Artist Is Not a Dirty Word

Up until very recently I was always incredibly frustrated when people would refer to me as an artist. I strongly identified myself as a creative professional, a designer and illustrator, but never an artist.

Yet it was undeniable that I create art, so why did it make me so crazy when someone called me an artist?

My crude idea of an artist was someone who worked alone, reflected deeply, valued their personal vision enough to create their own work for themselves. As I saw it the goals of an artist were gallery or museum walls, wealthy patrons and art collectors. I believed an artist to be so compelled to create their own work that they were willing to choose a financially and emotionally challenging path requiring the creation of staggering amounts of work in the hopes of one day gaining recognition — a goal which admittedly often takes an entire lifetime, sometimes longer. Not one of these things is me.

When I was little I thought artists were supposed to be emotional and flighty but I was a straight A student excelling in AP biology and math. In college after contemplating business or economics I begrudgingly majored in art in order to take graphic design classes. Even then I was most comfortable in the computer lab learning what I thought were useful skills like Quark Xpress and Macromedia Director. I wanted skills for the workforce I was eager to join.

I graduated and became a designer which has never been just a day job to pay the bills. It was, and still is, what I love doing. I have been running a successful design firm since I was 26 in which time I have learned on my own to navigate employees, payroll, health insurance, manage clients, write contracts, do copy writing and editing and looking critically at businesses models.

I’m proud to be a practical small business owner with excellent time management skills and I’m pretty sure that’s not what anyone means when they call me an artist.

And if I’m going to be totally honest, I am embarrassed to say, ‘artist’ naively struck me as a somewhat self indulgent career path and would require a belief that my voice was important, which I didn’t feel it was. I have always wanted to be identified by my contributions to the lives of others, something I thought was best achieved through working for them, so for this reason I abhorred being referred to as an artist. Up until recently I saw my greatest altruistic ability as working successfully with and for others. I did not yet see the connection between art and generosity.

I considered creating art the most frivolous thing about me and never stopped to consider that it may in fact be the greatest thing.

But then, I saw Paola Mendoza speak at a Creative Mornings event in New York and everything changed. Paola Mendoza was the Artistic Director for the Women’s March and her talk was about the role of the artist in a post Trump election America. And she said, “Art is not simply to be used for entertainment when society is at it’s most convenient and happiest moments. Art is the light that illuminates society when we are at our darkest.”

Now more than ever, like so many others, I have felt that I need to find ways to contribute. Paola made me see this is possible (and necessary) through art.

She spoke of the abilities an artist has to share stories and open eyes and hearts. In her talk she said, “If we are to revitalize the heart of this country then artists must lead the way.” I had never stopped to recognize how artists I love and admire are leaders and mobilizers. For the first time, she made me feel that I could be effective, that I could contribute in a meaningful way, as an artist. This blew my mind.

I have always been an admirer of artists and as I think about the artists that have inspired and moved me, not one of them fits in to the stereotype that I had some how worked up in my mind. Contemporary artists like Swoon, Barbara Kruger, William Kentridge, Ai Weiwei and Steve Powers engage deeply and bring light to individuals and entire communities. These artists show dedication beyond measure to their work.

The world of artists with that type of recognition and reach is small and appeared to me as unattainable. But Paola’s talk made me realize the importance of engaging on whatever level I can. I will no longer deny what I am, I will no longer think my words don’t have value and meaning, that my work can’t help affect people. Just because it’s not how I make a living doesn’t mean I should not claim and share the abilities that I have.

I left Paola Mendoza’s talk, for the first time proud to consider myself an artist. That afternoon I went out with my buddy Adam Fujita and painted this wall in Bushwick. This was our way to help illuminate a sense of solidarity and unity with all those who have suffered under the new regime, whose rights, health, family and bodily safety have been threatened, comprised and undervalued. We see you, we hear you, we are here for you.

Watch Paolo’s talk on CreativeMornings.com