side was raw, while the other was cut straight. This was super helpful for me. I would line up the straight long side to the fence of the table saw, and guide the piece through as the blade cut it down to measure. My job as the guide was to ensure the piece was pressed down to the table and against the fence, while pushing it forward against the direction of the saw blade. Without the proper pressure the material could literally fly off the table.

This all felt like a big production. Lots of noise, energy, effort, and enough moving parts to keep my attention. I had to figure out how to stand, how to move with the lumber, where to look, and what to listen for. Keep your feet steady. Come on this side of the wood. Hold it here and here. Watch the fence. That was a guiding principle. If I saw the wood begin to move off the fence that would be a sign to stop and call for someone to stop the saw. If things got wonky on a cut, I could hear it. The sound of the blade shifted from a smooth buzzing to the sound of a growling toddler.

I spent the whole day working on this task. Piece after piece, my familiarity with the process grew. My confidence grew, as well. And then a funny thing happened. I went to make a cut, same as I had done many times before. From one piece I got two. From the initial straight piece of wood, I got two pieces – one straight and one bent. What? I went to the shop foreman and asked, “Did I do something wrong here? I’m almost positive I cut the piece straight.” The response pointed me back to the reality of working with materials. “You’re fine. The wood does that sometimes. Once it’s cut it goes the way it wants.”

Once It’s Cut

Turns out, that when pieces of wood are cut you can’t always guarantee that the piece will hold its original form. Isn’t that the truth about people, too? There are many things that help us hold our form. Our goals, beliefs, values, habits, and even relationships function to keep us in line. But what happens when we are cut? What happens when the goals are achieved, the beliefs and values challenged, the habits start causing harm, and even relationships turn hurtful or broken? When the things that we rely upon to keep us on the straight and narrow begin to faulter in their role we are left to our own devices. Whatever our original form is what shows up once we are cut.

We often hear about falls from grace. The leader that we thought had everything together is found out to be a liar and cheat or worse. The public figure with the highest reputation is discovered to be of low repute. A different way to look at these falls might be like the piece of wood that was cut. Free from whatever restrictions held them together, their more fundamental form is free to reign.

Is there a way to prevent such falls, or rather flagrant freedoms? Yes. A core tenant of spiritual formation is the idea that we can do our part in working on our core form. We can bear witness to it. We can be involved in the process of transformation. Ultimately the core stuff we have can be transformed. This is the proposition specifically in the teaching of Jesus Christ. I speak from this perspective because this is one that I have staked my life on.

The process is not always pretty. We may be tasked with looking at parts of ourselves that we would rather not. We may be tasked with interrupting habits of thought and action that are so ingrained we might feel like we are losing parts of ourselves in the interruption. We may be tasked with becoming someone we always thought would be out of reach. The believing of the possibility of such a transformation can be an equal deterrent as the challenges of the process. Regardless, what would you rather do? Discover a disordered part of your inner world only when you’ve been cut, or get ahead of the thing, and with love and grace, take part in the miracle of transformation?

I would take the latter.

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The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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