The meditation of a master craftsman

March 14, 2017

When I first started painting shoes as a lowly apprentice in Paris many years ago. It was merely just a means to get by. To pay for tuition, accommodation and pocket money. During those early days. I thought the most important thing was to be innately gifted with talent.

I would often marvel at the masters of my craft. The remarkable ease in which they would pick up a brush and proceed to work on an expensive bespoke pair of shoes. They showed no signs of nervousness and this was very much reflected in the assertiveness of their brush strokes.

Now that I have managed to acquire the same level of confidence and métier in my shoe painting craft.

I think now — the young man who dedicates himself to a craft would do well to nurture a healthy skepticism about the quality of his work. He would do well to try and to try and to try until it comes out right.

Then he must put this ‘right’ thing on a stool and look at it at different lighting conditions day in and day out till it finally he realises…’s not quite right yet.

That is to say the craftsman must train himself to be ruthlessly honest in how he sees his craft – to even throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that thing and to start all over again.

Cultivating such an attitude can only develop insight into one’s craft – the burning curiosity to always experiment, to push beyond what one already knows, to mull, and to muse why it is that other shoe artist can do what I am still struggling to do. And if you have just that sort of attitude alone, then I don’t think inborn talent makes much difference to the final outcome.


‘When it comes to my hobby of painting shoes – it’s always a source of embarrassment for me. As whenever many of my loyal customers (some go back as far as twenty years!) set eyes on my finished work. They all go, Wow!

For some strange and inexplicable reason I never seem to be able to share their joy. It’s always a bitter sweet experience for me – one where I am inclined to remain impassive and silent as if I am estranged from the very thought my work could possibly be anything resembling a work of art.

Many mistake this for humility or quiet confidence. But the real reason and I’ve never confided this to anyone before – is because only I and I alone can see the flaws in my own work. They seem to always stand out as stark reminders that I am not quite there yet.

What my clients have to say concerning the quality of my work is usually a matter of profound indifference to me….as only I and I alone know each stage of the process along with the inescapable truth….it could really be better….if only I did this or that.

In a certain sense this is the lot of the craftsman – usually he’s marooned in his own skull and it’s almost impossible to share his travails with those who seem to only consider his work as a rare object of desire.

Perhaps what I am trying to convey here is an attitude – to really excel one has to be the fiercest critique of one’s work.

Only then can one really make meaningful progress. Never be satisfied….to harbor such an attitude is to experience a thousands deaths.

Some years back ago an old Friend asked me to talk to an aspiring shoe artist. The master was of the opinion his apprentice had potential, but for reason he seemed stuck in the mud – no sooner had I been introduced to the young man. The conversation turn to the topic of how is it that I was able to cultivate such a prestigious list of clients who all without a single exception don’t seem too bothered to engage my services only under the highly unusual terms – I retain the right to full and complete creative discreation.

The young man asked – what is so special about your work that you even have the temerity to insist on such terms?

To which I replied. My work is a thinking thing…it is not dead.

The apprentice asked. What do you mean. To which I replied quite harshly – you are nothing more than a monkey trained to pick coconuts. Naturally he got all hot under the collar. And that was when I pressed home the point by picking up a brush and painting one of shoes in the time it took to empty my bladder – thereafter I threw at him and left but not before I had planted a seed in his head – when was the last time you mulled over what you’re doing?

Thereafter the master (who happens to be a very good friend) of the apprentice confided to me – you have broken the poor boy’s spirit. He doesn’t seem to have the confidence to hold the brush any longer.

To which I told him – no…his work is now a thinking thing that is why it is so difficult for him to hold the brush now…it’s not merely a means to an end. Rather now that notion I have planted in his brain will begin to torment him like a delightful mystery and turn him inside out.

True enough not long thereafter the youth’s work began to acquire a confidence and élan.

You see it’s very simple really – his work had been transformed from a dead thing to a thinking thing that is now breathing with life….it is curious….never satisfied and above always going where no mind dares to go!’

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