I had grand plans last week to do a post on motherhood or on the onset of mental illness and the difficult journey of learning to accept that one has a mental illness, which many of the books I wrote about cover. Both big serious topics. But then at the end of a session with a new patient I got to thinking of the idea of a “calling”, as this patient had asked, when leaving my studio about seeing my art on the walls and did I go to art school or some such question. I briefly explained some of my circuitous road to becoming a visual artist as the patient was leaving.
Anyway some other topics I’ve been thinking about got me thinking about the idea of the identity of an artist. Many artists knew from early on that they “were” artists or “wanted to become an artist”; these people as adults often report that their teachers and art teachers and sometimes also parents saw their talent early on and recognized and encouraged it. These were the people who in grade school and high school were known as something like, “S/he can draw and draws really well…” I’ve met many artists and art therapists who have this kind of history. lThey had the coolest notebooks with great graffiti-like doodles and lettering
However, there are certainly other roads to becoming an artist. Mine was a complicated or maybe actually simple one. But the main question I’m asking in this post is: “Do you decide that you ‘want to become an artist’ or do you figure out that “I am an artist.” These are two very different concepts. For example, most people say they did not decide about their sexuality, whatever it is; they found out about it. It was not a choice. Some others in the minority argue it was a choice. Most transgendered people report that they came to a realization that “I may have the body of a boy or girl but I’m actually not a boy, I am a girl, or I am not actually a girl, I am a boy. No matter what form of body one arrives here in, one does not choose one’s gender, even if the outside body turns out to be the wrong one. And of course there are people who say they are neither a man in a woman’s body nor a woman in a man’s body and believe gender is much less clear than that. That’s a whole other topic. I hope these statements aren’t too controversial. I find them to be an example of basic “identity”; ie. what do you think when you see or hear the question, “Who are you?” versus “What do you want to be?”
As a child, one is subjected to adults constantly asking one, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As a child, I did not like this question. I knew that I was excited to be a grown up for the obvious reason that then nobody could tell me what to do and I could, in my child mind, basically do whatever I wanted, which mostly involved the idea of eating ice cream for dinner. I also had a vague sense about going on business trips alone and staying in hotel rooms, which I thought would be very glamourous. But I had no ambitions to be a business owner or businesswoman. In fact, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my usual answer was, “I don’t want to be a lawyer.” It seemed to be needed as a statement as the only career I saw growing up was my dad’s as a lawyer and I knew that my mom had met my dad at law school. For some reason, I was dead set on the idea that no way would I be a lawyer, even though the only person I knew who went on frequent business trips was my father, who was one. When pressed to say what I did want to be, I always got grumpy and said, “Nothing. There’s nothing I want to do.”
For a brief period maybe in third grade, my friend and I decided that we were going to go to the Ringling Brothers Clown School and become clowns in the circus. We knew this school actually existed and were partly excited to go together there and be clowns together. After this clown idea wore off, I was back to my set answer, “Nothing. I don’t know.” You like to be in plays do you want to be an actor? No, definitely not. And so on with other professions. I went off to college with a vague idea that I might want to study film making and learn to make movies. I had a brief bout in high school of being interested in photography, but of course had no idea I could become a photographer and probably didn’t want to be one anyway. Soon after I arrived at college, I tried to sign up for the beginning film class and as they only took about ten people or less, I was rejected. Gone went my interest in trying out filmmaking. It was too much darn work to get to college and once I was there, I had no intention of fighting my way into any class, as I thought I deserved to be allowed to take it easy and be allowed to take whatever damn class I felt like. I chose my “concentration” (same thing as “major”) pretty much by checking out which ones required you to write a thesis. I knew a thesis was a long paper, and though I was good at writing papers, the length of a paper was directly proportional to my stress and fears about it, and I was not about to write something longer than 25 pages while at college if I could manage it. It turned out I could pick Russian Language and Literature and was not required to write a thesis, so it was a no brainer, as I liked both. Then the questions turned into ” What is your major? Oh, do you want to teach or become a professor, or do you want to work for the UN?” The question seemed weird to me. I had no desire to use my knowledge of Russian language and its poetry and novels to do anything. Four years of college seemed like a long time, and I still thought I could float along, staying interested in the kinds of things that are the least practical career wise and avoid this big decision.
I did not choose to have a crappy beginning of my sophomore year. Suffice it to say, without much thought, I decided to take an Introduction to Drawing class taught by DeCredico, a visiting artist from Rhode Island School of Art and Design. By then, choosing classes not in my “concentration” had a sort of impulsive feel. There were two intro drawing teachers there, and they were opposites. I watched my roommate freshman year suffer through an awful drawing class where she sat for hours trying to draw a bagel to look perfectly like a bagel. What an awful mean teacher she had. He was ruthlessly critical and liked nothing. It seemed like hell. Some friends of mine had taken the other cooky drawing class and reported that it was really fun, I should try it out, more like someone urging you to try a new drug or something than a class. I won’t go on and on about this class, but it was a pivotal event in my life. I walked in with no idea that I could make drawings or other art, not really sure what I was doing there except that I was sick of the typical classes involving words, papers and exams. I entered an alternate universe where we were told to find 10 sticks and put them together and bring them to the next class. In the next class, big paper and dark black ink was passed around and we were instructed to make drawings using our sticks creations as the “brushes”. Wow. I had no idea this was something you could spend a couple of hours doing at an Ivy League University where everything seemed to involve competition and way too much thinking. The class was like an art therapy experience for me. I had no idea what was going on or what I was doing or even why, but I was really enjoying it and something in me seemed to be awakened.
Suffice it to say that I ended that class with encouragement from the teacher and one of the teacher’s helpers, he must have been a grad student, and he actually knew my name. The teacher did not know anyone’s name as the class was big, but he would make a big sweeping gesture and point to a couple of images with a lot of ink or whatever on them and say “Why do I like these?” and point to some others and say the opposite. The ones he didn’t like were often the tightly drawn well drafter drawings that my poor roommate’s teacher would have loved!Often enough one of my images was up there. I never had the feeling before of someone looking at a picture I made and saying that. Probably it happened when I was 4 or 5, but I have no memory of that. The class ended, the summer came, and off I went to take my year off from college, toting a sketchbook everywhere with me and making lots of awful garish drawings in them among other typical “youthful” poems about suffering and loneliness.
Anyway I started my senior year in college thinking, “Am I an artist or a writer?” Or maybe I was thinking, “Which do I want to be, an artist or a writer?” I don’t remember how I formulated the question. The Russian stuff was now on the side as something I had to do to graduate, while I used my precious “electives” on a creative writing class and a painting class. They were both pretty difficult, not as fun as that drawing class, but the painting class changed for me after I figured out how to do my first painting. Go to the studio when nobody is there to compare yourself to and judge theirs as better than yours and work on it then. It was a a still life. I remember having an interesting awakening moment in the big empty studio when I walked around the room and looked at the work of my classmates, and it was as though someone had taken off a pair of glasses I had been wearing where I’d look at one and think, “Oh no. This person is doing such a perfect precise picture. It’s so great. Mine’s a mess, etc.” During this aha moment, I circled the easels and looked at the other paintings and suddenly those glasses were off, and I was thinking, “Oh this is just this person’s idea of this still life. It’s not that great or that bad either. It’s just different from mine. It doesn’t mean mine is bad.” And then the real awakening came when I looked at my painting and thought, “Wow. I like this. It’s really good.” Not a familiar state of mind for me in this unchartered area of image making…
Maybe at that moment knew I was an artist, maybe not. I continued to struggle with a Kafkaesqe short story in writing class and I definutitely liked the plot and ideas but it seemed like too much work to keep editing it, and rich oil colors beckoned me.
College ended and life went on, but from that point forth I was an artist and did not really question it. I just kept on making a lot of art as much and as often as possible.It helped that I by chance had a tiny studio of my own right after graduation. It was the size of a closet, but it was a dream come true. The more I went up there and painted, or stayed in the apartment and drew all sorts of things, all sorts of sizes and always carried caried decorated journal scketcook around with me, the more I got involved with the real difficult questions around a creative career of any kind. In this case it was, “What do I want to pant/draw, or is anything telling me to paint something. I stumbled around in the dark going in all sorts of directions, but it was still wonderful. I had been liberated from the complex depressing world of words and could no inhabit a magic land of textures and shapes and colors.
When I think about it now, it seems like I was covered in some kind of layer of some material that needed to be removed and underneath it, the artist had been hiding all along throughout my life, just waiting for me to need it enough to let it out. I continue to need it and I continue to be it. For me there is no choice… What about for you?