Profiles: Eric Gorges - Full InterviewComments (4)
Working with your hands as therapy
Eric Gorges grew up in a woodworking family in Detroit, Michigan; his grandfather was a professional cabinetmaker and his dad was a serious hobbyist. But Eric’s career path led him to a lucrative corporate job. In his twenties, he began suffering panic attacks, but the road to recovery was found by working with his hands. Eric took up metalwork, then started a custom motorcycle shop that became very successful. These days, he hosts A Craftsmen’s Legacy, a TV show that shines a light on all kinds of craftspeople and the work they do. Read on for more of Eric’s story.
WM: Tell us how you got started.
EG: In my 20s, I was working in IT at the Xerox Corporation, and I loved it. But I got sick, and during that time, I refocused and looked at what was important in my life. A friend of mine suggested that I work with my hands because that’s what I love to do. So, that’s what led me down this road. I decided to work with my hands for a living. I was torn between wood and metal, but metal won out because, ya know, torches.
WM: What do you mean when you say you got sick?
EG: I developed a severe anxiety disorder to the point where, within a span of about four months, I became agoraphobic. I didn’t eat, didn’t drive, didn’t leave my house. I needed to find something that brought peace to my mind because I was literally going crazy. I had to find a way to clear my head and focus my mind. But I rediscovered my love for making. It was a meditative pursuit in a way.
WM: So, working with your hands is your therapy.
EG: Absolutely. Working with your hands allows you the opportunity to lose yourself in time and focus solely on creating one thing. And you’re in control. You’re able to say, ‘I’m going to take this to the highest level of quality possible’. I want this piece to be as beautiful as I can make it.
I needed something that would disrupt my destructive brain pattern. I’ve always been a firm believer in lifelong learning. I like learning new things, I love challenges – pushing myself. I excel in those environments. When I say excel, I mean mentally and physically. So, going back to my roots and working with my hands and becoming a better craftsman allowed me that freedom in my head to get back on track.
WM: You say a friend suggested that you work with your hands?
EG: When I say friend, I mean shrink. You know, he asked me one day, and I can remember like it happened yesterday, he said, “Eric, if you could do anything in the world, and money didn’t matter, what would you do? I didn’t even miss a beat, I said, “I’d definitely work with my hands.” I just knew it, I didn’t even have to think about it.
I was an avid biker up to that point. I liked riding a lot and rode for many years, and I worked on bikes as a hobby. I decided to learn how to build motorcycles. And build them from scratch – just raw materials. Then over a couple weeks, I fleshed it out and started my bike shop, Voodoo Choppers.
WM: Tell us about your TV show.
EG: Well, like everybody, I had an idea for a TV show. But mine was about craftsmanship. I wanted to shine a light on the craftspeople who bring life to their craft. I was involved in a couple of other shows, so, I had a bit of taste for the television thing, and I thought it’d be a great platform to tell the world about these fascinating people that live among us.
We’ve gone from a world where if you needed something, you made it, or you would buy it from somebody who made it, to a world where most things are mass-produced. Even things that are labeled handmade aren’t actually handmade. They’ve figured out how to get away with using that word where it doesn’t apply. ‘Some guy did put that Made in China sticker on it, so technically it was handmade.’
We don’t appreciate apprenticeships here in the States. We never truly developed a system of apprenticeship in the manner that it was originally designed for. Apprenticeships are only in a couple of fields of the trades – HVAC, plumbing, and electrical. Those are the big three that have a true apprentice/journeyman system. But in Europe and Asia and other parts of the world, there are true apprenticeship systems. And the recognition of working with your hands is still sought-after. Some countries don’t differentiate between a doctor or a craftsman. They’re both skilled individuals but in different fields. That’s not the case in the States. People look at you if you work with your hands for a living, and they think you must not be book smart. That’s unfortunate. So, I was hoping that our show would help people understand the importance of trades and learn to appreciate craftsmanship.
WM: Can you describe the show’s premise?
EG: The creators of the show and I highlight individuals who work with their hands to create an object. They could work with wood, they could work metal, or ceramics, or glass, or textiles, or whatever. We talk to them about what they do, and then go into their workspace and learn how they do it.
WM: What is it that you look for when you’re finding craftsmen to highlight?
EG: It’s a combination of things. It’s both the work they do and their personality or their personal story - their journey. And I always like to ask people how they see themselves. Are they an artist or a craftsman?
That’s the biggest split in who we feature or who we focus on. It’s the art/craft divide. The way we define that is whether what they are creating holds a utilitarian value. If their creation holds a utilitarian value, then that’s something we consider putting on the show.
It’s such a funny question. Of course, there’s no right or wrong answer. And it’s hard to define for some people. You could consider yourself a craftsman or an artist, or both. It’s philosophical, and sometimes sparks people up. It gets people engaged. Man, I get some emails. I love questions that get you thinking like that.
WM: Well it sounds like people are tuning in, and that you’re active on social media.
EG: The online community involvement is amazing. Our audience is engaged, and people seem to enjoy the show. It’s very humbling.
I enjoy the interview portion of our show. I like to learn about the craftsman’s journey. How did they find their way from point A to point B? Stone carver Walter Arnold knew when he was 12-years-old what he wanted to do for a living. He knew it in his blood. He restructured his life to do just that. He didn’t finish high school and he moved to Italy to study with master stone carvers. And now he’s a world-renowned stone carver. He’s an amazing gentleman and so talented, so articulate. And other people, like Mark Whitley, grew up working with his hands. His dad had a hardware store. He always enjoyed woodworking but went away from it for a while to become a priest, and then over time found his way back into fine woodworking and studio furniture. I just love hearing those stories. They’re so impactful. I try to learn from the lessons they learned and understand how it changed their life – to walk a mile in their shoes. The stories are wonderful but at the same time, I’m always champing at the bit to get in the shop and get my hands dirty with them. I get to work with them for a few days and it’s a great way to learn.
WM: So, you’re learning their life story through conversation and working with your hands.
EG: We try to show people that there’s no magic here. Anybody can do this stuff. I’m not going to do it nearly as well as the craftspeople that we feature, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s always a journey, you’re always becoming better, and you must start somewhere. You have to want to learn. The problem is that people put up barriers. “I could never do that.” “That’s too hard.” “I don’t know how to do that.” “I’m not good with tools.” “I don’t have that kind of dexterity.” “I’m not creative.” Or a million other excuses. It comes down to, ‘suck it, up buttercup.’ You gotta start somewhere. You’re gonna suck, you’re gonna make mistakes, but you’re gonna learn. Keep at it. Everyone makes mistakes. You can learn from it, or you can let it kill your passion. Another mistake is another lesson learned. So, your first project, you might make a hundred mistakes, yeah well, that’s a hundred lessons. And your next project, you’re only gonna make ninety mistakes. Those numbers start decreasing. And your skills start increasing. As you improve, the lessons are a little harder to find, but they’re there, and you can keep learning.
WM: While learning about these various crafts, has anything stuck?
EG: I rekindled my passion for woodworking. I’ve been slowly adjusting my schedule so that I can fit in more woodworking. I recently got into turning, and I’m enjoying that - wood carving too. And I’ve been incorporating metal into my woodworking.
WM: Rekindled? Did you use to work wood?
EG: My grandfather was a cabinetmaker, and my father is a serious woodworking hobbyist. So, it’s in my blood. I grew up in that environment and have always enjoyed it, but somehow, I ended up in the world of information technology. I’ve always been attracted to fine furniture. I love well-made joinery with no fasteners. It’s all clever angles and forces.
WM: Is there anything from custom-building motorcycles that you apply to woodworking?
EG: Absolutely. There are what I would consider general practices of craftsmanship. Like measure twice, cut once – basic methodologies. And always trying to excel for the best. But there’s also design values. I think design and good balance carry over to pretty much anything you do, whether it’s building a motorcycle, making a cabinet, or carving a horse. I mean, good design is good design. What I do is metal shaping, which is creating compound shapes in metal. That’s neat because you’re working with designs that are probably more fluid than what you would usually find in cabinetmaking. It’s been cool thinking about how to manipulate wood in that type of space.
WM: Describe your dream shop. Would you be able to divide your shop - half woodworking, half metal shaping?
EG: Actually, I’m in the process of separating it right now. What happened was, I had my metal shop, and then I started incorporating woodworking equipment, which is riddled with problems. So, I’m moving the woodworking tools to a woodshop detached from my house. I have the woodshop at home and keep the metal shop at my studio, so there’s a little bit more separation. I can combine the pieces of a project from the separate shops when they’re ready.
WM: What’s your favorite woodworking tool right now?
EG: Well, I’ve been spending time with hand tools. I’ve always sucked at using the hand plane and so now, I’m focusing on that. I’m trying to understand how to use a plane properly. I’m also doing work with chisels and gouges and understanding how to sharpen, how to hold the tools – proper technique. That’s where most of my time has been spent, honestly. I’ve logged a lot of time on a metal lathe, and the drill press – power tools. Even with metalworking, one of my favorite things to do is hand file work. I love working with hand files. And now I’m enjoying that in woodworking as well.
WM: Do you have any other hobbies?
EG: Fishing. I’m an avid fisherman. I try to get out as much as I can. I’m mostly after bass. I do a fair amount of fly-fishing. I like to spend summer months on a lake, just casting.
I live in Detroit’s northern suburbs, surrounded by three or four good-sized lakes within a 30-minute drive. I keep my boat and all my fishing gear in the shop, and whenever I feel like it, I decide, “Oh man, I’m going fishing this evening.” I’ll load up everything and grab my dog, and head out for a couple of hours, and lose myself out there.
WM: Fishing has meditative qualities too. Like working with your hands, you can step away from life for a while, get out in nature, slow down – look at the bigger picture.
EG: I love working, I do. But I’m a firm believer that you gotta live life now, man. I don’t see myself retiring. I don’t like golf. I like creating things, making things. I don’t see myself ever hanging it up one day. I might as well enjoy time now and do what I like doing. And if I feel like cutting out a little early to go fishing or go on a motorcycle ride, I’m going to do it.
WM: Do you ride a bike that you created?
EG: I actually ride a 1987 Harley Davidson FXRS that I modified. It’s a Harley from the factory that I did a bunch of custom work on, and it’s probably one of my favorite bikes. At the shop, we call it a rebirth. We take stock models and modify them.
For a long time, it was one of those situations like with the cobbler’s children. I never had a custom bike of my own. But a few years ago, my mom passed away and I needed some time. So, instead of sitting there grieving, I got to work and made that bike. It was the best way for me to move forward.
WM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?
EG: Surround yourself with positive people. You gotta have people in your life that you look up to. People who inspire you. There are plenty of people in the world who’ll tell you that you’re gonna fail. Don’t listen. Don’t give up. Don’t let other people tell you can’t do something. And don’t let anybody else hold your star.
Always be willing to learn. Sometimes it’s a journey, and you must learn some lessons the hard way.
WM: Do you consider yourself a craftsman or an artist?
EG: I’m a craftsman.
WM: Who should we interview next?
EG: I did an episode of my show with a skilled woodworker called Mark Whitley. He’s a great guy for you to talk to.
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