Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Calling yourself an artist

Here's a tricky subject:  deciding if I am an artist or not.  It's something I've struggled with since I was a child.  You know how families do that thing of assigning labels to each child?  My mother always said that my sister was the musical one and I was the artistic one.  Funny how these labels can affect you.  My sister studied piano for many years and took some of those advanced examinations and she has a lovely old piano in her home--but she hasn't played the piano (even when she's by herself) for decades. As for me, I was the artistically talented one who went to art school (then dropped out), studied to be an art teacher (then dropped out), and now I have a spare room full of art supplies but I never go in there.  What is it about these labels that paralyzes people?

I've been reading the responses from others in this class and they show me that I am not alone in responding to this question with trepidation.  I've responded to some of their posts and it has got me thinking deeply about it.  So, here are the questions and my responses to them.

What is “art?” 

Having given it a great deal of thought I've come up with this definition:  Art is a personal creative response to something that touches you in your life.  The response can be through words as a poem or a description, through movement as a dance, through voice in a song or a chant, through creating music of any kind, or through visual media.  

In its narrowest sense, visual art is often thought of as paintings, sculptures and drawings--the things we would see in an art gallery.  But I would also include collage, multi-media, installations, printmaking, cartoons, papier mache, and photography. It could be as simple as noticing the light on the turban squash and framing a photograph.

Having spent a little bit of time in the 'art world' studying painting I also know that there is a whole snobby kind of thing about 'good art' and 'bad art' and this adds to the confusion. Abstract artists dismiss realistic paintings as being less than art.  Some subjects are not considered as valid as others. In Victoria there are lots of paintings of whales that are sold to tourists so any image of a whale becomes suspect.  Then there are paintings that are derivative or hommages to other artists' work.  Is this art?  Some paintings are direct copies from a photograph or another painting.  Is this art?  According to my definition I would say yes to most of these.  Even a copy of another painting is art because it is one person's response to something they connected with.

I've heard an African saying:   If you can walk you can dance; it you can talk you can sing.  This is often quoted to people who think they can't sing.  It's kind of the same with art.  Although there are some people who don't think they're artistic because they can't draw or use paint, they are creative in putting clothing together or setting a table or creating a garden or working with wood.

And of course photography is another way that we can use to create a personal response to something that touches us, even if it's just a momentary glimpse of a bicycle beside the lifeguard tower along the Malecon or this night shot of a pizza place in Mazatlan (which I did a watercolour painting of a couple of years ago).  By this definition, it is all art.

Who is an “artist?” 

Well, here's where it gets tricky.  I suppose you could say that anyone who creates art is an artist.  But I find that "artist" is a really loaded word.  Most people I know who work in the visual arts don't call themselves artists.  They will say they 'make art'  or 'do art' or they 'work in visual art' or 'make paintings' or something like that.  And these are people who are passionate creators of art and who often sell their work.

The media likes to anoint people as "artists" whether they work with fabric or paint colours or magic shows or just about anything else. If you work in the commercial field you can call yourself a graphic artist and that seems to be ok.  And someone very famous who makes a living from art like Robert Bateman can call himself an artist.  But the rest of us don't.

What is the role of art and artists in your life and in society as a whole?

Oh boy, the role of art?  Well maybe it's to share individual responses with others in the world.  Society puts it on a pedestal and the media (and even the government) has its own take.  This is pretty complicated and I don't think I want to get into all of that just now.   

Do you enjoy art and creativity? Are you an observer or a practitioner?

I am both an observer and a practitioner.  I love colour, shape, form, and composition.  I love looking at paintings and thinking about painting. (You'll notice I didn't say I love painting--although I do.  I'm still kind of blocked with painting but I'm thinking of taking some of my photographs and using them as a basis for some kind of abstract acrylic paintings.)  I love looking at photographs and taking photographs.  I find the camera so quick and easy compared to creating a painting that I have stepped away from drawing and painting for now.  

Is photography art? Why or why not? 

Photography can be art but it isn't always. Lots of people take snapshots of events and holidays but they're just recording something rather than making a personal creative response. Just  pointing a camera at something and clicking the shutter doesn't make you an artist or a photographer.  Like any art, photography is complex and demands study and practice.  To make photography art, we have to work to control the medium so it can clearly communicate the way we respond to and see this amazing world we live in.  

I am so drawn to the tiny flowers and I have taken so many images that are not unique in any way, but i still love to look at the small details like the veining in this arugula flower or the shadows on the hydrangea petals.

Are you an artist? Why or why not? 

Like most of the others in Kat's course I struggle with calling myself an artist.  I think most of us shy away from calling ourselves artists because of that.  It sounds a bit show-offy.  But that doesn't mean I don't think of myself as a person who creates personal visual responses to things that I see in my life.  

As I said,  I think that if we make images that evoke an emotional response then we are creating art.  The question then becomes whether the image speaks to others.  It's nice to think that some of them can communicate the essence of my vision at that moment.  I do like to post a few photographs on the internet and it's nice to have some positive feedback.  I'm thinking that I'd like to create some little notecards with some of the images that I've taken so I could use them for gifts.  

But I have no desire to show my photographs because really for me it's the process that I love: getting lost in the moment of capturing the beauty and strangeness I see on this journey through life.  It's a kind of  meditation for me. Thank you Kat for creating a process to help us find ourselves as artists in this world.


  1. Hi Joanna,
    What a beautiful response to this prompt. Your time and effort into answering all the questions is obvious. Your opening line 'Here's a tricky one' has slowed me down in responding to the prompt as it is a hard topic to tackle. I agree with everything you say(said so eloquently.) Interesting that you did not automatically adopt your mothers brand of "artistic one" for yourself. It proves that to be an artist one must have self appointed ownership. At this point in the exercise I have set about collecting opinions..... now to decide for myself. Thank you for sharing your comprehensive post.

  2. Wow Joanna! I think you sum the whole dilemma up for me in your carefully considered and thoughtful response. I know exactly what you mean about describing oneself as an artist as feeling a little 'show offy'! Maybe it's because I come from Yorkshire where the people are notoriously blunt and hate pretension, but I can only imagine the responses I would get if I proclaimed myself an 'artist'. I know we aren't supposed to care what others think, but sometimes that is easier said than done when you have to live your life side by side with others. I love the idea though of creating something which hopefully conveys something to others and elicits an emotional response. I think I would rather call myself a creative person than an artist as that feels more true for me. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this complex issue. :)

  3. Wonderful, thoughtful exploration Joanna. The most important thing is not the labels we use for ourselves - whether you call yourself an artist or not doesn't matter - but that we don't limit ourselves by these unwritten or unexplored definitions. You've explored the words, the ideas behind them and came to your own conclusions that empower you and don't limit you. Right on! That's the idea! (And on a side note... on the labels in childhood thing... My sister was always the 'writer' when I was a kid. I wasn't. It wasn't until the last year or so, after writing for how many years for my blogs and classes, that I realized I was a 'writer' myself and I had been carrying along this idea that I wasn't from my childhood.)