One of my favorite things about art and art making is that, unlike sports and many other hobbies or careers, you can start any time you want. You can keep growing and gaining new skills the whole time. There is no “best discovered by” date and no “expiration date” for artists – well, except for that one BIG expiration date (which eventually catches up to everyone). Sure, obstacles get in the way over the course of your creative lifetime – physical issues like arthritis or tremors, mental issues like anxiety and depression, etc. – but resilient artists always find a way to evolve and create even better art amongst these obstacles, sometimes even allowing those challenges and hurdles to be features of their art.
I see creativity as an essential part of humanity. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has expressed themselves through art. I can’t think of anyone who has never drawn a little doodle or stacked a few blocks to create something. Creativity is an innate part of who we are. I’m always intrigued when we have field trips at the Art Center of the Bluegrass – I’ll occasionally ask the groups of children if any of them are artists. Strangely enough, the number of hands that go up are inversely proportional to the age of the group. In kindergarten of first grade, nearly every hand shoots up as they beam with pride, “I’m an artist – me! Me!” Middle school, I see even fewer, and once they hit high school, I consider myself lucky to even get a response.
Somewhere along the way, someone tells them that they don’t have what it takes – they lose their self-identification as artists. Maybe it’s their own inner critic. Maybe it’s a teacher or a parent, but somehow they decide that they just don’t have “it,” and they slowly taper off their creative output, only applying it for the occasional assignments in art or writing class. Some of the young former artists convince themselves that what they lack is artistic talent. There’s quite a debate that we could spend some time arguing over as to whether or not “talent” exists.
What makes someone an artist? Is it talent or something else?
I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest sports fan – but it’s not hard to see how certain physical attributes could definitely lead an athlete toward success. LeBron James is tall, fast, and powerful – but I can imagine that he also spent countless hours honing his craft both on and off the court. He didn’t just show up complete with all the skills that made him one of the greatest –if not the greatest- basketball players of all time.
But we’re not talking about athleticism – we’re not talking about physical prowess. We’re talking about art and creativity. As artists, we don’t need to be able to slam dunk or bench press three hundred pounds. We’re just pushing around pigments, and marrying images to ideas, turning colors to culture. It doesn’t take six-pack abs to do that (though it wouldn’t hurt, would it?). It takes time, effort, research, and perseverance to become (and remain) an artist. Let’s, for the moment, forget that “talent” comes into play.
In kindergarten, I was guilty of telling everyone I was an artist. In truth, I really wasn’t much better than any of the other kids. I remember being insanely jealous of seeing another kid (who later went on to be the star athlete of our school) writing his name in bubble letters. I had to figure out how to do that. I had to figure out bubble letters! I mean, if he can draw bubble letters, I can draw bubble letters. Determined to keep up, I just kept going. While other kids decided that they weren’t artists anymore, I just kept drawing. Sometimes the teacher would see me doodling in class and crumple my doodles up and throw them in the trash. And I kept drawing. When I was younger (and maybe they still do), there were these “Conservation Poster Contests,” in which students were encouraged to make art about environmental issues. I usually did ok in the contests, but didn’t always win. Regardless of whether or not I won, I still thought of myself as the young artist. I kept drawing. I kept making art.
As an undergrad in college, I imagined myself to be a painter, and not being the best at that –evolved into found-object/assemblage work. I went to study sculpture as a grad student at UK, and it just wasn’t the right fit. I ended up dropping out – but I still kept making art. I set up a small studio in my aunt’s basement and kept going. Looking back on the work I made during that post drop-out period, it was a bit confused and uncertain, but the important thing was that I kept making art.
Occasionally, I’ll have discussions with artists that are thinking of getting out of art-making. Maybe their work isn’t selling like they hoped it would, maybe they didn’t get into a juried show, maybe people don’t understand their work – whatever the reason – they are frustrated. It takes thick skin to be an artist and to put your work out there. We’ve got a lot of feelings, we’re putting our truest selves on display, and it’s easy to get hurt. Sometimes, I find it easier just to hide my work in the studio, rather than put it out for public criticism.
I have to make myself remember that the reason that I’m doing this is because I love it. Creating things makes me happy. It doesn’t really matter what other people say or think about it. It’s my journey. If I need to make a few bad pieces of art to get to where I’m going, that’s okay. If I need to have a year (or more) of making duds before I finally have that breakthrough piece – that’s perfectly fine. You can adapt. You can change your own rules to suit your strengths.
The way to be an artist, and perhaps the only way – is to be producing art. It can be excellent art, or it can be terrible, but you’ve got to keep making it, because every piece is a forward direction. The people who are great artists today, are the people that just simply kept going. Whatever path you are on, the more work you make, the longer you stay in the game – the better and more relevant your work will be. You will be closer to finding your true expression.
I’d love to hear your inspirational “keep going” stories about your work. How did your ability to persevere and adapt bring you to where you are today? You can email me at email@example.com