Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Hands-on Philosopher: Mark Remaly

His fingers move over the woven chair seat like a fiddler’s over his instrument. Only, in Mark Remaly’s case, he’s coaxing forth not music but story. “I don’t consciously think about it,” explains the caner, who owns The Seat Weaver in Westfield, Massachusetts with his wife, Alice Flyte. “But if I run my hands over a chair, I get the feel of it.” Just the day before, for instance, a customer brought a chair into the shop: his hands came across some “dings” in its back, and he guessed that “a grandmother or somebody had pushed it into a sewing-machine for years and years, and she [the customer] said, ‘You know, I think you’re right about that.’” Something in the chair spoke to him, Remaly says, telling him or “releasing” its story.

That’s a pretty common occurrence for Remaly, who has been working his craft since he was 15. Born with limited vision, he attended Perkins Institute for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, and it was in a class there that he learned chair-caning. He discovered that he truly enjoyed working with his hands. “It’s kinda like re-making,” he reflects. “I don’t think of it as art per se because I’m really just following what I’ve been told – y’know, over, under, over, under. But somehow it becomes more than just a bunch of cane. It becomes – hmm-m, what's the word I’m looking for? -- a whole. It becomes strong enough to sit on, it becomes art, it becomes a craft. That’s the thing I think I enjoy most about it: transforming a bundle into something practical, useful, and pretty.”


Enjoy is a word that’s very much at home in Remaly’s conversation, snuggling into this sentence or that. He enjoys the rhythm of the work itself. He enjoys talking with the customers and helping them get “re-connected with their chairs.” And, most of all, he just plain enjoys his life. The fact that he went completely blind eight or nine years ago hasn’t curtailed his enjoyment. Granted, Remaly has had to find “different ways of getting information that I used to be getting through my eyes.” He has “always been more of a hands-on person than a cerebral intellectual,” he says, and the loss of his sight hasn’t changed that: if anything it has fine-tuned his sense of touch to the point where he really is able to pick up on a piece of furniture’s smallest detail – the story in the wood, if you will.


The same holds true for other aspects of his life. He accepts that “we live in a visual world…that 80-plus percent of what people take in is visual. But that doesn’t mean if you don’t see, you miss 80%. There’s something” – he sighs, but it’s a reflective sigh, not a sad one – “that compensates. Touch. And when I say, ‘Touch,’ I mean the air moving by your face when someone moves their hand. To me, that’s touch as well as tactile touching. Or the power goes off: you’re looking to get out of the room, and you feel the wall before you actually encounter it….I knew an English guy, and he used to snap his fingers all the time” – Remaly, getting lost in the story, mimics the gesture – “and get echoes off of buildings and this and that.”


He gets a little blasé about his craft at times, Remaly admits. Then someone comes along and reminds him how unique what he’s doing is “and how much they appreciate it. And that’s a wonderful feeling because sometimes I’m thinking about other things while I’m working, or I’m coming into a difficult part that requires more concentration. It’s never drudgery, but sometimes it gets put in the background until someone reminds me of what I’m doing[, and it’s] ‘Yeah, you’re right, this is unique.’ And quite often I hear, ‘I couldn’t do that,’ and that’s not true. You have to, first of all, want to.”


For someone who insists he’s not cerebral, Remaly can do some pretty sustained philosophical riffs, especially when it comes to his craft. We talk about how there’s a craving in many of us for texture and how a liking for old-time crafts, such as caning, pottery, and quilting, comes out of this feeling. “There’s the enjoyment of the finished product,” he reflects, “but there’s also the enjoyment of just doing it.” Caning is something he’d do “even if money weren’t involved….I get into a state when I’m caning: my hands are busy, [but] my mind is half-busy and has a chance to wander.”


This is a man in love – with his craft, with his wife, with pretty much everything around him. He has learned to get past his blindness. And in doing so, he has become intensely aware of all the so-called commonplace things he might’ve overlooked before. He has not let his blindness be “the end of all existence.


“I just celebrated my 60th birthday in April,” Remaly continues. “I’ve never been in a better spot. I really, really enjoy my life. If someone had told me years ago that at 60, my sight would be gone [with] no chance of it coming back – [that] I’ve accepted it, embraced it, and moved on, I wouldn’t have believed it. I have a wonderful wife, my life partner. I see people all the time at the Y here whom I’m sometimes lucky enough to bring a smile to. There’s no doom and gloom in my life. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody, I’m thrilled to be me. So, that’s how I feel right now, and I don’t expect it to change.”

Photo by Alina Oswald.

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