Artists, part three.

a box of chocolate
my son’s Valentine, 2006

We’re cullers and sorters, we people. We’re quick to classify, and once something’s known we’re equally quick to label it for future identification. Some classifications we choose; others are assigned to us.

I’m not sure I know any parents who want their child to choose the label of artist, at least when it comes a career. Michelangelo’s father didn’t want him to be an artist. Nor did Henry C. Balink’s. Nor did mine. I can’t speak on behalf of those other two, but in my case my parents were simply being protective.

Success in an artist’s career requires having a paying market for the artist’s real art, a market for the artist’s schlock art that supports his/her real art, or a solvent and generous patron (perhaps even a spouse) who is willing to underwrite the artist’s pursuit of art, at least until a market exists.  As a result, the professional artist is almost always dependent, seldom truly free. O’Keeffe was free, but reference aforementioned situations. Henry Balink was free; but he supported himself by trading stocks, a job he taught himself well.

Margie, Warren and Mary-Campbell, Grafton, MA, 1988
Grafton, MA, winter 1988

I started my career as a working artist. Freshly minted with a visual arts degree, I taught art, obtained grants to produce art, hired out as a portrait photographer, exhibited publicly in group and solo shows. Having the eye and heart of an artist, though, was entirely different from having the stomach for the business of art – at least for me. So I got a job-job. That job led to another job and then to another. One day I looked back and realized I had built an entire career, one I actually enjoy greatly, but one that’s definitely not in the art world.

Memphis, Tennessee, summer 1994
Memphis, Tennessee, summer 1994

But I never stopped working as an artist. I just kept going on a separate, private, parallel track. It hasn’t always been a peaceable split. Sometimes I’ve looked longingly from one path to the other, wondering if I made the right choice. I may decide to show my work again one day. More likely, I’ll open an Etsy store, perhaps even sooner than later.

Last year at the neighborhood Valentine’s party one of the moms asked if I’d finished my piece for the Works of Heart auction. The event, which turned 21 this past February, is an art auction fundraiser in which local artists complete pieces using (or not) a wooden heart. I have been a Heartist every year since the second annual event, and it’s the only public fundraiser I support by donating my own work.

“You’re… making … artwork?” another mom asked, clearly confused. Before I could answer, the one who had started the conversation offered, with a smirk, “Didn’t you know this whole corporate thing is just a sham? She’s an artist, pretending to be a suit.”

Remember, we’re cullers and sorters. Once labeled, it’s hard for us to appear anything else. I have a job. How could I be an artist? I’m an artist, how could I have a job?

A great post on this topic made the rounds through Freshly Pressed this past week. The post’s title? “GET A JOB.” I wish I had written it, and I wish even more that I could go back and give it to my 25-year-old, unsettled self, accompanied by a note to say this: life is long, and the artist inside you won’t ever not be you. What your eye saw at 22 it will still see in years to come. Because being an artist isn’t a choice of profession; it’s just who some of us are, even when we have jobs.

Memphis, Tennessee, May 2007
Memphis, Tennessee, May 2007