Dining with saints

Ostentatiously humble dinner partners

Paul Epp

Recently, I was having dinner with a colleague in Sweden, and our conversation turned to dinner companions. I like having dinner with people who make things, and, as it turned out, so did she. We agreed that we actually prefer it. There is something about these kind of people that we find particularly agreeable. Maybe it’s the combination of humility and presumption that animates them. She called herself a potter, but most observers would describe her as a ceramic artist. There may be a difference, but at bottom, she just likes to make things. In her case, they are lovely and complex and reflect a great deal of virtuosity. But they are still things.

Of course, people vary tremendously, even makers. Many years ago, and also in Sweden as it turns out, I was a student of a cabinet maker named Jim Krenov. I was astonished to realize that he would happily take an hour of my time to describe exactly how humble he was, and he did this frequently.

I thought he might realize the contradiction? No. In contrast, a feuding colleague of his in the U.S., Wendell Castle, had a large neon sign that said ‘Humble Craftsman’ with an arrow pointing to his studio. Wendell wasn’t actually all that humble, but I liked his sense of humour.

I used to ask my first-year students at OCAD University why they were at this particular school. The most common answer, by far, was the observation that they just wanted to make things. I trust that impulse and was happy to support their ambitions.

Many went on to do less making and more researching, conceptualizing, marketing and managing and the various other things that are peripheral to the making of things, as their talents and opportunities dictated. That is as it should be. But, most likely, they were still pretty decent people.

My Swedish colleague and I went on to identify types of people that were a little less convivial as dinner companions. She had found that sculptors were often too full of themselves to be easy to relax with. I made the same observation about some designers. Of course, those are very unfair and incomplete generalizations. Many of my friends are designers (I call myself one) and others are sculptors. But I think a point of interest was being made and I think it has a lot to do with ego.

I have been fortunate enough to have met and gotten to know a fair number of prominent people. And a conspicuous thing they have in common is their preoccupation with themselves and a competitive nature. Maybe that’s a prerequisite for their prominence?

It takes a lot of focus to excel (and maybe a few sharp elbows) and I tip my hat to them.

A popular quotation by Will Rogers is ‘I never met a man I didn’t like.’ That sounds warm and fuzzy and actually kind of foolish. What Will actually said was, “I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like.” That makes a lot more sense and I agree with him. I’ve never met a prominent person I didn’t like either. They may be exciting and interesting dinner companions, but also not so easy to relax with because there is usually only one topic of conversation.

Making things is a fundamental human activity. Some of us are more disposed to it than others are. And that’s a good thing. Some of us need to be leaders, or salespeople, or athletes, or entertainers or any other of the huge range of things we collectively occupy ourselves with. I feel really lucky that I ended up in the tribe of makers. We are often (sort of) humble, and simultaneously audacious enough to want our vision to prevail.

We learn how things are made and then usually insist on doing them well. But there might be something about actually manipulating materials that keeps us grounded and not too full of ourselves. It may be that because our focus is on the things we make, there is less focus on ourselves and some of us (I can’t speak for myself) are less self-centred. I consider that a good thing, however much of a generalization it is. Eating together has a long history of being a social adhesive. I know who I prefer to do this with.

Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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