Direction!

From my personal journal, Tuesday 6 August, begun at Samovar Tea Lounge and continued in our temporary San Francisco apartment over the next couple of days:

Lately I have been haunted by the knowledge that even though I do creative work, even though I am quite talented, I am not a working artist and am far from being able to call myself one. In spite of several years of mucking around, I still don’t have much of a body of work, nor have I been actively creating one. Still more uncomfortable is the knowledge that the little work that I do do is only on account on our having the money (and therefore time) to indulge me. If I couldn’t buy supplies or take workshops, if I weren’t able to travel and go to life drawing sessions, if I didn’t have all this time to dawdle away without having to earn a living, I probably wouldn’t be creating, and certainly not in any significant way. My creativity would likely go, as it did in my early twenties, into domesticity: correspondence, home decorating, food preparation, gift-giving. I might still feel that disquieting sense of wasting my potential, but — unlike now — I would at least have the comfort of telling myself that it’s because I have too many other distractions.

Of course, since I no longer have that illusion, I have to acknowledge that — at least at this particular moment — given all the time and money I could possibly need, I am not living the life of a capital-a Artist (aka a working artist, aka a professional). What I am living is the life of a well-to-do person with “cultured” interests and creative tendencies. Basically I am a fancy lady who makes watercolors (and writing) when she feels like it. It’s a pleasant life, and I suppose there’s nothing wrong with it, but it is not the same as being a working artist. And it pains me to admit that.

Which begs several questions. First, is it valid and possible to make meaningful creative work even if one is not a capital-a Artist? In other words, is there anything wrong with being a fancy lady who makes watercolors? Almost every creative person sees not having a day job as the holy grail, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Perhaps not every creative person has enough all-consuming work inside of them to justify devoting all day, every day to art-making. Perhaps, though I hate to even think this, some of us simply don’t have the potential for creative work that is greater than the small, astute, and decorative. Is that wrong; is that less? (Is Beatrix Potter less than, say, Picasso? It’s quite a question: Peter Rabbit versus Guernica, value-wise. Discuss.) And what does the answer mean for me?

If I am not going to think of myself as an Artist, then who and what am I? I asked myself this when I left academia (who am I if not a scholar…?) and I discover now that I have simply substituted one career-based identity for another. Must we always use our careers as our identities? Society likes us to, which is why I almost never ask people what they “do” (this leads to embarrassing moments when it transpires upon questioning that I have no idea what even my nearest and dearest do for a living). When I left grad school, I thought that in being an Artist I would find the sense of purpose I lost along with my interest in historical scholarship. I wanted to have a job and a role I could stand behind; I have never been content with the notion of my family and my relationships constituting the bulk of my contribution to society and to history. I quite realize that history is unlikely to remember me anyway; no matter what I do, chances are slim that anyone will know me two hundred years into the future. We don’t, generally speaking, and with the vast scattering of worlds that is the internet, who knows what will rise to the surface of memory? I know how silly it is to hope for a legacy beyond the immediate… but I find it very hard to live without that hope. Essentially, I fear death. I want my life to have meant something beyond the fond affection of those who knew me personally. I thought that art might be my path to that, but if it isn’t, what is? Maybe nothing, and that scares me. If I cannot point to my job description as evidence that “look, I am doing something with my life,” then how do I know I am doing anything with my life?

I think where I’m going with all this is: Do I have to feel so terribly ashamed of not being a capital-a Artist? Given that I have the wherewithal, why not be a fancy lady who does watercolors? Do I have to be a career Artist before I can feel that my life has purpose and meaning?

No, of course. However, I can’t just goof off. There is my obligation to be productive with my time, there is an obligation to justify Erik’s supporting me (at the expense of his own art, which is something we constantly discuss). Moreover, there is an obligation for my art to do something. What constitutes meaningful creative output? Does my Tisha book count? Do my blog posts? Do my sketchbooks? Do words count if they’re unpublished; do pictures qualify if they’re not shown in exhibitions? What is the difference, in other words, between Van Gogh starving in a garret and the Van Goghs hanging in the Musée d’Orsay (besides 100+ years of hindsight)? (Or Jane Austen writing in her drawing room, versus the massive cultural phenomenon that has grown from Jane Austen’s five novels?) For me, the answer has to do with impact. Not social acceptance, not money, not legitimacy in certain circles, but just impact over time and population. Lasting and wide-ranging influence. Traditionally, artists (and scholars, too) have found it easiest to generate that influence via institutions and the networks they foster, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily still true. A lot of what passes for legitimacy seems to me to really be a giant insiders’ club.* Insiders and aspiring insiders create work for a narrow and self-selecting audience, everything perpetuating itself and the existing voices of authority, rather than creating and nurturing new audiences and new voices. Fear and distaste for that kind of self-satisfaction has kept me out of that world — out of MFA programs and art schools — but maybe it’s also kept me from trying harder to reach people. Put simply, the purpose of art — not the purpose of my creating it, which is for myself, but the purpose of making it known outside my home and circle — is to do something to the people who encounter it. Legitimacy would be nice, fame would be interesting, riches would be fun, but really what I want is to get into people and generate some kind of connection. I know I can do it, too; or, at least, I know I have the potential… and I know I haven’t been living up to it. That’s the bad feeling that has made months of unease until now, finally, this post.

I still don’t know what I will make, but now I remember why I am trying, and that’s the rudder I needed.

*I originally wrote, much less politely, “circle-jerking.”
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In light of all the above, I’ve decided I need to (a) make more art, and (b) make it boldly, and (c) make it my own. I think, looking back on the work I’ve been most pleased with in the past few years, that while experimentation is good, creating a body of work requires that I locate and hone my strengths. And I am a confident enough artist now that I can say what I think those strengths are. I believe that at my best, I offer thoughtful emotional insights, sensitive and detailed visual representation, and unusual juxtapositions of words/images/perspectives, all grounded in specific human experience. I know that all sounds so general as to be almost useless, but in fact it’s not, because it means I know what I am not good at. I don’t need to waste my time trying to write edgy speculative fiction, for instance, or building giant abstract installations, or pursuing any kind of extremely single-minded craft (because that would deny me the breadth that is so vital to my being). Maybe that sounds useless too, but I can tell you, I’ve considered all these things in the past, and it is a huge liberation to dismiss them and to do so out of knowledge of my own capabilities. At this stage, I simply need to move forward with what I’m already doing well.

First project with this mindset: painting the view from the roof deck of our San Francisco apartment building. (By the way, we are staying here for just under two weeks, and then returning briefly to San Jose, and then we’ll spend the fall in Boston.) I’m working bigger and slower than usual. Here’s the picture after my first two-hour session on Wednesday:

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And again after 1.5 hours today:

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Not done yet. I’m not sure what this will become, but at the moment I’m thinking of it as a larger, slower version of my marker sketches. It’s practice.