Trying Not to Try So Hard

When I lived in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago, many years ago, I had the great privilege of apprenticing with a stained glass master named John Boesze. Part of my agreement in learning the art of stained glass mosaics from him was that I would create whatever projects he assigned to me - no questions asked. This was a great challenge, and one of lessons involved creating a mosaic from a famous painting.

I worked hard on my artwork and labored over the lines of grout in my design. I wanted to impress him with my meticulous attention to detail.

Imagine my dismay when I showed him the work and he paused, looking it over quietly. Then he waved his hand over it and walked away. “Too perfect”, he said, continuing loudly with “Perfect is a machine! Where is the power of the hand!”

He went on to say that when the grout lines and glass shapes are so precise, they have no life in them, and the artwork is flat. The imperfections and even ‘mistakes’ add uniqueness and vitality because they are the work of an artist. Ok, I get it - you really want this quality in your work.

Another brilliant professional I worked with was a Liturgical Designer named Fr. Mark Joseph Costello. He commissioned many of my stained glass mosaics for his church designs, and part of this process was always the initial meeting with the church committee to present my work and answer their questions.

For my very first project with him, I was nervous for this committee meeting but very prepared. I knew enough about the project to tailor my presentation pieces and create great questions of my own. The meeting went well, but I was aware that I was doing a lot of talking.

Fr. Mark never said anything about that meeting, but for subsequent projects he gave me little if any information about the artwork or concept. He would just tell me to bring examples of work that I liked, tell them about who I am as an artist, and answer their questions. This made me incredibly anxious at first. I mean, how can you hit a home run out of the park if you don’t even know what park you’re in? 

After the first meeting this way I saw and felt the difference. There was an easy and natural flow to the conversation with the committee members, with interactions that would never have come up had I prepared and stuck to my ‘perfect’ script. The artwork ideas evolved more organically and felt much more true and unique to their project.

The Good Energy Makers in the photo below remind me not to try so hard in making my work or moving through the world as an artist. Plus, it cracks me up to see someone like Thomas Merton giving us permission to be unabashedly ourselves!

These little clippings are GEMs because they take the pressure off and they make me feel relieved for just showing up to do the work. I hope they do the same for you.