WHO IS AN ARTIST? (And When Can You Call Yourself One?)

“Artist” is a loaded word these days… Is it a label? A title? An occupation? I think it’s simply a means to an end?

A reader emailed me today with a simple question. She’s been on her creative path for awhile now. She wanted to know if what she does, is art. And when we know it’s time to call ourselves an “artist”.

Here’s how the internationally-respected art blog Making A Mark introduced the topic a few years ago. It’s an interesting read. You’ll find in the comments that opinions run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, the strict delineations to the all-embracing. I love the one explaining how Canada defines “professional artist.”

Me? I really don’t know.

Seriously. I just had a consult with someone who works with archetypal symbols to help us chart our course. I seem to be top-heavy in “magician”. Magician sees many perspectives, and tries to hold many points of view. Sometimes this leads to deeper knowledge and understanding. But sometimes we get lost in a “hall of mirrors”, unable to find our real path for all the confusion of multiple images.

Hence (I’ve waited all year to use “hence”!) I see the validity in many opinions on what is a “real artist”.

But here’s the bottom line: If we really say that people have to have credentials, sales, fame, and a life dedicated entirely to art in order to be considered real artist, and that only certain media are eligible (painting, preferably oils, for example), then we are going to eliminate thousands upon thousands of people who have created works that have stood the test of time. And I’m not just talking decades or centuries. I’m talking millennia. (Not counting half the human race that weren’t recognized at all during that time. Yes, girls, I’m talking about US.)

On the other hand, I know junk when I see it. Just sayin’.

One of my favorite stories about this–who is, and isn’t, an artist–took place over a decade ago, when I was looking for a studio space in a newly-renovated building not far from my house. My husband and I were talking with some of the building’s owners and one of them asked what I did. I replied, “I’m a fiber artist.” He said something like “That’s nice”, and the conversation continued. About ten minutes later, he mentioned a local painter and exclaimed, “Now, she’s a real artist!”

I was pretty grounded by then, and bemused, not insulted. The person he’d mentioned wasn’t actually a very good painter, and she eventually moved on to other media. But it didn’t matter to him that she wasn’t that skilled, and I was. Her media automatically defined her as a “real” artist, in his mind.

Another telling tale: Many times, at parties, gatherings, etc. someone I don’t know will ask what I do. I’ll tell them, and again, I get the equivalent of “That’s nice.” But later in the conversation, when they ask me where I sell my work, I’ll reply, “Well, my biggest retail show is the League of NH Craftsmen, so I do ‘Sunapee’ (the show’s totally unofficial and informal nickname) and sell through a lot of the League galleries.” Then there’s a respectful gasp of admiration and the inevitable, “You do Sunapee?! You must be awesome!”

Of course, these are assessments made by people who may not know a lot about art. They may not know how exquisitely tricky those “official” delineations are. For example, if you make a sculpture in clay, it’s usually classified as “craft”. But if you create a bronze cast of that sculpture, then the bronze version is considered “art.” (How’s that for weird?)

I’m the same person, before and after, credentials notwithstanding.

So how do we decide?

Well, as I’ve said before, you don’t need a license to practice art. But here’s what I really think….

If you are making something that makes your heart sing, if you enjoy it, if it connects you to your higher self, if it connects others to their higher self, even for a few brief moments, then yeah, you’re an artist.

And you can start calling yourself that right now. Go ahead! You have my permission.

Short version, for you: It’s tempting to wait til you believe it, to say it. But one of my most powerful mentors said exactly the opposite…
You have to SAY “I’m an artist” before you can believe it.
How many times do you have to say it?
You have to say “I’m an artist” as many times as you’ve been told (and told yourself) you’re not.

So if you’ve told yourself a million times you’re not an artist, you need to say it a million and one times to truly believe it yourself. And if you believe it, others will, too.

I had to do this. It works. It took a year. But by then, the phrase, “I’m an artist”, rolled off my tongue. And I knew it was true.

If people are curious, and it’s hard to explain what you do, hand them your business card (which absolutely should have a bit of your artwork on it, if at all possible) that has your website (because you need to have an online presence of some sort so people can see/hear/watch what you do).

And let them decide for themselves.

Let others decide. Let history decide. Let your credentialing institution decide. Let your family, your boss, your peers decide.

It doesn’t matter.

Only you know the true worth of what you do.

Don’t doubt what you are. Don’t second-guess what you do. Just constantly strive to make it as good as you can.

After all, only you can do it.

Say it loud, say it proud, “I’m an artist!” right out loud.