Little girl smiling and painting a picture

Start by Calling Yourself an Artist

GUEST POST by Nancy Goulet

It was the last day, last session, and last chance to learn something new at the NESCBWI annual conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. I edged tentatively into Kate Sullivan’s session Ready, Set, Dive Off the Deep End. Create Bravely was this year’s conference theme and as I picked a seat for the session I wondered what kind of courage I’d need to dive off the proverbial deep end.

Chairs circled the room. I settled near the back. A young, hip woman with arresting red hair glowing like a stop light sat cross-legged to my right. She seemed to embody bravado. I’d often fancied dying my hair such a bright hue, but couldn’t muster the chutzpah. I wondered what such a bold soul could be doing here in this shy ring.

Sullivan launched into the session. In the middle, she opened the floor to questions. The crimson-crowned woman eeked her hand up slowly, just to her ear.

“Yes,” signaled Sullivan.

Standing feet in sneakers surrounded by splashes of color
When on our creative journey, can we call ourselves artists?

The girl spoke in a hushed, hesitant voice. “I was wondering if anyone had any ideas to help me become an artist?” she asked.

I heard a cord in my soul snap. As participants offered suggestions, I stared with saucer eyes at the questioner, perhaps embarrassingly so. I was looking in a mirror. How many times had I ask myself this question? What is it to be an artist and when will I become one? Am I talented enough, clever enough, smart enough to be a real artist? I saw in her all the doubt I’ve carried for too long.

I yearned to reach out and hug this young, brilliant version of myself. Instead, I chewed my lip and eeked my hand up slowly, just to my ear.

“Yes,” Sullivan echoed.

I turned to my reflection and said… (To be honest, I did clean this up a bit.)

“Start by calling yourself an artist. You are an artist. When you begin addressing yourself as an artist, people will see you in that way and rise up to support you. They will expect art from you, which will cause you to expect art from yourself, and you will create with a great support team in your wake.”

A fat tear sprouted from the corner of her eye and hung like a bud on a vine. I gulped. I feared I had wounded my fragile new friend. I swallowed my remaining words, though I had much more to share because in talking to her, I was speaking to myself. Sometimes the thing we teach others is the thing we most need to learn for ourselves.

I’ve thought a lot about this moment since leaving the conference. Had I been brave enough to continue, this is what I would have said.

Creation is in our DNA. It’s no accident that our conception as humans is called the creation of life. Creating — whether it’s songs, stories, illustrations, or soufflés — is the purpose of our lives. It’s no accident the words EAT and ATE are embedded in the word CREATE. Creativity, and in turn creation, feeds our souls. Further I take it as no coincidence that the bigger part of HEART is ART. Call it Freudian or whatever psyche term you wish, but I’d say it’s a calling that we’re put on this planet (Earth) to be artists in whatever definition we make for ourselves.

I read an article once about a famous study where a crowd of youngsters was asked who among them was an artist. Every hand soared. The question was repeated to a group of older kids and fewer hands rose. And then it was posed to teens and only a couple hands lifted.

Little girl smiling and painting a picture
We all call ourselves artists when we’re young.

What happens to us? We fearlessly begin life calling ourselves artists. Every refrigerator masterpiece sings our achievements. We judge not. We revel and celebrate the creation. The pride isn’t necessarily in what we made, but in the act of making. Every child boasts, “Look what I made!”

Many of us spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to this truth. We confuse craft and technique with what it is to be an artist. I believe the heart of art isn’t about being good or great. To be an artist is to create. That’s what’s good and great. And remember good and great are not definitive terms. When Monet first exhibited his new style, critics panned the work. Now these works hang in the grandest museums revered by the masses throughout time.

I often have to remind myself, especially on those self-deprecating days where everything I touch doesn’t match my inner vision, that being an artist means embracing the process, which may include failure. All I can do in that moment is resolve to create the best art I can and hope the next moment brings me closer to my goals and expectations. If I’m disappointed, it doesn’t mean I’m not an artist. It just means I have more steps to go.

It seems simpler look over the shoulder of giants who have traveled a thousand miles in their personal art pilgrimage and compare. “I am no artist. Look at that person. She or he is brilliant. I am nothing.” If we were to look over our own shoulders we might notice the little head looking at our art, saying, “… She/he is brilliant.”

Failure, doubt, disappointment, surprises,  joy, even pride are all part of the process. Embracing these feelings may be the hardest part. But then, no one told us being artists would be easy. And that’s why we must create bravely and dive off the deep end and begin by calling ourselves artists.

These are the words I wish I had said to this radiant woman. I met her for the briefest moment, yet I know she is an artist. I know because… I am one too. We all are.

NancyG_avatarNancy Goulet is a writer and illustrator of children’s books. She is also a graphic designer and owner of studiowink, a boutique design firm that specializes in the fields of publishing, education, technology, health and finance.

Alison Meyer
I thought I had “happened upon you” and now know it was no accident. I am really in a learning curve with my journey as an artist right now and this is exactly what I needed to read. Thank you!

Minuscule Moments
Nancy great post I am at the stage where I accept I am an artist and now the challenge of charging for my work is hanging over me….each turning point places you somewhere else on the bar, but I do feel more confident now with my dreams and have heard others call me an artist before I even owned the tag…life is funny in too many ways.

Carol Gordon Ekster
In reply to Amy Courage.Thank you, Nancy, for your inspiration and honesty. Thank you, Amy. I love that, “Creating is compensation enough…” I believe that! Let’s keep creating fellow artists.

Amy Courage
Thanks for your thoughts Nancy! I was at that workshop too, and it was a special moment. I feel like part of being an artist, writer, actor, etc. is to do it just because you love it. You don’t have to be compensated by the world. Creating is compensation enough because you’re doing what you were made for. Of course, getting paid for creating is nice, but if the love is there, it won’t your only motivation…

Josh Funk
Inspiring words, Nancy! I never thought of you as shy, but we’re all shy in our own ways. Keep arting!

Related post: You Will Always Be Creative by Marianne Knowles

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