Shawnee Mission Faces: Steve Hess, garden studio artist and high school mentor

A maker by trade and teacher at heart, Steve Hess mentors Shawnee Mission high schoolers on the basics of good business practices and the importance of crafting and offering top-notch products and services. He hires them to help him run his business, From the Summer’s Garden, a garden studio and haven for creatives and gardeners. He’s converted his garage into the studio and indoor shopping space. And the students help him run the shop and market their handmade products. Hess has two art degrees in both art education and printmaking and drawing. He teaches at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Missouri, and lives in Overland Park with his wife, Laurie Hess. They have two adult children, both creatives: A son in digital design in Brooklyn, New York, and a daughter doing project management for Burns & McDonnell.

I have five high school kids that work for me. They used to be art students, but now I get kids from all walks of life. It’s an absolute joy. They’re absolute gems.

They’re amazing because these kids, first of all, they want to work. Not many high school kids want to work anymore, so a lot of them I have to teach a work ethic, but when they learn it, when they learn responsibility, they learn empathy and they learn customer service.

They start to gain a much broader viewpoint of life and it’s less “me” and more “others,” which is really wonderful to see the growth that they go through. Because we have them actually interact with our customers who just love it when the kids pay attention to them.

But in addition to that — that is pretty minor — it’s what they bring already. This generation was born with a phone in their hand, for making videos for social media or for our website or for emails. They edit, they shoot, all I have to do is write and direct. I’m not very good at iMovie and I just give it to them to do.

The only problem with them is that they grow up so quickly and they’re off to college, but then we have to keep trying to get new ones. And the kids themselves are the best recruiters because they know what I expect of them.

I’ve read articles where older people will say about the young people, it’s all about them. They’re thinking of themselves. It’s always me. And at the workplace, you hear managers talking about a younger generation being very self focused, but when you start pointing their attention towards the needs of others, just like a customer who’s looking for something or needs help carrying something, they’re thinking, I bet that person needs help. That’s heavy. I can lift that for them. And they do. It’s very simple, very elemental, but it’s actually very huge in their viewpoint and their realm of experience at this age.

They’re in sports, they can do music, they’re brilliant and they’re yet creative. They are pencil thin, but they’re very strong. That’s why I just am so fortunate that they want to work because I make them work hard. They really do have to work hard.

Many of them, it’s their first job. So they have to learn that responsibility. They have to also learn doing the best that they can because we are selling what we make, and if it looks like crap, the customers will not be happy. I design everything. I make the models, but I teach them how to cast out of concrete. We have a studio in the back where they cast. And then I have painters who will paint.

And they do a beautiful job. And if it’s not, then I make them go back and do it over or we wreck it. And it’s a loss to me, but they actually have to wreck it.

I could make them pay every time they screw up. But that’s not why I’m doing this. It wouldn’t be fair because they have no money to spend for it, but they do need to know that they need to do it right. So having them wreck it, they think twice because I say, do you realize how much these materials cost and how much I’ve already paid you to make this the first time. Now you’re wrecking it, so I’m losing my whole investment. So that’s money down the drain.

And you know, I have to say that all the time, but I make mistakes too. People make mistakes. It’s life. So that’s why I don’t charge them.

Having them wreck the work they’ve done is, I think, the very best thing. It’s painful. It’s terribly painful if you’ve gone through the labor, so to speak, of creating something and then it doesn’t turn out as it was supposed to, that’s the way it goes.

But part of the creative process is you’re going to make mistakes and either you make the mistake look like it’s not a mistake or you put it out of its misery. There’s enough bad art around anyway (laughs).

I do what I do because, first of all, I get back so much more than I give them because they are actually fulfilling gaps that I myself cannot do. But they are also such quick learners. I show them once, sometimes twice, and they get it so fast. It’s amazing. They’re pleasant. They’re humorous. It’s a pleasure to know them.

And they also keep me up to date on music ‘cause I let them play the music that they want.