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Remember this parable when facing a seemingly impossible task


Philippe Lissac / Godong

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 06/18/21

Sculptor Sarah Hempel Irani shares a real life story that helps her turn blocks of stone into beautiful works of art.

Throughout our lives, we all face tasks and projects that are daunting. We can feel defeated before we even begin, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude, complexity, or challenge that lies before us.

Sarah Hempel Irani, a professional sculptor and artist based in Frederick, Maryland, knows this experience very well. She has spent a lot of time staring at giant blocks of marble, wondering how she could turn them into art worthy of their subjects. In a recent Facebook post, Hempel Irani shared a real life parable that she repeats to herself, and to her daughter, when faced with a seemingly impossible task:

My uncle Jim tells this beautiful parable about achieving a monumental task. Many years ago, he and his young (at the time) son had to lay a sewer line in the back yard. They had to dig a 40-foot trench by hand, too poor to afford any machinery. His small son asked, “Dad, how will we ever dig such a long trench?” And he replied, “One shovelful at a time.”

Some time later, the father and son team were finished. When the men came to deliver the pipe, they asked, “Where is all of your equipment?” My uncle told him that they didn’t use any. “But how did you possibly dig all of this?” And my young cousin piped in “One shovelful at a time.”

While I was working on the Virgin Mary sculpture, I had literally imported nine tons of marble from the Carrara Mountains in Italy. How were we ever going to get an image of the Virgin out of that enormous block of mountain? It seemed like forever that we worked on this sculpture and the only way that it was going to get done was one bit at a time. In fact, this is the only way that art is ever finished, one brush stroke at a time, one note at a time, one blow to the chisel at a time.

I get overwhelmed easily and when I do, I remember this story. I remember having finished the Virgin Annunciate and St. Joseph in marble. I think about this year working on the Claire McCardell Project. It felt like I would never finish, but each day I showed up and added a bit more clay, and a bit more and a bit more, until one day it was ready to cast!

Never underestimate the power of a little bit at a time.

So the next time you’re faced with a seemingly impossible task, remember that “one shovelful at a time” is the way to get there. Show up each day, take each small step, and in time that block of marble will be transformed into a beautiful sculpture.

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