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Am I an Artist?

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.

It's a lousy photo, but this is the actual drawing. I could not draw like this when I was five.

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 do like to paint, but it frustrates the crap out of me sometimes.

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.

Ricky Franks' Moon Dancer pendant. The picture does not do it justice.

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.

SaraB's Taffy Twist pendant.

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.

By [E]SaraB

Glass artisan by day, blogger by night (and sometimes vice versa). SaraB has three kids, three pets, one husband and a bizarre sense of humor. Her glass pendants can be found at www.etsy.com/shop/AngryOwlStudio if you're interested in checking it out.

16 replies on “Am I an Artist?”

I struggle with this too! And I feel like I’ve always been bothered by people too choose a medium. My response to those people: I don’t wanna! You can make me! nahhhh :p

I consider myself a writer (thank you Persephone Mag for making me a published one). I want to be a filmmaker (but it takes a lot of money). I’m drawn to visual / traditional fine arts, but I find that I am no good at drawing or painting.

You know, the funny thing is that to me, few artists ever manage to make a living off of their art, and yet artisans create as a job, to earn a living. So there’s another way to look at things.

I am doing a great deal of work right now on the binary between art and artifact. Why is an oil painting considered art, but a moccasin with beautifully detailed and designed beadwork a craft? There is a bit of gendering going on there too, right? I mean women make crafts, men make art back in the day.

There aren’t very cohesive thoughts, but they are some bubbles that came to mind when reading this awesome article!

The dynamic between artist, artisan and crafter is a fascinating thing, and it may very well have something to do with my mental block. I hadn’t really thought of it in terms of the patriarchy, but you are right. The mediums that are traditionally accepted as “art” – painting and sculpting – are historically male professions. The reading I have done has been more about different kinds of artists fighting to break away from the “artisan” label, because art should not just be painting and sculpting.

Thank you for putting into words something I’ve felt for a long time.  My background is in theatre–I studied acting and singing in school and even managed to get paid very small amounts for a few years (before defecting to the more stable, more reasonably paid, and shockingly interesting world of market research.)  As a performer, I was ostensibly “an artist,” but I never felt like one.  My “art” was interpretation–taking someone else’s words, someone else’s music, and in many cases, someone else’s direction, and presenting it to the world in the best way I knew how.  Some say that’s meaningful, but I always felt more like a proxy, like a vessel for the art to come out of without contributing to it in any way myself.

I yearn to create.  I long to write, compose, direct–but I don’t seem to have the talent or the focus for it.  So like you, I turn to crafts.  I cross stitch, I crochet, I cook, I apply glitter to anything that will stand still long enough, but, like you, I always scoff at the notion that I’m creative because I’m still just applying other people’s ideas.  I just want to see something tangible come from my own hands.  Whether or not it has any value is another matter entirely.

I am working on looking at my “fiber arts” endeavors as an artistic pursuit. Even though you are working from a pattern, you still make decisions, therefore it is yours. From what you’ve said, I’m willing to bet that you are like me and you rarely follow a pattern to the letter. Even when I cross-stitch, which is like paint by numbers with string, I end up tweaking the colors a little, or making some little changes here and there to make the end product look a little more like Me.

I tend to feel this way about writing, I think because I see it more as a pass time or hobby, and I think of a writer as being a professional. Even though I write in my spare time and hope to one day get published, I still have that mental block. When people ask what I do, I say I’m a student, when I guess in reality I am also a writer.
Maybe this only extends to the writing thing, because I certainly think that anyone who does art in any significant capacity is an artist. I definitely see you as one- your glasswork is stunning! Anyway, this post gave me a lot to think about surrounding our definitions of professions versus hobbies and whatnot, and what that all means.

** I’d also like to point out, if I may, that boobs and a vagina are not necessarily requirements for being a woman, and the wording here may offend and/or alienate trans*, non binary, or non gender conforming people, as well as allies. Just wanted to let you know!

I know that the question of gender is not easy for everyone, and I chose to use the question of “Am I a woman,” because it brought to mind the echoes of a question that feels like it should be easy to answer, but isn’t for everyone. In my case, anatomy and attitude conspire to make that an easy one for me (which is why I included the part about the urge to check “F” on forms).

If I do offend anyone, I hope they tell me so I can apologize. And thank you for your comment :)

All of this. It’s been a struggle for me for years. I am artistic, and I always need to be doing something with myself (at the moment, it’s knitting b/c I can do it while watching tv with my butt on the couch). For the last few years, I’ve been an art student. That title felt good, if without any responsibility. I figured once I had my stuff in a gallery, I’d be an artist, then when I sold work, it would feel right. I think part of it for me is that I don’t have a niche.This may sound a little braggy, but I find myself to have an aptitude for whatever I try, but  I don’t have any particular artistic identity.  I just love to make, and make it to the best of my ability. Different things grab my attention, and I want to learn how to do it all.

Sometimes I think it is like feeling like an adult. You keep thinking that there will be some sort of A-ha moment and you will be able to say “Yes, now I am _____” but really life just happens and you have to be the one to say “I am this, and so I shall act like it.” Does that make any sense?

I really love this post for a few reasons. It’s very thought provoking for me. I can completely relate to feeling creative but not having the confidence to actually do something creative. Looking back, I associate this with my traditional upbringing and the fairy tale indoctrination that women aren’t really supposed to do things. We’re supposed to be passive actors in a male world. I always felt like I could be whatever I wanted, but when it came to building something, making something, etc., I always felt somehow inadequate. Perfect example of how this stereotype is portrayed in our culture, the fucking Vitamin Water ad that I see every morning on my way to work, “Be the girl they sing about.” Ugh.

After attending my first music festival, meeting a beautiful hippie man and spending my 21st bday learning his peaceful ways, I learned to make hemp jewelry (which also means I am very interested in your glass pieces!). I finally learned an outlet through which to express my creativity by making something.

Since then, I’ve let it out quite a bit more. I’m not afraid to get out the chainsaw and make the wooden pieces I’ve been wanting in my living room, throw together some creative protest signs, etc. I also think that becoming a mother has helped me gain confidence in this area because I don’t think my children will learn that they can do whatever they want if they don’t see me doing whatever I happen to want to do. I’m also keenly aware of stereotypes of female musicians. My partner is a musician, and he is determined to teach our kids how to play, sing, whatever they want. I don’t want my daughter to ever think she is restricted because she has a vagina, but she will undoubtedly get these lessons from society at large.

 

I feel the same way about writing.  To come out and say “I am a writer” is tough.  As a matter of fact, I can’t do it.  It almost feels like I would need to be validated somehow, that using it as a noun instead of a verb means that somebody *else* has to tell me it.

I actually think that it’s a good thing, upon reflection.  I think it shows that you take the title very, very seriously, and when you get to the point where you can accept it, it will be very meaningful to you.

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