Editor’s note: Although this blog tends to center around woodworking, most of us who share this interest also understand that we are part of a larger ecosystem of artisans and we can appreciate well-crafted work of many genres. A few months ago, a photo of an engraved tape measure popped up in my Instagram feed and something about it’s honesty and extravagant beauty spoke to me. The artist behind this treasure (and quite a few others) is Jen Bower, and below she graciously offers her thoughts on perfection and learning to be content with the process.
Growing up with two perfectionists for parents, I adopted perfectionist tendencies fairly young. I’m pretty sure most preschoolers don’t miss the fire drill because they’re organizing the art table’s Mr. Sketch markers. Nor do most small children ask for an extra minute when it’s time to leave the nursery so they can line up all of the teddy bears and toys. For the most part, I always believed that being a perfectionist was a good thing – a quality trait. It drove me to study hard and be at the top of my class. It pushed me to be a diligent worker and not have college debt. It is only in recent years that I’ve realized being a perfectionist can also be a hindrance. The weight of perfectionism kept me from trying new things for a very long time. The fears of failure and the pressure of expectation were at times paralyzing. Perfectionism almost kept me from learning to engrave.
Hand engraving is an art I have always admired but was not directly exposed to until about eight years ago. I met a master engraver whose work blew me away. He couldn’t take me on as a student at the time, but he gave me some pointers and above all said, “Practice.” I considered myself an OK artist so I thought engraving wouldn’t be much different than drawing. I continued in that belief until I tried to cut a straight line and a round circle. Yikes! This was not the same at all. My line was choppy, my hand was tired, my circle looked like a soggy Cheerio that had been overlooked in the cereal bowl. My perfectionism made me want to throw in the towel before I had even really begun. I remember being so frustrated and saying aloud, “It’s never going to be perfect!” The engraver reminded me that hand engraving is done by hand, it should look and feel like it is done by hand, not like it is made by a replicating machine. Granted, he was not saying my Cheerio circles and squiggly lines were quality, he was reminding me that I had to get over that idea of machine-like perfection.
The cuts of the engraved metal can’t be erased. As I cut the metal, I’m removing it in small curls. It is possible I could slip and ruin a piece, gouge too deep and throw off the aesthetic of the design and those factors still make me a little nervous. In learning to engrave, I stayed within some comfortable parameters. My early work was only silver pendants which I could order by the dozen and discard if I messed one up. It was easy work, an initial here, a monogram there, nothing too challenging. The problem was it was also not very artistically fulfilling. The questions of, “Why don’t you engrave this,” or “Have you ever thought about engraving that,” started to pop up and I felt my anxiety building.
In January of 2015, the television show, “A Craftsman’s Legacy,” came to film an episode featuring my husband, who is a clockmaker. While they were here, they asked me to be on camera during the second day of filming, showing my engraving and some of my drawing. After the shakes and sweats passed, I took a deep breath and thought, why not. I didn’t sleep a wink that night and felt embarrassed that my drawings might not be up to par. I knew my engraving was no where close to the master level engraver they would feature later in the season. The host, Eric Gorges, is quoted in the beginning of each episode saying, “The craftsman battles for perfection, never willing to give in, or walk away.” That was a pivotal moment for me. I identified with that statement. I realized it’s OK to strive for perfection but, in doing so, I need to keep learning, keep growing and not be afraid of being imperfect along the way.
Following the filming, I had a renewed sense of excitement about making things by hand. One of my favorite quotes is also from Eric Gorges. In an interview he said, “There is nothing like handcrafted work. It begs you to touch it, hold and admire it.” I wanted to make things that people could hold and pass down to their kids and grand-kids. Though I have always been a maker, I had stayed within a small comfort zone and now, I was ready to explore and not be held back by perfectionism. I began drawing every day. I became serious about engraving again, experimenting with new metals, new surfaces, and non traditional approaches to design. In the process, I began to document my journey, eventually beginning an Instagram page and connecting with all kinds of amazing people and craftsman from around the world. Is my inner battle with perfectionism still there? Oh, yes. I’ve scrapped commissions that were passable and started all over again because I knew I could do better. But, I’ve realized that if I want to grow as a craftsman, an artist and an individual, I can’t be afraid of failing. It’s perfectly OK to be imperfect.
*Notes and references
The first quote from Eric Gorges can be heard at the beginning of every episode of A Craftsman’s Legacy. Episodes are free online at craftsmanslegacy.com (sign up for Legacy Society, it’s free). The second quote about handcrafted work can be found here.