With only a little more than two weeks until the ROCK/PAPER/SCISSORS show at MAWA, I am finding myself getting anxious about putting my work out there. I have been on “visual artist” hiatus for about 15 years or more – putting all of my extra energy into prepping for teaching or volunteering or managing arts organizations, rather than actually MAKING any artwork. My anxiety about showing my work isn’t so much about whether or not it will be well-received; I expect that there will be some people who like it, and some who don’t; some who are interested by the ideas I am exploring and some who will walk by and not take a second glance. The real anxiety I have, I think, is about reclaiming my self-identity as an artist.
When did you realize you were an artist? I think this is such a huge question for each of us to consider – not just because claiming an artist identity is really challenging for some of us (especially those who have given up a LOT of our meaningful art-making time to “make a living”) – but because I think the path to naming yourself a Creator (God-reference totally noted) is one which comes with internal conflict: the feeling that you need to ‘prove yourself’, the difficulty in feeling like you are, in fact, doing something meaningful and/or original, and the acknowledgement that you can be an artist AND other things at the same time: a mother, a teacher, a barista, whatever.
I grew up in a small town in rural Manitoba. In the fourth grade, during our “free art period”, I spent 40 minutes developing a drawing of a mermaid swimming underwater, towards a deep-sea diver. (They were falling in love, of course.) This was two years before Disney’s The Little Mermaid was released in theatres, so the only mermaid references I had seen were in Hans Christian Anderson storybooks in the school library. It was the first drawing that I remember developing in detail, adding scales one-by-one onto the mermaid’s tail, and even flipping through one of the dusty classroom Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes (with my teacher’s help) to find a picture of an underwater breathing apparatus in order to accurately render an oxygen tank. Various classmates came by my desk, complimenting me on my handiwork, so I decided it was (essentially) the greatest a masterpiece ever created. I kept the 8.5” X 11” drawing in a plastic binder sheet cover provided by my teacher, to ensure its safety.
I was really proud of this work, and my 4th grade teacher complimented me on my creativity and the attention to detail in the work (I had drawn little smiling fish who seemed impressed by the developing mermaid-diver romance). She recommended that I enter the drawing into the town fair. With my mom’s permission, I submitted the drawing to the jury, and then waited until the summer months, excited about seeing if I might win a prize or get an honorable mention.
I was fairly un-self-aware at the time – I didn’t spend any time considering my chance of winning, and had no idea of the skill-level of my 9- and 10-year-old competitors – and anyway, the judges weren’t art experts, they were random members of the community that volunteered to be on a committee. So did it matter if I got a prize? Not really. I was really proud of my work. But somehow, when I walked into the room where a series of my peers’ drawings were displayed with neon stickers for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place prizes – along with a small collection of drawings with "Honorable Mention" stickers – it really broke my heart that my little drawing drew no recognition. My mom, who is known (in our town) as a woman who speaks her mind, immediately noted (not out loud, thank goodness) that the prize-winning works were, in actuality, not that strong. She talked to one of the organizers, to find out more about the “criteria” for the contest (this was her way of stealthily finding out why I didn’t get a prize) – and the person in charge of the jury team said that they disqualified my drawing because they assumed it was traced from a book.
I was devastated that my work was removed from the contest – but my mom tried to explain to me that getting disqualified was, in actuality, a bigger win than actually winning – because essentially the judges thought it looked too “grown up” to have been made by a 9-year old. I think that was the first time I thought to myself, “maybe something is different about me”.
Fast-forward to high school – where, in my small rural Manitoba town, there was no such thing as drama, art, music or choir classes. As ‘options’ courses, we had General Business (bookkeeping / accounting) and Typing (on an actual typewriter). So the Creator in me had to find ways to make itself happy. I wrote poetry and performed it at festivals. I rehearsed put on plays with my friends after school in our back-yards. I recorded video cooking shows and newscasts. I made a ballerina-gorilla costume for Halloween. When I joined the student council, the executive made me the “Decorating Committee” which basically meant that I got to paint posters for every event the school held.
I found ways to keep myself busy – but being an Artist just wasn’t a “thing” in my town. In a small way, I suppose it was similar to a LGBTTQ person “knowing” that they are different, but having no peer or adult support to tell them that the feelings they are having are actually completely normal. I had no classes. No mentor, no guidance. I knew I was creative, and I knew I loved MAKING things and thinking about IDEAS… but since ‘thinking about ideas’ is not a realistic and financially secure career aspiration, I registered for university with the intention of becoming a biology teacher (my favourite subject in high school).
In my first year at the U of M, I had my Intro to Biology class in a theatre room, and got up each morning to attend an 8:30 lecture (ON VIDEO) of a prof who looked like he was boring HIMSELF to sleep. It was tedious. I couldn’t ask questions. I hated that I couldn’t collaborate, or work with my hands, or talk about what I was learning with my classmates – and I ESPECIALLY hated that this 18-year-old, hormonally-charged couple showed up every single morning, sat directly in front of me in the darkened theatre, and as soon as the film of the professor started up, literally sucked on each others’ faces for an hour. Nauseated by the wet noises and (maybe a little bit) by my own eternal singleness, I dropped the course. Needing to fill a hole in my schedule, I registered (late) for Leslie Korrick’s Introduction to Western Art class. Why an art class? Well, if you must know: I had owned, once, a book called Some Famous Paintings (actual title!) and thought it was sort of interesting… so why not?
Long story long, I continued in art. I had begun to find my tribe – but always felt like I was just outside of the circle: some sort of Art Imposter. When I was in courses at the School of Art, I wasn’t considered to be a serious artist because I had already expressed my intentions to become an art teacher – so rather than spending my studio time pursuing ideas of value to me, or challenging myself to new artistic heights, I spent my time gathering as much information and experience as possible to apply in the classroom. Regardless, I plowed through, loving my drawing sessions with Diana Thorneycroft and my art history classes with Oliver Botar. After completing a B.Ed., I (luckily) got a job right out of school – which is great – but I have never had an identity as a visual artist. I never did a thesis, and I have never truly developed my voice.
And now, twenty years later – I am taking a risk. I am committing to making art on the regular (even if that means twenty minutes at a time, between a dog walk and a grocery run or to fill time between parent-teacher interviews. I am fumbling, that’s for sure. But I have spent the last seventeen years thinking about things I have wanted to make – and there’s no better time to start than the present.