What is an artist?
Merriam-Webster says the following (not all that artfully):
noun art·ist \ˈär-tist\
: a person who creates art : a person who is skilled at drawing, painting, etc.
: a skilled performer
: a person who is very good at something
I think an artist is someone who draws maps to undiscovered places, who travels relentlessly inside their own heart and mind and brings back souvenirs. They are explorers and romantics, and view the universe as a great miracle in need of unlocking.
Artists are people who take leaps of faith into the territories of emotion, sensation and instinct, trying to find patterns that make sense, so that others can investigate those territories too.
And perhaps most of all, they are people who do these things even when they feel they can’t—when they are tired or forlorn—when their minds are blank or numb, their feet directionless. They wrestle with terrible feelings of inadequacy, but keep turning over stone after stone, hopeful that they will find something important underneath.
The first time I referred to myself as an artist was after 20 years of writing. Elephant journal had just offered me the position of featured writer, and I was out at a local restaurant celebrating.
The waiter happened to ask what is was “I do,” and I self-consciously announced, “I’m a writer!”
Was I an artist before that night? Yes—but I didn’t have the wherewithal to own it. I believed (wrongly) that working for a respected publication had pushed me over the line—from ordinary woman, to the somewhat mythic (in my mind), artist.
Now I know that being an artist is not a matter of titles, recognition, income earned or any of the other silly ways we attempt to value our souls (which are invaluable and unquantifiable). Being an artist is a much bigger, more frightening, more exciting and more important thing.
So what does it take to be an artist?
First, we must have the calling.
For some, playing around with haiku or mastering a few songs on the piano will be enough. That’s wonderful—not everyone has to be a fully developed, obsessive artiste.
But for those who think in color, dream in chapters or need to make shapes out of clay—like other people need to eat and breath—that will not suffice. These people know who they are— sometimes it’s just too overwhelming to admit it.
Second, we must have our medium (or mediums).
For me, my primary medium is words—but I also cook. Though the result is obviously different when I yank a poem from my heart, versus when I put fresh garlic in a very hot pan, the need to do it comes from the same place. I am grabbing invisible puzzle pieces out of the air, guided by intuition and experience, and trying to make something that is more than the sum of it’s parts.
Sometimes I do—but, sometimes I just burn the garlic. Nonetheless, it is my uncontrollable drive, to express the inexpressible, via these mediums that is my art.
The possible mediums for an artist are only limited by our imagination. We can work with sand or clay, paint, glass, stone, fabric, sound, water, metal, fire, light—anything at all. I once heard about an artist who made indoor clouds, and another who designed empty spaces.
The only requirement for a medium is that we must be passionately in love with it. This might take some experimentation. I’ve always known I loved to write, but the cooking came as a surprise. We should give ourselves the freedom to play and the permission to let go of something that may not be working.
We can think of finding our medium like finding a romantic partner. We may have to kiss a lot of frogs before we find our prince.
Third, we must practice.
Being an artist does not mean taking a watercolor class in the summer and then not painting again all year—just like being a yogi doesn’t mean heading to the yoga studio every now and then. We must insist in a level of commitment to our craft, even when the work is not recognized, praised or—perhaps most importantly—even when it isn’t very good.
We must be willing, year after year, to be vulnerable, bold, sweaty and stupid—because if we aren’t, we will never get to the good stuff. As Anne Lammot says in her book Bird by Bird (the best book on how to be a writer ever written), we must write lots of “shitty first drafts” before we can craft our masterpieces.
Expertise and mastery are, for the most part, not magical attributes—they are a result of hard, unglamorous work.
And that’s it!
All we need is a a calling to explore the mysteries folded deep within our bones, a medium through which to do it and a willingness to work hard at it for a long, long time.
Anyone among us can be a true artist. We need not earn our living with our art (though surely that would be delightful), we need not acquire fame and fortune and we don’t need permission to live an artist’s life—all we need is the wish, the way and the work to do so.
But what is the point, if our pictures are never hung in galleries or our books are never published? Why waste so much of our time and energy on something that is often frustrating, isolating and downright crazy making?
If art calls us, and we don’t heed the call, we will live unrealized lives indeed.
Instead of being an evolving star which unwittingly casts light across the universe—we will be a small, dark planet, forever undiscovered. And as scary as being an artist may seem to be, it is much more scary to walk away from our gifts and never be illuminated.
**Author’s note: A great place for people who believe they want to be artists to start is, with another of my favorite books, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It is what inspired me, in my twenties, to make a lifelong commitment to writing, which continues unabated.
Author: Erica Leibrandt
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photo: Flickr/Justin Wolfe