When Are You an Artist?

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Grow Love by Heidi Behr

There’s a lot of talk in creativity blogs about what makes an artist. That is, when is it OK to actually call yourself an “artist”? Are there rules? Must you acquire critical acclaim? Do you have to produce your art every day? Or go to a studio where you make your art? Do you have to make your living at it? Do you call it your job?

In a recent posting of Brainpickings, Maria Popova interviews Amanda Palmer on her new book The Art of Asking:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. Palmer says, “There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to university, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.”

There you go: You’re an artist when you say you are.

Palmer explores the internal reframing necessary to fully owning an artist identity, be that painter, writer, garden designer, social media artist, or entrepreneur. But for many of us who don’t see ourselves as full out Artist with a capital A, but still want to cultivate our creative impulses, there’s a kind of insidious tendency that sets in: we inadvertently take on the label of “artlessness.”

I’m a good example of this. In first grade I drew all the time. And every picture I drew had a partial image of a golden sun tightly positioned in the left-hand corner of the picture with alternating lengths of sparkly rays shooting from the edge. And then, one day, Mrs. Murphy told me to stop doing that. “That’s not the way the sun looks, Lezlie. It should be right over the roof of your house.”

I was mortified. Shamed into believing that I was doing it all wrong. That’s when I decided I didn’t have the artful gene, and I proceeded to move through grade school, high school, and college believing that about myself. And of course, what we believe about ourselves is pretty much what we become.

I run into this all the time. People say, “Oh I’m just not creative. My third grade art teacher made this perfectly clear to me. My sister Jeanie got the creativity gene in our family; she’s a painter.” Many of us have a Mrs. Murphy lurking in our past.  Early in life we begin absorbing the labels that others give us. And we draw faulty conclusions from those labels, like “I’m just not very creative,”and then quickly establish that label as a hardwired quality.

But for some who slapped the artless label onto their lapel, a nudge of contradiction begins asserting itself later in life. Heidi Behr is a good example of this. Heidi is a lover of art, but for years saw herself as a mere bystander when it comes to the actual creation of art. She learned from her Mrs. Murphy in eighth grade that she didn’t have what it took to draw. And so she went about her life. Got an education. Did good work in the world. Became a therapist and counselor. Married a fabulous man. And pretty much has been living the good life here in Orlando. Going to gallery events. Connecting with artists. Loving the arty world we get to enjoy  in Central Florida. But not being an artist.

Until this year. Oh yes, something happened to our beautiful, successful, happy Heidi. She began to get that urge she had when she was in eighth grade. That yearning to create. She fell prey to the feeling artist and illustrator Lisa Congdon addresses when she says this: “When you’re not making stuff, there’s this part of you that aches, but you don’t know that’s why it aches.”

I think that’s what happened to Heidi. Even though she was living the good life, one filled with a loving and supportive family and husband, a wonderful career in which she helps numerous people, and a joy for life that is absolutely infectious to all of us lucky enough to hang out with her, even with all of that, there was something missing in Heidi. She was one of those people walking around with a deep ache in the gut because they aren’t making the stuff that they really want to make.

Enter Lynn Whipple, local artist, high-level creative, and teacher extraordinaire. Lynn was teaching an online course in collage making called The Joy Of Mixed Media Assemblage.  In an audacious act of bravery, our budding artist signed up, and over a period of time, with the support of an enthusiastic online community, Heidi developed the skills and techniques necessary to release the visual stories that were inside of her. And last Thursday night, at the Orlando Museum of Art’s First Thursday event, she showed three of her collages to the world. She showed her work! Flat out flew in the face of Mrs. Murphy and hung three absolutely gorgeous collages filled with flowers, joy, and beauty and showed the whole world (well at least Orlando) that she is, in fact, an artist. It was thrilling, not just for her, but for all of us who have taken so much pleasure in watching her grow into her artist identity.

And guess what? She actually SOLD all three pieces at this OMA event. Whew. I’m exhilarated just writing about this. Heidi is such an inspiration to me, and I hope she is to you, too. She is a role-model for all of us who have a yearning to do something that we have come to believe we couldn’t or shouldn’t do. We told ourselves, “I’m not good enough. It will take too long to learn. What I produce will be embarrassing. I’m starting too late. Why bother.”

And as a result, that niggling little feeling in the gut continues to churn. Silently and sullenly.

So here’s what this post comes down to: soothe the ache. You can do this. Stop ignoring the desire to do something new, make something of your own. Whether it’s starting a new business, taking up a new skill, building a new relationship, unleashing an untapped desire to make or build or shape or what? What else? What else is there that you want to do, in spite of all the good things that are going on in your life right now? In spite of what your Mrs. Murphy told you about yourself? What version of your artistic self wants to be allowed to explore a new corner of your world? Go for it. Ask for help. Take a course. Hang out with others who do what you want to do.

Here’s the question you have, I know: “How do you get past the fear that I might do something that means so much to me, and I might just fail at it?”

Good question.  What on earth does the aspiring artist do to shake off the fear of being judged, criticized, dismissed? Of being put at risk; of being shoved to a state of uncertainty?

And here’s the answer: You don’t get past the fear. You pick up the pen, the shovel, the brush, the cookbook, and you move forward in trepidation.  (Not what you wanted to hear, I know.) But the truth is, WE’RE ALL AFRAID.   You’re in good company. Be afraid. And move forward.

In spite of her own uneasiness about her artful capacity, Heidi stepped away from the story that Mrs. Murphy had created for her, and she took action. She took a course. She asked for help. She became teachable. And she shared her baby steps with the members of her internet community, her fellow artists. They praised her, encouraged her, told her she was on the right track. I saw her during those days; she was giddy with pride at what she was doing. She allowed herself to absorb their confidence, their belief in her, their pure delight in the work she was creating. She began to believe that she really could be an artist.

And she is.

2 thoughts on “When Are You an Artist?

  1. N. Lingafelter

    The link above includes the effect of teacher expectations on a student’s actual performance. Being that, behavior is actually caused by the expectation. p.336 It’s pretty interesting and relates exactly to your post.

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