In our era, technology often separates us from the art, from the sense of creation. But for members of this creative class, traditional skills and tools can feed a hands-on creative process that produces often messy, sometimes complicated and always classically wonderful art. Through their hands, we reconnect with our history, giving us appreciation for the beauty and wonder of our world.
Michael Lauer ’97 | WITH THESE HANDS
While tourists explored New Orleans’ French Quarter during the summer, Michael Lauer toiled inside a historic theater repairing pieces of ornamental plaster to their original state of elegance. Other days he worked in homes, using his hands to craft new decorative pieces for future generations to enjoy.
His hands are often covered in plaster these days, as Lauer reinvented himself in 2007 as an architectural plasterer specializing in ornamental, decorative and plain plaster, or flatwork. He eschews drywall and sheetrock, the typical materials used in most modern structures.
A visual communication design graduate, Lauer spent 10 years as a graphic designer for multiple organizations but longed to find an enduring craft that would remain with viewers long after completing his work.
“I got tired of sitting behind a computer and wanted to use my God-given talents to work with my hands,” he says.
Lauer discovered the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, S.C., a school offering architectural specializations in six construction areas using traditional artisan practices. He planned to pursue carpentry, but after arriving, he “fell in love” with plaster. He opened his own studio in Charleston in May 2011 after earning a bachelor’s degree in architectural plaster working.
“Of all the artisan techniques, plaster work was the most artistic,” he says. Using his graphic design background, he adapted the process of creating intricate designs on a computer to envisioning them in plaster as he drew up blueprints for his new projects.
His student and professional projects have included replicating old cornice pieces in a Long Island mansion and a Charleston dwelling, using flatwork to restore a circa 1814 Charleston home turned bed-and-breakfast, creating decorative medallions for chandelier bases, and completing repairs on the ornamental plaster ceiling in Garrett Hall, a 100-year-old building on the University of Virginia campus.
Each time a visitor gazes at his restorative work or customers ask for a new piece for their homes, Lauer accomplishes what he imagined the moment he left his graphic design job — creating an artistic legacy that can’t be erased by pushing delete.
Margaret Brenner Neff ’85 | SALVE FOR THE SKIN
Sensitive skin and allergies plagued Margaret Neff for much of her life. Soaps, laundry detergents and dishwashing liquids led to breakouts of rashes or hives.
“I was allergic to everything in the world,” she says.
Without those allergies, though, Neff might not have experimented with natural products to find more skin-friendly formulations. And without such experimentation, which began more than 20 years ago, she wouldn’t have started Nature’s Touch Soaps, the business she’s run from her home in Cedarville, Ohio, since 2001.
“I was just making soap and giving it away,” she says. “It kind of just happened as opposed to something I had a business plan for.”
Neff, who earned a master’s degree in education from UD, spent 32 years as a special education teacher. After her retirement in 2007, she dedicated more time to soap making, mixing different formulas and
recipes in her kitchen. She often gave samples to friends, who began joining her for soap-making sessions.
As the demand for samples grew, Neff realized she had the base for a thriving business. She recently expanded to a studio outside her home, where she makes up to 96 bars in one session and can produce more than 1,000 in a week. All bars are blended, molded, cut and wrapped by hand.
Neff says she stays true to the processes soap makers used 200 years ago, using plant-based essential oils rather than chemically based fragrance oils, for example, and leaving in moisturizing byproducts like glycerin, which many manufacturers remove to sell separately for greater profit.
She’s also committed to using environmentally friendly processes and working with local suppliers. In addition to soap, she produces private-label products for other companies and sells lotions, creams, scrubs, salts, herbal bags and hooded towels.
The business is a family endeavor, with daughter Kara handling social media and Internet promotion and husband Nolan managing some of the financial transactions. Nolan calls his wife the “chief cook and bottle washer.”
It’s a job description she happily accepts, and her skin is probably just as appreciative.
Beth Doyle ’89 | BY THE BOOK
One day, a visitor could present an 18th-century leather-bound volume covered in clear Scotch tape. Another day brings in an old book with brittle pages hanging on by a few threads.
It’s up to Beth Doyle, head of the conservation services department for Duke University Libraries, to determine how to repair such items, including fixing haphazard efforts done with adhesives or staples.
Bookbinding involves more than sewing skills. An organic chemistry background helps her identify degrees of fabric degradation, and she sifts through leather swatches to find pieces closest to the book’s original treatment.
“I love that conservation is a mix of old-world craftwork and modern technologies,” she says. “I’m doing the same thing that bookbinders did in the 15th century or even the fourth century.”
Entering her 10th year at Duke, Doyle conserves materials as varied as an early 20th-century collection of hand-drawn and colored maps of North Carolina to ancient Egyptian papyri. The Duke Libraries boast the fifth-oldest collection of papyri in the world, with pieces dating to the third century A.D. From works of literature to private letters and tax receipts, the papyri display slices of everyday life in the ancient world.
Doyle majored in photography at UD and took a bookbinding course to make books to display her photos. The handiwork appealed to her love of history, and bookbinding and printmaking were among her areas of interest.
After graduation, Doyle operated a letterpress as an apprentice in a Chicago print shop, work that differed little from what Johannes Gutenberg did in the 15th century.
During summer 2012, Doyle began binding a collection of manuscript letters Louisa Whitman wrote in the 1860s to her son Walt, the famous poet. Doyle doesn’t often read the works she repairs, but Louisa’s amusing recollections of the mundane, such as annoyances with another son, made the assignment a page-turner.
When Doyle is done, future visitors can enjoy Louisa’s musings for themselves. As with her other projects, each painstaking restoration revives a once-lost piece of history, one that now endures to enlighten, entertain and educate generations to come.
Richard Mark French ’88 | MUSIC MAN
Richard Mark French’s work in the mechanics of musical instruments, particularly guitars, shaped his career as a mechanical engineering technology professor at Purdue University. He’s published books, developed an on-campus test facility and run summer workshops for youth to use guitar making as a gateway to science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.
Despite having access to the best materials in music technology, the former aerospace and automotive engineer finds it more fulfilling to step away from them.
“I read somewhere that making musical instruments should be a quiet art,” he says. “When I’m just building for my own enjoyment, I try to keep it that way. I like using traditional methods and building the hand skills that true artisans need.”
A self-proclaimed “wood junkie” and “wood snob,” he’s even cut trees and sliced them into rounds, then sealed and seasoned the wood before crafting it into a guitar. As a luthier, he experiments with various hand tools, finding a 125-year-old saw to be among the best in his toolbox.
He’s given guitars to friends, allowing others to enjoy the fruits of his work. And his skill has come in handy during workshops with teenagers raised in the digital age. When one group struggled with a piece of machinery in a guitar-making workshop, French whipped out a chisel and saw and cut the wood himself.
“I think that gave me some credibility,” French says.
When French pursued his doctorate at UD, the manager of the photomechanics lab where he worked told French he could use the equipment to indulge his hobby of exploring the dynamic behavior of a guitar —
as long as he finished his degree, which he did in 1993.
French later tinkered with acoustic technology as a noise vibration engineer in the auto industry, and music industry professionals began contacting him for structural testing using lasers or acoustic testing using sound chambers. French accepted the jobs for free, and he later used that knowledge for his own acoustic work.
Still, he says there’s nothing better than getting out the chisels, scrapers and files and building things by hand. As French demonstrated to his students, technology doesn’t supersede the need for basic craftsmanship.
Janelle Young ’88 | FINDING LIGHT IN THE DARK
The janitor gives Janelle Young her final warning. She’s failed to heed earlier ones and he insists that she must leave.
“I’m locking the door in 15 minutes,” he says.
This back-and-forth exchange takes place almost every time Young makes after-hours visits to the darkroom at Stivers School for the Arts near downtown Dayton. As the director of the school’s photography program, she has access to one of the few places in the city where she can indulge her passion for film photography.
At UD, Young practiced her craft in the darkroom; digital photography was an elective. As her photography classmates shot exclusively in digital after graduation, though, Young scouted the city for community darkrooms, booking any available time outside her hours as an office manager at the Dayton Visual Arts Center.
Emerging from the darkness, clothing stinking of chemicals and stained by developing fluid, her dedication to film photography grew with each session.
“Even as technology advances and the printers and scanners are better, there’s nothing like a silver gelatin print,” she says. “In the image, there are clumps of silver embedded in the paper. In digital photography, the ink lays on the surface. There’s just a different look and feel.”
During her four years at DVAC, she decided to exclusively use film for her professional work. Her current project is a series of a black-and-white illusions of landscapes created by capturing the reflection of sunlight on a white background. At Stivers, where she’s entering her third year, she teaches film photography to high school students.
Her dedication to tradition can create additional burdens. Finding chemicals, film, paper and color processors is a daunting task, and a roll of 12-exposure film is $6.
Young shoots five rolls a week to capture three or four quality images. The numerical limitations of film make every shot precious, and such necessity sharpens her view of the world, giving her a broader perspective on nature and the human condition.
Still, Young persists in keeping the art alive through teaching — and by continuing to bargain with the janitors for just one more minute in the dark.