Becoming an Artist: The Power of Language

There comes a time when you have to make a decision about where Art fits in your identity.

Are you an Artist? Yes or no?

When was the last time you answered ‘I am an Artist’ to the question, ‘what do you do?’  Was that the first thing you said?  Or was it an add-on, like  ‘ . . . Oh, and I’m also a painter,’ or something similar? Or did you just not mention it at all?

Everyone who has ever made Art has struggled with this – some more than others. Many continue to let their day jobs in the office or the school or the electric company define them.  They are  pharmaceutical reps or insurance salespeople or teachers or accountants. That’s who they are and it’s how they represent themselves to the world – even though it is an identity they often dislike.   

I believe you must embrace the identity that reflects your essence, your spirit, your soul.  Your identity is the place where your passion persists. You may be working in a department store to pay the bills, but if your passion is doing Art, then be an Artist!  Depending on how deep your passion for making Art takes you, you may have to choose between the day job and your soul at some point . . . and maybe you won’t. 

I guess I’m a good example. I was an Art major in college. It is what I wanted to do. Without going into tedious levels of detail, I got sidetracked into a job in Corporate America.  For 30+ years, that was my career; and I did very well.  I was successful and loved that job, but I never stopped being an Artist. Yes, I painted; but my identity as an Artist went beyond what I did with pigment. It was also the reason I did well in my corporate job.  I approached every business challenge as an Art project.  I let my curiousity drive me and constantly asked, ‘What if . . . ‘  Whenever I could, I’d abstract an issue down to its basic truth and then construct a less obvious solution around that.  I put typically disparate pieces together in new ways.  That’s what artists do.  It is very rare and (if recognized) highly valued in the hampster wheel of corporate life.  

Understand:  as much as I loved that work, that job, and as well as I did at it – it wasn’t who I was.  It was just what I did.   I was an Artist; but I was in the closet with that! If you’d asked me what I did back then, I’d start with, ‘I’m a blah blah blah.’  I may not have mentioned Art at all. 

As I wound down my Corporate life, began to work less and less, becoming more and more part-time and even less-time, I was able to come at my painting with more energy and focus.  I began to experiment with new approaches and ideas and to dig and develop them through consistent studio time. And something else happened:  After while, I began to introduce myself as ‘An Artist.’ 

I had to believe it before I could say it, and nothing solidifies that belief more than showing your work in public. I had my first real show in 2010 – a restaurant filled with my paintings. Still I had trouble saying the words. Then I had another restaurant show and then a gallery show and another.  It took time to believe, and belief was fleeting in those early days, but finally I was able to embrace what I knew to be true all along:  I Am An Artist. 

This is how we become whole people; how we get to that place where thought, words and action are in congruence, where pretence and play acting yeild to the reality of who we are. Arriving at that sense of wholeness is not always easy but it is essential to living a genuine life.

I know a lot of people who make Art.  Some make it with a small ‘a’ some with a large one.  Small ‘a’ people don’t often think they are true artists.  In their own minds they are just playing around with art, or enjoying a hobby; and that’s ok.  Being a ‘small a’ artist is often a step in the process.  Small a’s can become big A’s with work, guts and the right set of circumstances. That’s why I so value Dick Greene, Christina Frausto, Jana Lynch, Theresa Vandenberg Donche and others who guide and encourage Small a’s and point them to opportunities to learn and to show their work.  We have to pull one another along. And it is remarkable how often the one doing the pulling learns something new.

If you are not yet at the point where you can proudly say, ‘I Am An Artist,’ decide if that’s what you want.  If it is, set a goal.  Decide that by some date in the future you will be able to say the words out loud.  Then, plan the steps and look for the opportunities that will take you there.  It will probably be things like joining an Art group – like the Las Vegas Artist Guild – taking a class or five (I did) – and looking for opportunities to show your work.  Showing opportunities are actually abundant if you can be a little aggressive and get over the irrational but common fear that your work sucks. The Artist Guild has a space in Chris Frausto’s Corner Gallery where you can show a piece for a month for $10.  Jana Lynch at Jana’s RedRoom also has a program for ’emergers’.  Both of these fine gallery owners will take the time to talk with you about your Art, where you want to go and how to get there. They will also tell you if you are not ready. 

One final note about language.  There is a word I want you to expunge from your vacabulary.  Get rid of it today and NEVER utter it again.  The word is ‘just.’ I hear it from people grappling with the whole artist identity thing, but I  hear it from seasoned artists, too.  They say, ‘Oh, that’s just something I was playing around with,’ or ‘That’s just a doodle,’ or ‘It’s just a quick sketch.’  The word ‘just’ is used to cushion the artist from anticipated criticism from the viewer.  We are uncertain of our ability and identity so we gird ourselves in the word ‘just’ so that when the negative reaction comes we will have already defused it.  It’s a defensive strategy born of self-doubt. So stop it. However crude your art may seem, it expresses your heart and soul.  Be proud of it. From this day forward you will never again use the word ‘just’ when describing your Art! And if you hear me doing it, kick me in the shins, HARD!

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