Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hard Words

"My most creative work seems to be on projects where I'm inexper- ienced and uniquely unqualified for the job." -- Paula Sher

If someone asked me to define "artist," I would reply that it is someone who makes art. I would not include in the definition that it is someone with an MFA from a recognized art school or that it was someone whose work is shown by major galleries across the globe or someone who came out of the womb paintbrush clinched tightly in tiny fist.

Wikipedia gives us three definitions:

1. A person who creates art.
2. A person who creates art as an occupation.
3. A person who is skilled at some activity.

And, the Oxford English Dictionary states that the dominant usage is

* One who cultivates one of the fine arts - traditionally the arts presided over by the muses (Calliope - epic poetry, Clio - history, Erato - lyric poetry, Euterpe - music, Melpomene - tragedy, Polyhymnia - sacred poetry, Terpsichore - dance, Thalia - comedy and Urania - astronomy). Notice that none of the muses reigns over painting or the visual arts.

So, if experts old and new, agree in concept with my own definition, why is it that I have such a hard time saying the words, "I am an artist"? The Wikipedia definitions carry a hint when they mention the words "occupation" and "skill." I do not make money with my art so it is not an occupation and, while I am becoming more skilled, I can't yet claim that I am skilled. And OED uses the word "cultivates" as though it's an ongoing process. That works, I am cultivating my art.

This difficulty with self-identification as an artist is not new. I remember being in a workshop years ago and, as part of an exercise, having the workshop leader encourage me (almost forcibly) to say the words. My throat slammed shut; my heart pounded and tears flowed. The words were almost impossible then and they are still hard now. It was almost the same situation twenty years ago when I was trying to become a "writer." It wasn't until I had a contract for my first book that I felt entitled to call myself a writer.

But if I, or anyone else, makes art but never sells it, shouldn't we still be allowed to call ourselves artists? Or is that term reserved only for "professionals?" A friend suggested that I create and use some artist affirmations to strengthen my self-identification as an artist. It sounded like a good idea so I asked several of my artist friends for affirmations that they use and started prowling around the internet to see what other ones I could find. And, I found many keepers:

I am an artist.
My creativity is a divine gift.
I have time to make art.
My art heals wounds, mine and others'.
My art is my gift to myself and the world.
My art is an expression of my gratitude.
My creative work is an expression of truth, love and peace.
My art creates new and joyful connections.
My art expands the world.

The problem that launched this stream of thought came when some of the affirmations claimed "quality" ... such as:

I am a brilliant and creative artist.
I am a truly gifted artist.

I would have no trouble telling you how bad an artist I am but telling myself that I am brilliant, creative or gifted is rather mind boggling. As my blogger friend Louise might say ... it creates a kerfuffle in my mind. I am going to create affirmation cards out of all of the above ... even the truly hard ones ... and we'll see what happens. In the meantime, I'm going to take one small step ...

You may have noticed that I have moved the About Me from the bottom of the blog page to the top and included an Artist Statement ... not quite saying "I am an artist" but almost. And, I will keep in mind Georgia O'Keefe's amazing admission:
"I have been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I have never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."
I want to do art ... I want to be an artist ... so I am not going to let the fear of saying the words stop me. I am an artist. (emphasis intended)


  1. I tend to be a bit more expansive. May I offer this?

    "For me, art is not a choice, like a job is a choice, like a pair of shoes is a choice. It is around me, in me, and of me, just as surely as my breaths, my heart, my eyes are of me. It cannot be explained away by official definitions. It cannot be qualified by limits others set for me. It cannot be ignored simply because others choose not to give it attention. Art is the sound of the colors I use to paint the world, the breathing in of experience and exhaling of lessons learned, the vision of Him working through me, around me, in me. I am an artist."

  2. Joyce! You are an artist. I am an artist. Marueen is an artist -- we express ourselves, our feelings, emotions, thoughts, words -- we express and through our expression, wonder dances all around us creating a world of infinite possibilities.

    Like Maureen -- colours flow through me, words flow through me. Creative expression flows -- everywhere and I am part of the flow.

    I am an artist. I see you as an artist -- no matter the kerfuffle :) in your head! I see your photographs as the expression of a beautiful spirit gifting the world with images that stir the soul and raise our spirits. Thank you!



  3. Maureen and Louise... thanks for the beautiful and encouraging words. I know this is my own self-limiting doubt ... and I have made some lovely vision and affirmation cards to help me move past this. hugs to both of you. j