When I'm not writing status reports, managing projects, reading The Three Bears for the millionth time, or re-washing clothes that sat damp in the washing machine a little too long, I'm an artist. Sort of. I think.
That’s what I went to college for, anyway. I studied painting. Not something useful, like graphic design or video production or architecture—painting. While other students were learning statistics and chemistry and political science, I was learning how to seal a canvas with rabbit-skin glue. After college, I found jobs that paid the bills and got further and further away from art as I advanced in my “other” career. But a few years ago I made a commitment to start making art again, and rented a studio space shared with several other artists. I get there when I can.
Looking back on it now, I wonder what my parents were thinking, encouraging me to pursue this crazy dream in the first place. I imagine my son, now a toddler, coming to me in 15 years and saying “Mommy, I want to go to art school. Like Prometheus, I shall bring the divine fire to humanity only to have the ungrateful world chain me up and tear me to shreds.” I must admit that when I see him carefully positioning his jumbo purple crayon before dramatically sweeping it across the paper, I feel a little spike of fear inside.
It’s not the cost of art school or the scant employment opportunities that scare me. A reasonably intelligent, resourceful, hardworking person can find a job, and even a whole career path, that may or may not have anything to do with what he studied in college. I fear that my son will suffer the awful knowledge that there is no place in the world for his dream. That he will forever tormented by a desire to pursue something that, by its very nature, is not useful.
I’m not talking purely about making money, though my many years spent in survival mode taught me that money does, to a certain point, buy happiness. I’m talking more generally about the external pressure that makes us question our own ideas and creative drives when they don’t seem to serve any practical purpose.
For example, this past weekend my studio held a holiday show. Several of my studio-mates are jewelers, and they in turn invited several early-career and student jewelers to participate. I was the only one showing paintings and drawings. In spite of some rainy, cold weather, we had a fair number of visitors. But nobody from my mailing list came. The people who did come were there to look at (and buy) jewelry—most of them seemed mystified by my work. What was it doing there? Were they being encouraged to buy these strange, expensive paintings as Christmas presents? I could see the confusion in their eyes as they turned away.
I did receive some nice comments from those who did stop to look. But some came in the form of “You know who would buy this? A surgeon.” Or “Maybe you could make a greeting card out of this one… you know, if you added a pretty border.” “You should make a bunch of really small paintings and sell them for $50 a pop.” They were just trying to help a struggling artist get a clue and make some money. But the truth is, I don’t know that selling off individual pieces is what I want. If I sell them, how will people ever see them? If I license an image for a greeting card, people will see it, but doesn’t that somehow devalue the unique physical object that I have created? If I spend what little time I have creating tiny inexpensive paintings, when will I have time to do the paintings I want to do?
Clearly I am not cut out to be an artist who actually sells work. The kind of work that I do is more suited to a different model, an academic one. Complete the M.F.A., which is the terminal degree in art. Apply for fellowships and residencies, build up credentials, win some grants, meet the right people, land some high-profile group shows, eventually score a teaching job, pray for tenure. Be recognized as a serious artist who has advanced the field. Except I’m not academic enough. If you ask me why I paint what I paint and what relevance it has, I’ll throw out some art-school gibberish and then admit that I really don’t know. Besides, I can’t drop everything and go to an M.F.A. program, because I would literally have to drop everything for this intensive period of study—including my job, which is necessary for my family’s survival.
So, I’ll probably never be regarded as a “serious” artist, nor will I be commercially viable. So why do I do what I do? To tell the truth, I’m beginning to wonder. I guess I just like the smell of paint.
Image: Lucile Blanch, American painter, 1895-1981. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Photo Archives.