Profiles in Craft: David Easterly

To tackle the wicked problems of our present and future, we need to embrace a strange, counter-intuitive irony: as organizations across all sectors continue to create and adopt technologies like artificial intelligence, employees need to stay relevant by increasing their subjective intelligence. My research on master craftsmen and how they gain mastery helps connect the dots on this new dilemma, and might be the place to seek initial solutions.

When it comes to open ended problem solving and learning to improvise with what we are given; master craftsmen have something to teach us. Having to work with a material where they cannot be sure what will happen is something they are used to. Combined with the more structured training and education offered to us today, improvisational thinking in the face of uncertainty is useful to leaders in any sector. Even in the face of countless books and articles about how important it is, most traditional business school programs and organizational training fail to address sophisticated thinking about ambiguous problems.

Craftsmanship refers to something made with the highest quality. It requires a distinct mindset and approach. Values like durability, integrity, and calling are often associated with craftsmanship. 



Awestruck at the sight of a Grinling Gibbons carving in a London church, David Esterly chose to dedicate his life to woodcarving—its physical rhythms, intricate beauty, and intellectual demands. Forty years later, he is the foremost practitioner of Gibbons’s forgotten technique, which revolutionized ornamental sculpture in the late 1600s with its spectacular cascades of flowers, fruits, and foliage.

After a disastrous fire at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, Esterly was asked to replace the Gibbons masterpiece destroyed by the flames.  It turned out to be the most challenging year in Esterly’s life, forcing him to question his abilities and delve deeply into what it means to make a thing well. Written with a philosopher’s intellect and a poet’s grace, The Lost Carving explores the connection between creativity and physical work and illuminates the passionate pursuit of a vocation that unites head and hand and heart.

Esterly kept a daily journal during his year carving the restoration, a diary that became the springboard for The Lost Carving two decades later. The book narrates his evolution as a woodcarver and describes how the project crucially shaped his own artistic development.Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer Rita Giordano noted that even a reader who cared nothing for woodcarving could “still be absolutely in thrall to the lushness of Esterly’s language, his passion for creation, his reverence for the physical act of work. The Lost Carving is a study in the marvel—both the pain and the joys—of doing a thing well.”

PhotoCredit: Harvard Magazine

PhotoCredit: Harvard Magazine

[From Harvard Magazine] Then as now, Esterly was and is internationally regarded as the most accomplished practitioner of the “subtractive art” of limewood carving since Gibbons. Indeed, Esterly is something of an anachronism: he has devoted most of his adult life (“I work seven days a week, after dinner, all the time”) to chiseling soft, malleable limewood, a particularly receptive medium for these delicate renderings. Many of his pieces take a year or even two to complete: such carvings are a painstaking art that calls on skills cultivated over decades. Thus Esterly has created a magnificent, if small, oeuvre: his 38-year career has produced only a few dozen carvings, almost all in private collections.

They are not hidden from the public, though. This January, Esterly assembled 15 of his most recent works for an 11-day show at the W.R. Brady and Company gallery in Manhattan. Soon thereafter, the collection went on display for six weeks in an exhibit, The Art of Subtraction, at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, an elegant museum in Utica designed by Philip Johnson ’27, B.Arch. ’43. Borrowing the carvings from their owners, transporting the fragile works, and putting them on display was “an arduous undertaking,” Esterly reports. “It will probably never happen again.” Photographs, however, are viewable on his website (

Of his improvement as an artist over the years, he says, “I never had a sense of getting better, but my earlier work gets worse and worse.” Carving, for him, is “a profession for high-functioning obsessive-compulsives.” He explains that “the first 90 percent you can do with 50 percent of the effort. The last 10 percent may take another 50 percent of effort. But that last 50 percent is what changes it into something good.”

Christine Haskell’s research focuses on individuals dedicated to the craft of their professions, in pursuit of excellence, sustainability and integrity. Craftsmen and women use those principles to raise standards toward a better world. Her current work is featured in Look To Craftsmen Project. featuring the Profiles in Craft Series. You’ll find a trove of profiles of intriguing artisans and innovators spanning a wide variety of professions across the globe that illustrate her research with links to the full articles. Christine’s book The Future of Work Will Require Craftsmanship is due in late 2019. To understand more about Christine’s work, check out Our Current Problem.