A reader left a comment on a post I wrote years ago, refuting my belief that artists come in all shapes and sizes, and that innate talent alone does not determine who is and who isn’t an artist. ( They pointed to an interesting study showing that artist brains are indeed different than normal brains. (Aha! We ARE crazy!)
I liked the article. The findings did not change my mind, especially since the study focused solely on drawing. I drew a lot as a child, so many people called me an artist. But I never really progressed past drawing horses, mice and rabbits. I took a few figure drawing classes in college. I enjoyed them–I like drawing bodies!–but didn’t pursue drawing after that. I still don’t really care for it.
I have no idea if I have that “innate” talent for drawing or not. I don’t know if I have the “artist’s brain” the study described, or not. And I don’t care. I rarely draw out my designs before making them. I work them until they feel “right”.
But I can see the headlines now: “Luann Udell Finally Unmasked! NOT A REAL ARTIST after all!!!”
Drawing is an admirable skill. But what about a beautiful singing voice? What about a honed sense of rhythm, timing and hand coordination that’s so critical to drumming? What about making a beautiful pot? Or weaving/quilting/wood working and other fine crafts?
Why do we value one form of art-making above all others, and make that the definition of an artist?
And why do we value one kind of intelligence–I.Q.–above all others?
So here’s my meandering thought trail….
1) When I was in middle school, there was a bright, well-liked young man. He didn’t get good grades, so I assumed he wasn’t a good student. After getting a particularly bad grade for a project he’d poured his heart into, he ran out of the classroom. I hate to admit this, but we laughed.
And the teacher–Mrs. Nancy Nash, one of my favorite teachers–scolded us. She said, “You think he’s not smart. But he is! He’s just not good at reading. Haven’t you ever realized how well he does in class discussions?! You should be ashamed!” She went out after him, and eventually they both returned to class.
And we sat, chastened. And thinking.
This was in the early ’60’s. No one knew about dyslexia, or learning disabilities. If you didn’t get good grades, you weren’t smart. Period.
But now there was a new thought in my head….. Different kinds of smart.
2) Fast forward to freshmen year in college. No, I wasn’t in art school. I couldn’t get in! But another woman across the hall from me was. Curious what a “real” artist looked like, I asked her about her major.
She was taking the prerequisite drawing classes, the ones every art student had to take. She hated them. She sucked big-time at drawing. (I know–I saw her work!) So why was she in art school?
“I don’t want to draw! I want to make stuff! Things that do things!” she exclaimed. Like what?, I asked. She pulled out some of the items she’d made in her high school art classes. We sat on the floor while she showed me all her little mechanical contraptions.
And one of them was a traveling salt cellar.
I don’t know why it stuck with me lo these many years. It was a silver salt holder, with a tiny handmade silver spoon, mounted on a sort of cart-like contraption with little wheels. You pushed it across the table.
It was adorable. Badly made, but adorable. The wheels were uneven and not mounted properly on their axles, so the salt shaker sort of lurched across the floor.
“I need to know how to make good wheels that really work. I need to know mechanics or something. I don’t know! But I can’t do anything else til I take all my prerequisites!” Which at the time was about two to four semesters of…..drawing.
I know there is discipline to drawing. I know it is a deep way of really “seeing”. I know for many people, drawing is a way of working out design elements, structural elements, etc.
But this woman had taught herself casting and soldering and metal working. Figure drawing didn’t figure into her game plan. (Sorry for the pun.) Her “smarts” were in a different area, one that, at the time, was not acknowledged or respected in regular “art school”.
3) Now let’s really fast forward to the mid-90’s. I’m a Tae Kwon Do student with a wonderful teacher who later became a good friend. He was patient, accepting, emotionally-evolved and funny. As I got to know him better, I learned about his school days.
Allyn never graduated from high school (though he did complete his GED). He had severe dyslexia. Like my fellow student in the ’60’s, his not-understood and not-diagnosed condition meant he didn’t do well in school. He did so poorly, in fact, that when he was in middle school, he was given a “permanent hall pass.” What does that mean, I asked him one day. It meant that he was considered stupid. He was so “uneducable” that he was allowed to roam the halls during regular classes, as long as he stayed out of trouble. Everyone pretty much assumed (and some still assume) he’s just not very bright.
Allyn also happens to be one of the most perceptive, insightful, emotionally-evolved, and intelligent people I know. He listens deeply, and observes carefully.
Whenever I encounter a puzzling social situation (and I encounter many, because that’s who I am), I call Allyn. And within a few minutes, he can tell me exactly what’s going on. In one sentence. I kid you not, he understands the motivation, the behavior and the dynamics and can summarize it quickly and easily.
I mentioned this to a friend who was taking graduate coursework in stuff like organizational dynamics. What she told me knocked my socks off.
Turns out that many people with so-called “learning disabilities”, especially dyslexia, cannot easily process information through reading. But their brain, like anyone else’s brain, is still trying really, really hard to learn, to make sense of their physical, social and emotional environment.
So these non-readers pay very close attention to everything that’s going on. They learn to see, to observe, and assess. They become highly skilled in areas that don’t involve reading and writing.
Unfortunately, since so much of our educational system is based on reading and writing, they rarely make it to college. They aren’t considered “smart” by most of the markers we consider for intelligence.
A different kind of smart……
I think it’s getting better. We “normal people” are learning.
We’re learning that there are indeed many kinds of “smart”. There are many kinds of “talented”. There are all kinds of “artistic”. There are a jillion kinds of “beautiful”. There are a cajillion ways of being kind, and accepting, and tolerant. (Cajillion is a whole lot more than a jillion.)
I like to think that if we spent less time drawing lines around who is and who isn’t an artist, who is and who isn’t talented, who is and who isn’t creative, who is and who isn’t smart/pretty/famous/whatever…..maybe we could simply be astonished by the incredible diversity around us, the remarkable creative range and emotional depth and loving heights the human spirit is capable of.
Maybe we could just let people enjoy the making of whatever makes their heart sing, and give them permission to do so.
And in the end, it’s not so much what’s in our brain, as what we do with it.
We are creative because that’s part of being human. I believe the greatest harm, the greatest loss, is when we deny the world–and ourselves–the beauty and power of our individual creativity.
I got a comment on a blog post I wrote awhile back. You can read the original article here: TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS (That Will Prevent You From Becoming a SUCCESSFUL Artist…”
The reader wrote a scathing argument against my assertion, noting the usual suspects (Mozart, et al.) “Artists ARE born! Talent IS innate!”, the writer stated.
I thought long and hard about my decision. I love to hear your thoughts, your insights, your experiences, and I especially love to hear that what I’ve said has resonated with you or helped your on your own artistic journey. And I don’t mind being corrected from time to time (unless I suspect your motives.)
But finally I deleted the comment.
Let me tell you why.
First, I don’t write this blog to argue with people.
This isn’t a forum. This isn’t a venue for debate.
These are my opinions, my thoughts. My blog is a vehicle to get those thoughts out of my head and share them with others.
This blog is part of my creative process.
I totally get that you may violently disagree with me. If that’s the case, go start your own blog. Seriously. I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Just not here in my living room.
Second, the reader totally missed the point of my article.
Of course talent is innate. Of course Mozart had tons of talent. Of course most of us aren’t Mozart, and no amount of practice will ever make it so. Heck, I can barely carry a tune anymore, let alone play an instrument.
My point was, that many, many people don’t recognize the talent they have.
They believe they’re not “good enough” to use their talent.
They believe that because they’re not good enough, there’s no use putting their work out into the world.
Look, creativity IS innate. Everybody is good at something. Even a sociopath is very, very good at lying.
Creativity is a human trait. It’s just that throughout the ages, the definition of creativity–the lines we draw around it, the forms we deem acceptable–have narrowed, and broadened, and narrowed again.
We don’t just use our hands, or our voices, to grub for food, or to yell when a predator appears on the horizon. And we don’t just use our hands to draw things. We use our hands to make things, build things, grow things, cook things (yummy chocolate things!). We fix things, heal living things, comfort living creatures. We sing, we write stories, and poetry (and blogs!) We work for peace, or freedom, or equality. We work for understanding, and acceptance, and recognition.
Even destruction can create a space for something new to appear. (I am not advocating destruction, I’m just sayin’ that Shiva’s dance does both.)
When we create, we are all that, and more.
I believe the greatest harm, the greatest loss, is when we deny the world–and ourselves–the beauty and power of our creativity.
We get way too judgy about creativity. (I made that word up. See how creative I am?)
We care waaay too much what the world will think of our efforts. We care way too much about what WE think of our efforts.
Quick story: My husband’s mother was a talented pianist as a young woman, with dreams of performing in public. But at some point, she realized she would never be a world-class pianist.
She never played the piano again.
Another quick story: My husband has been “noodling” on a guitar for as long as I’ve known him, thirty-five years. The last few years, he’s gotten more dedicated about it. He’s reaching out to play with others. He’s found new online methods of learning. He’s taking lessons. He’s considered performing in public venues, on a very modest scale. He reads books about music, about musicians, about the effect of music on the brain. He watches documentaries about music. Lord love him, he tries to drag me to every live music performance in the area.
Will he ever be famous for his guitar playing? Probably not.
Will he ever make money doing it? Nah.
Is he good? I think so, especially when he actually plays instead of practices. (I’m one of those people who winces at every sour note.)
So why does he do it?
Because he likes it. Actually…he loves.
And it makes him happy.
When I look at him, deep in his practice, struggling to master a new tune or a new technique, I know he is also deep within himself. Truly himself. In the best way possible.
And that, my argumentative friend, is all that truly matters.
I subscribe to a great newsletter by Canadian artist Robert Genn called Painters Keys. Sometimes it’s about technique, sometimes it’s about marketing, sometimes it’s about the journey of making art. It’s always an interesting read.
Today’s letter about artist credentials reminded me about an article in my series, specifically, the one asking DO YOU HAVE TO GO TO ART SCHOOL TO BE A REAL ARTIST?
It came at a good time. I’m feeling self-judge-y and unfocused today. (That’s what happens when I clean my studio.)
But I know when a surface is cleared and I sit down to work, the muse will return.
No license needed to practice art.
A quick segue today, before the amazing artist statement I promised you yesterday.
I’ve had to eat my words re: what I said about going to art school.
Here’s what I said in a reply to a comment on that post:
Actually, Aza, I recently had an experience that made me see the value of a good art school education. And that is the connections and opportunities that are made possible. I attended a workshop presented by a young woman who just finished post-graduate degree studies at a prestigious art school. In the course of her studies, she visited the studios of many well-known artists; gained access to facilities (museums, galleries) beyond the reach of most people, even allowed access to their “backstage”, so to speak.
It was enough to make me wish I’d gone to art school, too! :^D
I think everyone has their own needs and desires re: art school. If you feel drawn to it, go. Explore. Take what you need and leave the rest. Take advantage of every opportunity to connect, network, and experiment.
And then, be sure to come back and tell us what you learned.
I’ve never said you shouldn’t go to art school. I say you shouldn’t rule yourself out as an artist if you don’t go.
I remember bugging a friend who decided to go to art school late in life. She was already a productive artist–why did she need an art degree??
She replied that no one in her family had ever gone to college before her, and certainly no one had ever achieved a master’s degree.
She wanted to be the first.
I realized that mattered very, very much to her. And that was a good enough reason to do it.
Sometimes you need a college degree for credentialing. Sometimes you need it to prove something to yourself. And now I know the connections, networking and opportunities you get can be worth every penny.
Just know your reasons.
And don’t use not going as an excuse to not make art. Because I know better.
We all need a hero.
And we can all BE a hero.
We do need another hero. Lots of ’em.
I’m often asked how I got started making my art, and I’ll share it here.
I was the typical “class artist” throughout grade school, drawing at every opportunity. (Mostly horses, come to think of it.) Then drawing for other kids (“Draw a dog for me!” “Can you draw a mouse?”) Then cartoons for the school newspaper (and writing a funny column, come to think of it).
I couldn’t wait to go to college, so I could learn to be an artist. (Our school’s art programs constantly fell victim to budget cuts, so I had very little access to making “real” art.) That didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons, none of them very good in hindsight.
And so I left my art as a young person. Mostly because I believed so many MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS.
I backed away from it later because when I stayed home with my children, it was so very very hard to make time for anything beyond trying to be a good wife and a good mother. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever introduced yourself as “(your child’s name here)’s mom”. I still introduce myself to some people as “Doug’s mom” and “Robin’s mom”.)
There was barely time to knit a hat or finish a project before I had to clear the table for lunch, or dinner, let alone take on any serious or involved ventures.
I actually got to the point where I decided to simply focus on good wife/good mom, and wait til there was more time/money/opportunity to do differently.
I thought it was the right thing to do. There was some relief in “letting go” of that dream.
But something in me was sad, too. I pushed it down and tried to forget about it.
Shortly after that, as I watched my darlin’ three-year-old daughter at play, I found myself daydreaming about her…
What would her life be like? It seemed to spread before us like a tiny brook, growing into a mighty river.
What kind of person would she be? I hoped she’d be the same person she was now: Quiet but deep-thinking; shy but fierce in her beliefs; talented in so many ways; loving yet independent; quirky, different, her own person, comfortable in her own skin.
What kind of work would she do? There were so many possibilities.
Who would she love? Would she marry, too? I hoped she’d find someone who would respect her strengths and encourage her dreams. I hoped she’d find a loving partner who would let her shine, who would let her simply be herself.
And then an epiphany whacked me right over the head. Three big questions tumbled into my brain. In big glowing capital letters.
1) Did my mother want that for me when I was young? (I still don’t know the answer to that one. I was the oldest of seven, there may not have been time to spend daydreaming!)
2) How could I want that for my daughter, and not want that for myself?
3) How will my daughter know what that looks like–to be all she can be–if I didn’t model that for her?
I knew I had to be a hero for my daughter. And for me.
I knew I had to be authentic for my daughter. And for me.
That was the day I knew I had to be an artist. Or die.
That was the day I knew it didn’t even matter if I would be a good artist. I just had to do it.
It’s a perfect inspirational story for parents. These are powerful questions for breaking through the barriers we erect between ourselves and our dreams. It’s amazing to see the look of shocked enlightenment on the face of something who “gets it”:
“What am I teaching my kid??”
Are you actually teaching them to NOT live their dream? (Because you’re not?)
Are you showing them they shouldn’t try if they think they might fail? (Beause you’re afraid to?)
Are you telling them that someone else’s needs always outweigh their own? (Because that’s what you always do?)
Ow. Ow. OW!!
If you don’t have kids of your own, maybe this would be helpful:
“Someone–somewhere–is looking to you to be a hero.”
Maybe someone we care about deeply. Maybe not.
Sometimes it’s easier to be brave for someone else we care about, braver than we would normally choose for ourselves. Hopefully, as we grow older/wiser/more evolved, we choose to follow our power because that’s the right thing to do. (See the Martha Graham quote here.
But til then, altruism can be a force for good that’s also good for us.
Be someone’s hero. Be your own hero.
MYTH: Real artists have the courage of their convictions. They don’t care what other people think.
REALITY: Oh, it’s sad, but we care very very much what you think!
This is a myth that started out as “Real artists are loners”. Well, some are, and some aren’t. It’s that simple.
But it quickly got tangled into another myth we hold about artists, one that gets pretty jumbled. So bear with me as I untangle some of the threads.
Yes, some artists do need solitude to create. We need time to explore an idea, to follow it through to all its possibilities. Some people can’t listen to conversation or even music lyrics while they write. Me, for one.
Sometimes talking too much about what we’re doing, or our next project, feels like actually working on it. And our creative energy dissipates.
Other artists, however, work well in partnership and collaboration. They find the give-and-take of brainstorming invigorating, forcing them to go further and higher than they ever imagined.
Our own creative processes are so individual to us, it would be impossible to determine any one way any given work of art gets made.
It’s who we hang with, and why, after the work is created, that gets a little dicey.
Artists may act like we don’t care what other people think about our work. You’ve probably met some (or you are one.) You ask them about the work and you get a snotty reply or a cold shoulder. Or you talk with them at a party and they can only talk about how talented and creative they are.
But it is almost pathetic how much we care what others think.
It would be wonderful if we didn’t. A lot less pain in the world, and I probably wouldn’t have to write this series of myths.
But we do care very very much what you think.
And we are terrified you’re going to tell us.
We hope you love it. We hope it knocks your socks off. We hope you think it’s the most marvelous thing you’ve ever experienced.
And it’s so very, very hard to hear, if you don’t.
This need to have our work loved is so powerful, I hate to share it with you.
Because this knowledge is a terrible weapon in the wrong hands.
I don’t mean we’ll necessarily change it if you don’t love it. We have our artistic integrity, after all.
Wait for it…….
Again, some people will stand firm, and others don’t mind using a little less blue or a few more dots, if that will win approval. It’s your choice.
Even my fiery artist friend Lee, who fiercely created his art at all hours when the muse struck, sometimes going days without sleep, would call me up to come and see the new work. And he waited anxiously, child-like, yearning for my approval. Not my judgment–he was extremely proud of his artist title–but he wanted others to see what he saw, and appreciate what he created.
But the world is not kind to artists, especially those of us who wear our hearts on our sleeves.
After all, human beings are creatures of opinions. We all got ’em, and we have one on everything. Even the things we don’t know much about.
And of course, we all have a little mean streak in us. It is so easy to criticize what someone has made.
But some people cultivate their mean streak. It is very important to recognize and avoid those people.
Caveat: I know the role of the art critique is a hallowed tradition, especially in art schools. I’ve been to literary gatherings where writers submitted their latest piece and subjected it to a group review.
I know that not all art is beautiful, wonderful, powerful or narrative. There’s a lot of stuff out there I don’t care for.
I myself have served as a mini-consultant for artists and craftspeople, evaluating their current work and assessing whether it is appropriate for their perceived goals and venues.
But I see that function as a way of gently aligning what people say they want, and what they do.
All too often, that critical process is used as a chance to savage the work of someone whose talent threatens our own little jealous lizard brain.
If someone says they are an accomplished seamstress and they want their work to sell, they sabotage their efforts by making shoddy work quickly so they can sell to a lower end market. If someone says they’re a writer, but they don’t blog or submit manuscripts or otherwise get their writing out into the world, then I encourage them to show the rest of us that they are, indeed, a writer.
I don’t try to rip them a new one and denigrate their efforts.
Am I saying we should be namby-pamby and never offer honest feedback about the work of others? Or we are so weak in spirit that we can’t handle a little criticism?
Nope, not saying that. What I’m saying is that we must be aware of our need to have approval–and not let others, whose intentions may be less than honorable, use that as a knife to cut us to the quick.
When we make art, it will be stronger if we focus on what is inside us, what we want to say and what we want it to do.
In a perfect world, we then let go. We know it’s done, that it’s out in the world. And we have to truly not care what other people think. That’s hard, but we can at least try.
In the meantime, be very particular who you show your work to, especially during the creative process. We all know people who, for who-knows-what reasons, cannot celebrate our success with us. They will sabotage your efforts in refined and subtle ways.
Instead, create your own artist community.
These workshops by Deborah Kruger, fiber artist extraordinaire, are excellent. Similar to Julia Cameron’s work and The Artist’s Way. (Just don’t do what so many artists do, and focus on all the meetings and exercises instead of making your art!)
Yes, we all need honest feedback. And sometimes criticism spurs us on to do our most truly powerful work.
But it’s a harsh diet to live on all the time. Someone who tries to destroy your spirit with criticism is not your friend, and not your supporter.
Choose your friends carefully when it comes to you and your art.