In The Artisan Soul, author Erwin Raphael McManus teaches that the most important work of art is the life we create. McManus is a pastor, author, and creative. This book is about the ways in which we are all artists with the deep need to create. The general principles of creativity can guide us in creating a life that is meaningful and satisfying. It’s important to note that this book is not just for those who consider themselves creatives, in the traditional sense of the word. An artisan life is not just for painters, writers, and musicians. All of us are creative, even those of us who don’t think we are. Made in the image of a Creator makes us, inevitably, creators ourselves. The Artisan Soul is not just about exercising creativity, but building a life within the context of creativity. It’s important to understand that life isn’t just happening to us, we’re creating it, all the time. And it takes time and effort to create something really special.

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Limitless Limitations

One of my favorite concepts in The Artisan Soul is this idea of the importance of understanding the limitations within a medium in order to unlock the limitless potential of the form. For example, when it comes to creating delicious food, there are only five basic flavors: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. No chef in the world has access to any other flavors outside of these five. Great chefs don’t sit around and complain about how they wish there were more than five flavors or how they wish the flavors were different. Instead, they use their time on deeply familiarizing themselves with these five flavors so that they can focus on creating new combinations and, in turn, delicious food.

Every chef works with only five flavors. Every musician works with only twelve notes. Every painter works with only three primary colors. But there are endless combinations to create any color you can imagine. When you understand the limitations of the medium, you can unlock the limitless potential within that medium. In short, work with what you have.

McManus explains how this concept applies to life like this:

“Every medium carries within itself inherent limitations, and every artist also comes with limitations. True creativity is not the outflow of a world without boundaries. The creative act is the genius of unleashing untapped potential and unseen beauty within the constraints and boundaries of the medium from which we choose to create…The true artist sees boundaries not as the materials denied to us but as the material that allows us to harness and focus our true creative potential…It’s what we do with the material that distinguishes the mundane from the unique…What makes you a chef is what you do with those five flavors; what makes you a musician is what you do with those twelve notes; what makes you a painter is what you do with those three colors; what makes you an architect is what you do with those three shapes; what makes you an artist is what you do with the material you have been given with which to create.”

I’m so challenged by this idea. It has forced me to think about my own life and the limitations of the “medium” of life I’ve chosen to live inside. The career I’ve chosen or the family I’ve created or the city I’ve made home may all place me inside of one “medium” of life. Understanding the materials in my medium can free me to explore the limitless possibilities inside the life medium I’ve chosen. A life as a freelancer may come with its own limitations— but I can also explore the endless combinations of what is available to me in that career. Being married or becoming a parent comes with its own specific materials. Living in the Hill Country of Texas means that I don’t have access to the materials of the medium of, say, living in New York City. But I do have all the materials necessary to create a beautiful life in Texas. And the thing is, you can change mediums. I can move from Texas to New York City, if that’s what I really want. But I’m not going to waste my time lamenting what isn’t available to me within this medium when this simple set of materials I do have is everything I need to create a masterpiece right here.

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The Merging of Genius and Mastery

In chapter 5, McManus writes about the difference between genius and mastery, and the necessity for embracing both. Genius is something we are born with— a natural proclivity for excellence in a specific medium or realm. Mastery is the excellence that comes through years of practice and dedication to that task.

It’s easy for many of us to imagine that a person who is successful in a field or art form was simply born with their talent. It’s easier for us to say that they have something we are lacking, rather than seeing the tremendous work that went into honing their mastery. That isn’t to dismiss the very real notion that some are born gifted in certain areas. But without time and discipline, an artist will never move from genius to master. And while with enough practice many of us could learn to master nearly any skill, there remains a special, God-given kind of talent that goes beyond human understanding. Embracing both genius and mastery is key in understanding how to build an artisan life.

McManus puts it this way:

“Genius is a gift we are given; mastery is the stewardship of our gifts…It was Michaelangelo who said, ‘If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.’ I am certain that this is why the designation craftsman isn’t as well received as artisan. To be called an artist feels like you are telling me I have talent; to be called a craftsman sounds like you are describing me as a hard worker. We believe that one is about essence and the other is about effort. Can you imagine what our lives would be if we valued both? Only when we realize that craft is rooted in character can we begin the journey to mastery. In a discipline that comes from passion, we find our way to mastery.”

To dismiss either genius or mastery as unimportant will leave us with an incomplete picture of an artisan life. Valuing both is where the real magic happens.

Of the four books on Dreaming that I’ve covered so far, The Artisan Soul is certainly the most philosophical and the least practical. Included at the end of the book is a list of ways that readers can apply the ideas of crafting an artisan life, but practical advice is not McManus’ main focus. It will likely take me a long time and an additional reading of this book to grasp all of the wisdom it holds.

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Photos by Kara Buse.

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No joke.