On a recent flight back to Los Angeles, I was making notes in my sketchbook when an elderly woman next to me signaled for me to take my headphones out. She asked shyly, “I’m wondering, what do you do with a blank page? I mean, are you an artist?”
I told her about my work and showed her my sketchbook. She seemed excited and introduced herself as Gayle. I asked her if she ever used a sketchbook, and she said, “No, that’s for real artists. I couldn’t do that.” But she said she’d drawn with pastels and watercolors for thirty years. “I’m painting a portrait of my granddaughter right now,” she told me. “And I like to make cards for my friends and grandchildren.”
We talked happily about materials and process and it was clear we shared a love of making art. But at several different points, Gayle was careful to define herself as a non-artist. “I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she said. “I think it might be too late.”
I told her art begins with a pen in a wandering hand. Nothing fancy. But she didn’t see what she does as art. I felt a tiger-force in me rise up to encourage her. Gayle has been making art longer than I’ve been alive. How is it that I’m an artist and she isn’t?
It’s none of my business what Gayle calls herself. So why am I still thinking about our conversation? It’s just semantics, right? But I can’t let it go.
Gayle may be perfectly happy defining herself as a non-artist, but our conversation got me thinking about the many ways we limit or empower ourselves by our self-definitions. Artist is just a word. But it’s a word that freaks people out.
Ask any creative person if they’re an artist and you’ll get a variety of responses. Yes I’m an artist, no I’m not. An artist is brilliant, pretentious, successful, struggling, a genius, a fake.
Even people who’ve been making art for decades professionally and publicly may feel undeserving. Sculptor Anne Truitt wrote in Daybook about coming to terms with the title after decades of insisting she’s ‘just me,’ “In skirting the role of the artist, I now begin to think that I have made too wide a curve, that I have deprived myself of a certain strength. Indeed, I am not sure that I can grow as an artist until I can bring myself to accept that I am one.”
If the term is too high-minded for even Anne Truitt to use, what hope is there for the rest of us? And where did this come from? Has everyone since Michelangelo been trying to measure up to the Sistine Chapel? Can we please, please loosen up around this term?
Don’t get me wrong: People who don’t make art probably shouldn’t go around saying they’re artists, just like people who don’t bake bread shouldn’t call themselves bakers. But if you’re dedicating a large part of your life to making art, isn’t it disingenuous to call yourself something like “aspiring doodler”?
Many creative people will tell you they aren’t real artists because they don’t make money from it. But thinking of “artist” solely as a professional title stifles the creative impulse. Children draw and teenagers write poetry - and Gayle paints portraits - not because they want to get rich, but because making art is a vital part of being human.
Laszlo Moholy Nagy lamented the common perception that art is reserved for geniuses, “Feeling and thinking and their expression in any media belongs to the normal living standard of man; to live without them means starvation of the intellectual and emotional side of life as missing food means starvation of the body.”
I began considering myself an artist in college, when I started making a bunch of art. It just seemed a factual and convenient term. If a friend texted me, “What’re you up to?” and I was drawing, surrounded by crayons, charcoal pencils, stacks of paper, ink, and brushes, I’d say “‘I’m doing art!” What’s the big deal? I didn’t say I was doing great art. Just art.
Lest you get the wrong idea, let me share one of my many bouts of doubt. Right after college, I was drawing all the time, but wasn’t making any money from it. I applied to dozens of barista jobs - but the job I most wanted was at Whole Foods, where they were hiring a store artist. (You know, the person who draws an artichoke in chalk over where the artichokes are, and writes “Artichokes!” in fun lettering.) I wanted the job because I thought having “artist” in my job title would be an easy way to finally settle the question of whether or not I was one.
When I didn’t get the job, I had to accept the label for myself.
What’s in a name? I am an artist today when I draw comics for publications like The New York Times, just as I was when I was 10, drawing comics in a spiral-bound notebook. I’m the same creative person I’ve always been, but identifying as an artist in my early twenties allowed me to tackle big projects and ideas that did, and sometimes still do, terrify me.
I love being an artist because guess who else are artists? Paul McCartney. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Lynda Barry. Miranda July. The guy who created the Muppets. Joe Jonas. Octavia Butler. Gilda Radner. Whoever drew Lilo and Stitch on the side of the vending machine in the backyard of the tiki bar I used to go to in Brooklyn. Artist is a huge and inclusive term and makes it possible for me to connect with the poetic impulse in almost anyone. Instead of talking about the niche business of illustration or cartooning, I can talk about expression with anyone creating in any medium.
If you’re hiking and a mountain lion crosses your path, you’re supposed to put your arms in the air to make yourself appear larger. You have to fool it into thinking you’re more than a puny little human full of guts and blood, wandering around just waiting to be eaten.
Sure, a painting has never crouched in a tree and descended with quiet fury on the last in a line of oblivious backpackers, but making art can be scary. It’s scary to share your work, wrestle with big ideas, think hard about feelings and how to honestly express them. It’s too scary for a person; it’s a job for an artist.
This message is not for people who don’t want to be artists or feel the term just doesn’t apply to them. I’m writing this for those who spend time, like I did, making art and wondering: Am I enough? I’m saying your time would be better be spent trying a new camera lens, or painting on a big roll of paper on all fours, which will probably be easier if you scream from the rooftops or write in your journal, I AM AN ARTIST. Making art doesn’t have to be a job title. It’s a way to identify how you think, play, spend your time, and see yourself in the world. And it’s really fun.
I recently had an apocalypse dream. As the world was being consumed by gigantic tidal waves, I noticed that art suddenly didn’t matter any more. My drawings went from art to trash in a split second. As the waves crashed, I held onto the hands of those I loved.
It’s more important to me to be remembered as a good friend, sister, partner, and daughter than a good artist. But while it still matters, I want to make art. It’s how I express my awe of this life, my love for my friends, and how funny dogs are. I think this is probably why Gayle makes art, too.
We don’t have much time on this planet. Forget money. Forget fame. They’re swept away with the tidal wave, too. Think about Gayle’s question: What do you do with a blank page? I say, if you fill it with art, you’re an artist.