In good hands: a conversation with Adam Marelli

By Enrico Grigoletti
Images by Adam Marelli

Week 41

Curiosity is one of the most underestimated forces in human evolution. It’s the spark that ignites innovation by way of knowledge.
To understand how objects are created, is somewhat of a common curiosity, but being actually able to do it, opens up new thought on the perception of the everyday.
I consider myself a curious person, and I have had the privilege of visiting several craftsmen’s workshops in different parts of the world. In all of these spaces you see recurring patterns. It doesn’t matter if you’re visiting a cobbler in Florence or a violin maker in Prague, there is a definitive rhythm to artisanal processes.
Documenting their everyday routine was somewhat simple: the beauty of their workshops, the magic behind every slight movement, and the profound genuineness of these workmen, very often, make taking a great photo relatively easy. This doesn’t mean that everyone with a camera could document this activity in a way that reveals the invisible energies that drive creativity and artisanal spirit. Documenting an artisan at work requires a certain level of involvement in their activity, and a deeper interaction with the subject. I understood that from artist and cultural photographer Adam Marelli.
Aside from becoming a close personal friend, Adam is an accomplished artist who set out to remove the barriers that divide the worlds of art, craftsmanship and exploration. Driven by relentless curiosity, he spends his time with extraordinary people in their workshops, both as an artist who participates, understands and works alongside this type of culture.
When at the last moment we decided to further explore this topic; I knew I could count on Adam to offer a clear picture of this artisan realm.
My idea was to feature part of his vast portfolio, talk about his personal experiences, and demonstrate how his point of view (as one who truly understands how things are made), is different.
Craftsmen make objects that last, – says Adam when I ask him about his education in art, construction and zen practice.
He went on to explain that, the oldest traces of civilization are the objects we make and the tools we use to make them. Always increasingly curious, I asked him why, in his opinion, there is a renewed interest in all things handmade. He commented, the world of the craftsman has been a closed society for generations. Hidden from view by artistic guilds, competing families, and a lack of written records, many craftsmen’s secrets have been lost over time.
In the last few decades, millennials have taken an interest in handmade goods from Japanese knives to bespoke furniture. At the forefront there are a few types of craft that act like “gateway drugs to craftsmanship.” They are usually trades that have quick returns, relatively short training periods and high turnover rates.
If you want to open an espresso bar, it’s possible to do so in just a few months. If you want to learn how to make a watch or a traditional Japanese knife from scratch, it will take about seven years for an apprentice to become fully operational, and ten years for them to become totally independent. This is the reason why we are witnessing a rise in ‘craft culture’ within the realms of coffee and beer, to denim and leather goods.

But is craftsmanship an endangered species? It’s no secret that youngsters seem to be attracted by different types of careers. In my opinion – continues Adam – it’s a mix of different elements: Do the younger generation know that craftsmanship exists? Why is tradition valuable? Will they be able to adapt?
Craftsmanship has always been an esoteric study. It is not for everyone, but that’s nothing new. Since Plato’s times older generations have complained about their younger cohorts. Lazy, disinterested, and unwilling to put in the hours needed in order to succeed. But history shows us that this is not true.

There is nothing wrong with the younger generation. The Internet was and is fundamental for the survivability of tradition.
The problems of older craftsmen can be divided into three parts:

1) They are not online. If for example some boy in Estonia is interested in ceramics, and a ceramicist in Korea doesn’t have a website, the connection will never be made. It only requires a small digital effort by these experienced craftsmen to open their doors to the new generation. Having an online presence also allows the younger generation to immediately feel connected to the workshop and its values. That’s a good thing… because chances are the older generation also don’t know how to use email.

2) It is difficult for a craftsman to explain “what is the value of tradition?” This often leads to the idea of tradition being misunderstood. Craftsmanship is not something to be locked in a museum display cupboard. It needs to live, breathe and adapt over time. Tradition does not need to be preserved. Tradition needs to evolve.

3) Why should a young person take on a career with a rather slow trajectory and what are the advantages that the life of a craftsman offers over a conventional corporate career?
Let’s be honest, most kids find school boring. Kids are not engaged, they don’t see the point, and without incentives like high paying jobs at the end of the rainbow, most want to leave.
Fast forward a few years and ask people on a Monday morning, “So who’s excited to go to work?” Not many.
The life of a craftsman is not without challenges, but for a small number of interested people, it offers a lifetime of fulfilment. And most craftsmen are so humble, that you never really know how successful they truly are.

What always caught my attention when browsing through photographic essays of these spaces was the persistent presence of hands. It might sound obvious, but the way hands are depicted can say a lot about the artisan approach. Hands transform ideas into material actualities , says Adam, they adapt to practice and become the physical representation of the craftsman’s work. I then asked inquisitively, is that why they’re so important?
There are many parts of craftsmanship that are invisible. When you spend enough time at work, there are sounds, smells, and timing that the camera can’t see. They have to be felt. But when it comes to allowing the viewer to understand the nature of craftsmanship, hands are a good starting point.
Hands are the last point before ideas are translated into material forms. It could be said that tradition shapes the hands and the hands shape tradition.
When someone works with their hands all day long, they touch objects differently. I remember I was at an opening in New York City with Yusuke Matsubayashi, a 16th generation ceramics maker from Uji Japan. While everyone was drinking their cocktails, I noticed how his finger traced the cup he was using. Without anyone paying attention, he was blindly feeling the form under his fingertips. You could actually see him measuring it, feeling the slope of the curve, the thickness of the rim. Craftsmen can see with their fingers. Only a man who makes teacups for a living could move his hands in this way.
To understand what I am saying, I suggest you go visit an artisan’s workshop with a friend. Take an object, like a toy plane for example. Ask your friend to pick it up, and then watch the craftsman pick it up. They will handle the same object in a completely different way.
When I worked in construction, I began to realise that I could tell how accurate someone was by the way they held a tape measure. Before they even did an ounce of work, I could simply watch them take a measurement and know whether they were capable or not.
It becomes a fun game of observation. Whether it is obvious or subtle, it’s an exercise that is able to reveal more things with the passage of time. It is a matter of training and patience that one learns as an apprentice. But let’s save that discourse for another day.

It’s clear that this exercise, learnt in order to understand the hidden aspects of this culture, becomes the key to interpreting most things. The way we move, the way our body interacts with others, with ourselves and with our surrounding environment. It’s the litmus test of our lives, visibly hidden under everyone’s eyes.

Armed with only a pencil and a camera Adam Marelli takes his art outside of the photographic studio and re-examines the roles of the artist and explorer. Unlike other photographers, he is not an observer behind the lens. As a cultural photographer he participates, understands, and works alongside the cultures he photographs.

Armed with only a pencil and a camera Adam Marelli takes his art outside of the photographic studio and re-examines the roles of the artist and explorer. Unlike other photographers, he is not an observer behind the lens. As a cultural photographer he participates, understands, and works alongside the cultures he photographs.