I wrote this response to Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland in January 2012 as part of my MFA Writing studies. Reading through it tonight I felt it was worth sharing on the blog. It’s quite autobiographical and contains a few lessons in self-awareness and self-acceptance that anyone in a creative field must work through and overcome.
Art & Fear is a fascinating book touching on several points throughout my professional and personal life. It has stirred up many thoughts and emotions, evoking memories of my artistic roots and where I find myself now, questioning my seemingly unorthodox path from aspiring artist to corporate communicator.
I have always been involved in the arts. Before I was ten I had already decided I would be an artist when I grew up. By the time I was in college I already had several years experience in making art: played guitar in rock bands, painted with oils, wrote short stories, wrote and performed at poetry slams, and shot, developed, and printed black and white 35 mm film. These passionate endeavors led to my pursuit of a BFA as a Fine Art major with the predetermined career path to become a professional artist.
The harsh reality hit shortly after graduation. Within a few months it became clear that digital media was replacing the traditional methods at a rapid rate. The local freelance creative job market was intensely competitive. Having found I was adept at using Photoshop I launched my career as a digital photo-retoucher building off my traditional education in painting and photography. Not quite the fine artist pursuit, but it satisfied my creative urges and paid the bills. Digital graphic design soon followed as I continued to expand my capabilities, eventually leading to web design and development.
It was never easy; I found myself stopping some of my much beloved creative disciplines, particularly writing and music, to focus my energies on becoming the best digital artist possible with no formal training in new media. Fortunately, in recent years writing has made a surprising re-entry in my life, now playing a dominant part of my profession.
Early in the book, the authors of Art & Fear explain the grim reality that ninety-eight percent of graduates with art degrees are set up to fail. A lack of preparation and education on the business of artmaking tends to be a problem in the art schools – it certainly was when I was a student. Art is an accepted profession in our country, but not an accepted occupation. As Bayles and Orland vividly point out, “if ninety-eight percent of our medical students were no longer practicing medicine five years after graduation, there would be a Senate investigation.” (11). I know too many such art grads who have failed in their artistic careers soon after college. Talented individuals who did not know how to make a living as artists, who did not know the right people at the right times, who did not know how to apply their talents and skills to a tangential profession outside of their comfort zone. Looking back it seems I was one of the fortunate few.
So here I am fifteen years later, as a web designer, as a business writer, as a professional communicator, I have never once deviated from the creative path I set out on in my teens. But I cannot call myself an artist. I have not primed a hand-stretched canvas or pressed an intaglio print in several years, but the knowledge of color, texture, form, composition, and storytelling is carried with me in the communication work I produce today. Writing a strategy requires a great deal of creative thinking, in both the over-arching concepts and the tactics to implement it. Creating a website is a multidisciplinary task involving skills in writing, design, user experience, and technology. Why should these sorts of works disqualify me from being an artist? I never technically quit; I evolved.
However, Bayles and Orland do write, “For most artists, making good art depends upon making lots of art, and any device that carries the first brushstroke to the next blank canvas has tangible, practical value.” (61) Any device … has tangible, practical value caught my attention, as in the medium and method do not matter as long as the artistic intent is there. Have I been an artist all along?
I have found myself in this gray area throughout my career. When I am asked what I studied in school, my answer is naturally fine art, and I get the funny look. How did I get here from there? Did I throw away my education and sell out? Of course not, I applied everything from my fine arts education to become what I am today, whatever that label might be.
Ultimately, what this book instilled in me was self-acceptance. I understand where I came from is not so unique; many aspiring artists have traveled this path. I am getting over the fear of calling myself an artist, a writer, or any other creative title. As long as I am true to myself, in my corporate communication job, or in my revitalized interest of becoming a professional writer, no one can take that away from me despite his or her level of acceptance or understanding. And I can live with that.