It seems like this should be an easy question to answer. I feel like it should be as self-evident as answering “Am I a woman?” Boobs? Check. Vagina? Check. Overwhelming urge to check “F” on personal information forms? Yep, I’m a woman. Unfortunately, the whole artist thing isn’t as easy for me.
I think if you were to ask my husband or my mother, or anyone close to me really, “Is SaraB an artist?” they would have no trouble answering “Yes.” They have an advantage that I don’t. They haven’t spent 32 years believing that there was no way I could possibly be an artist.
My dad draws very well. I can vividly remember being about five years old and watching him draw a picture of the Swedish ivy plant we had hanging in our apartment. As a five-year-old, I constantly compared what I drew with things my dad drew. He liked to draw and it was something we could do together, so we did it a lot. Now, not surprisingly, I could not draw like that when I was five. Hell, I still can’t. Cartooning is not in my repertoire. I would look at our pictures side by side and think “I can’t draw like that,” and pretty soon that became “I can’t draw,” which in turn became the certainty that I was not an artist. The whole “because you’re five” thing never entered my mind. I told my dad this story a few years ago and he was mortified. He felt terrible that I decided I wasn’t artistic because of him. I reassured him that it wasn’t anything he said or did, or didn’t say or do, I just made up my mind and never looked back.
The thing is, though, there was still a part of me that desperately wanted to be an artist. I loved art class, but every time something didn’t come out the way I wanted, or I had trouble coming up with an idea, it was further proof that I wasn’t any good at this stuff. Every time someone told me how creative I was, I would thank them on the outside while inside I was thinking of all the reasons that my creativity didn’t count as being truly creative. “It was an assignment, I didn’t come up with the idea myself.” “I was working off a picture I saw in a magazine.” “I got the pattern out of a book.” Whatever it was, I always had a reason for why their opinions were invalid.
I finally had to admit that, just maybe, I was creative, but I had to qualify it. I have no trouble saying that I am creative in that I have an incessant need to create things. I work on some sort of project damn near every day. And when I say “every day” I would estimate I am talking about roughly 350 days a year. If I go too long without making something with my hands, I get very cranky and unsettled. It’s like that feeling you get when you are hungry but you can’t figure out what you want to eat, so you prowl around the kitchen picking things up and throwing them back down like a confused bear. I know that I need something, but it takes me a while to figure out what. So I knit, or crochet, or cross-stitch. Sometimes I paint or make jewelry. And every time someone walks through my house and says “You’re so creative!” I think “Yeah, but anyone can do this stuff if they really want to. It’s not like I’m special.”
A few years ago, I started making glass beads for Chamillia. The official title for my job was “Glass Artist,” which I, of course, was very uncomfortable with. I was making someone else’s designs, over and over again. There’s not a whole lot that is artistic about production work. Then I got laid off and, with Mr.B’s encouragement, decided to try making a go of it on my own. After I made the decision, I realized that this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. From when I was in elementary school selling my tissue paper flowers to my family at Christmas time, to my high school jewelry classes, to my work as a scenic carpenter, where I could finally get paid for making things – all I’ve ever wanted to do is make pretty thing and sell them. I just never took these dreams seriously, because I’m not an artist. Even now, when I design, make and sell my own glass pieces – which would technically make me a professional glass artist – I am still more comfortable with the title of artisan.
I decided this weekend that it is time to change my bullshit attitude.
I was fortunate enough to see Ricky Franks, an internationally known enamel artist, do a demonstration of his cloisonne techniques. He had brought a selection of his finished pieces to sell at the demo, and I was a little stunned that nothing he had cost less than $100. Most of his pieces were in the $200-$300 range, but he had necklaces that were over $800. While he was talking, I was tempted to ask how he came up with his prices. I didn’t, because I could guess what his answer would be, and I realized that what I really wanted to know was how one developed the, let’s say, chutzpah to charge $300 for a pendant made out of silver and glass. Granted, it’s fucking beautiful silver and glass, but still…
I thought about this for the rest of the night. Why was I so afraid of raising my prices? What could I do to make this a viable job, instead of a hobby that I sometimes get paid for? I finally came to the realization that this artist thing is holding my back. I honestly don’t know if I can succeed in making my lifelong dream into a reality if I can’t make some sort of peace with the fact that I don’t think I am worthy of being artist.
After getting this far, I thought some more about the stories Ricky told. The way he tells it, he didn’t start doing this because of a driving need to live an artistic life, he just liked enameling things and figured out how to make it into a career.
I thought about my main objection to the idea that I am creative, namely that I “copy” things I see in real life. Don’t other artists do that? Aren’t some of the greatest artists in the history of the world people who saw something beautiful and translated it into paint or stone (or whatever)? Why does it “not count” if I do it?
I decided to take advantage of my resources and ask some of my friends, people who I would say without hesitation are artists, what the word means to them. Consider this an extremely long introduction to a new series of interviews, “How Did You Decide You Were an Artist?” I’ll be back next week with my first interview, Lance and Maureen McRorie, a married couple who have been my friends and mentors since I began my journey to glass artistry.