Am I an artist?

I think about art all the time, I've won awards, I've gotten praise, but I'm afraid making art is selfish

By Cary Tennis

Published December 9, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

For as long as I can remember, I thought in the visual language of art. The word "thought" is used, because much of it stays in my head. As much as I have an incredible amount of passion mentally, physically, I cannot bring myself to sit down and do what I see. And it's not that I cannot do it when I try. In college, which was the last time I consistently worked hard on my art, I received much attention from my professors, all who told me in reviews that my skill level and understanding were advanced. There's nothing that suggests to me that they were just trying to be nice, because saying things just to be nice is out of character for them. I won many awards and scholarships. It was suggested that I go to high-ranking graduate schools. When I tried to escape the stress of thinking about this by coming up with some other potential occupation, many people told me that I would be neglecting a huge part of myself and that I wouldn't be as fulfilled in other occupations as when I am producing art.

Everyone still believes in me, but I can never understand what they see in me. On the other hand, there's a tiny and fragile part of me that feels the potential there and doesn't know what to do about it. The only reason why I am mentioning others people's opinions of me so much right now is that I want to convey to you that I don't think this could be dismissed as my delusional fantasy of being some sort of whimsical artist archetype. There really is something there.

Cary, it causes me a great deal of stress. I seem to be learning to cope with other problems in my life -- trauma from my childhood and anxiety -- incredibly well. I have a good creative job and good friendships. I'm still in my 20s, so I know I have time to change. Things are OK. But I want to figure this out so that I can move on and make more art or do something else with my time. Sometimes I feel so guilty because I get scared that if I make art I am doing something selfish that does not help me, my family or those around me in any way. I don't feel that way about other artists. I write constantly and I also think all day about ideas, compositions, scenarios, colors and images. I really do feel like a creator but I wonder if I am actually an impostor, because I don't make these intense desires concrete. I have my own ideas about what art is and what artists are, but I need your help. Am I an artist? If I were one, would I be making instead of thinking about it? Or is it possible that there is a better method for me that I haven't considered, like writing or music?

I don't want to be unsure, I just want to do.


Dear Restless,

You say, "I want to figure this out so that I can move on and make more art."

I would say, "Make more art in order to figure this out and move on." Artists think by making. Doing it is figuring it out. So for now, suspend all thinking about what art is or what you are, and just gather your materials. Begin making something. You don't have to know yet what it is that you are making. Just begin the making.

Concrete action will help you.

Of course, certain questions will remain in your mind. That is fine. That is good, actually. Acting without knowing all the answers is a great skill.

I want to recommend a book for you. The book is called "Mindset," by psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. It talks about how having such fixed categories as "Am I an artist?" or telling people they're really geniuses can get in the way of developing and excelling. She explains all about that. Also, you could read my book, "Citizens of the Dream," which is a collection of columns on the subject of creativity.

The reason I say it is about doing is because I want you to be happy and I think you will be happy if you are making things. It's as simple as that. You will be happy when you are making art. Thinking about what people think is a distracting thought. Thinking about what you yourself think is a distracting thought. When making art, it's no business of yours what you think about what you are doing. Your job is to do it and keep going. Distracting thoughts prevent you from making art. So just treat all these thoughts as annoying distractions, silly obstacles that must be shoved aside to make the art.

Figuring it out comes later.

Cary Tennis

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