what's in a name?

it's funny how sometimes life puts something on repeat for you. as if to say - no really - it's time for you to confront this. don't ignore this. see?  i'm bringing it up again so that you can think about it some more. hello... here it is. again. you thought you could get away with not thinking about it, but this idea you've been circling around - dancing around - attempting to put to rest in your brain - yes. it's still here. what do you think now?

i've been confronted again and again with the conundrum of the LABEL. and by label i mean self label. as in what and who do you identify yourself as. and more importantly why the heck does that matter anyway. in fact, just last weekend in LA someone asked me - well what do you consider yourself? an artist, a crafter, an author a ??? [yes, yes, and not really, although i guess i am].

i, of course, in my snarky professorial ways try to make my students contemplate labels every darn semester. so all of you ARTISTS in this room. what kind of artist are you? more importantly what kind of artist do you want to BE [when you grow up]? what kind of artists are there? and we come up with a list:

painter, sculptor, mixed media, installation, big time, important, conceptual, famous, commercial, hobbiest, blue chip, emerging, mid-career, professional, working, sellout, part-time - when i get funny students we end up with funny labels - like casual [the not quite serious artist, but with potential - more than a hobbiest per se]. or in utero [the pre-emerging artist].

and we talk about how society loves to label. to put you in box so that you are easier to understand. we talk about the MYTH of an artist [we are all SO creative, we all love what we do all of the time, we are all flaky, right brained, incapable of organization or math]. the romanticism of art and art making [you cut your ear off, you go crazy, you'll DIE without making it].

and i always come back to the idea that it behooves you to label yourself. to stake, claim and own your label so that one isn't pinned on you. it's not like you have to keep this label forever - and of course we have more than one label pinned to our shirts. mostly i feel that if you are in CHARGE of it - you own the power of it - you get to keep any other label you don't want at bay and that feels key. if you let someone else name you it feels like you get the shorter end of the stick. in feminism and civil rights and personal politics the reclamation of a negative label strips it of its power over you. right? [yes. i do believe this to be so].

and really in many ways when you label yourself artist there are people that see you as "the other". there are those that are also jealous. and figuring out how to navigate your own internal response to this is part of being an artist.

labeling oneself can lead to confidence. and this is something i think very few artists have in spades. there is something comforting about feeling like you have a place in the world. a group [dare i say tribe] that you belong to. all us {{insert your own particular kind of}} artists are in it together.... who doesn't like that? at least hypothetically? or intellectually.

recently i had a student return to class one day for a surprise visit and she asked if i had told this crop the story about when i finally decided i could call myself an artist. i had not. it was interesting for me to hear that my personal journey had an impact on her and that hearing how i finally decided to label myself as an artist made her think about why or why she couldn't do the same for herself.

my story is this: i have always been "creative". my parents and immediate family encouraged it - but it always came from a cultural or problem solving stance. we went to plays, musicals, dances. we read books. we went to museums to see "important" pieces of art. we talked politics. we were interested in "culture". i was encouraged to try new things. take classes on subjects that interested me. my grandfather and grandmother in particular taught me how to do things with my hands. how to fix things, how to make things. in the end, though, it was other people who were artists. and we were grateful for them, but they were a rare and exotic species it seemed.

i didn't know any artists. i don't even know if i knew what a living artist might look like. i could only think of dead artists and how important they were. i liked art in high school. thought maybe i should make more. but didn't know what life as an artist might look like. what would i do for work? could i just make art? [it seemed that in our society the answer to that was ultimately no. except for a select few].

when i went to college i gravitated to the art department. thought OK. i might be able to do this. but then realized i was SO naive. i knew nothing. nothing. nothing. i was passionate. i wanted to know more, but man did i suck. contemporary art has become so much more than just making a pretty picture [although pretty pictures are of course allowed]. i started diving in, reading, looking, studying - and all it did was made me realize how little i knew. i was NOT an artist. how could i be, when all the artists that i was starting to admire were so skilled, so adept, so smart, so driven. so clearly not me.

then i managed to land a job "in my field". i worked at a contemporary art gallery. THIS MADE SENSE TO PEOPLE. oh OK - you are an artist, and you work in a gallery. that felt good for awhile. and i learned a lot and actually met real LIVE artists and saw how they managed their lives [usually skillfully]. and when people asked me what i was i would say gallerist. not artist - although i might mention that i made art. but that meant i had to try and make art. outside of school. and oh yeah. i quickly figured out - that's HARD. really really really hard. but i started to manage and do it. kept doing it. realized it was very important for me to do it and i began to think... if i'm going to be an "artist" then i need to really work on this more. i need to give it priority. and one way to do that was to go to graduate school.

it was only after i got my MFA that i felt like i could CALL myself an artist. after all i had spent two whole years on my art. eating breathing thinking devoted questioning defending it. [what a luxury]. it's not that the piece of paper meant much [although to some people it does]. it was the time that made the difference to me. the energy. the rigor with which i approached what i was doing.

so when last weekend someone asked me what i DO [man are we obsessed with that in our culture. i'm guilty of it too. asking that question in a lull of conversation. as if we are forever linked to our profession. as if you can't just perform a job as a job - we all want to LOVE our jobs. we are what we do]. in my head i always giggle when someone asks this - which job would you like to hear more about i wonder? do you mean right this minute or in the past because here comes another list: furniture shop girl [i put swatches away and helped designers], vintage clothing store salesgirl, card store salesgirl, waitress, graphic designer, gallerist, woodworking assistant, art installer, computer tutor/IT person, art teacher to kids, window washer, professor...

but these days i have to say my first answer is always artist. i usually back it up with professor and freelance graphic designer. oh and now the ever important MOM label comes up too. but artist. artist is first. it's definitely how i see myself. how i want to be seen. it is just what i am. so there [sticks out her tongue].

 all of the images above are from the piece of art that i installed last weekend. it's a family tree of sorts. the top row of larger doilies representing the grandparents, the middle the parent and the 2 smaller doilies the children. the family told me what colors they felt were relevant to them.... 


oh, this is a good post, lisa. it gives me lots of food for thought...i have the hardest time pinning a label to myself as i see myself as a dabbler.
Anonymous said…
Somehow 'thanks' is not nearly enough for this post. Although you have alluded to parts of this in the past, this is the most comprehensive and clear articulation of your identity and how you got there.

I also have been both a student and a teacher. So, I can attest to the incredible importance that a teacher's comment about him/herself, his/her career, his/her identity can have for some students. I fondly recall at least 2 teachers who were wonderful role models and inspirations for me. Glad to read that you are doing likewise for some of your students!! I must note, though, that I am not surprised at this. After all, you are so passionate about and have incredible integrity about your work and your life as an artist. I am sure you inspire many of your students to reach for and find their own paths in their lives, too.
melissa s. said…
From my perspective and for as long as I've known you, you have always been an artist, Lisa (in the good and real sense of that word). And an amazing one at that. xo
Anne Marie said…
Congratulatiosn Lisa! For arriving at that point, for being grounded about it.

For what it is worth; I also have always perceived you as an artist.

...You mention time and I think perhaps time is an important element of being an artist. Both the time you put into exploring your creativity or materialising your ideas, and also for how long you have been exploring and making...

"if i'm going to be an "artist" then i need to really work on this more. i need to give it priority."

Thanks for the reminder, Lisa. :)
Such an excellent discussion, and funny enough it's one I had recently with a few friends, and how this comes up for everyone in one form or another, those questions "what are you?", "what do you do?", (crafters, artists, designers, "in-utero" lol, moms, ect.)... As someone said above, much food for thought. Thank you. :)

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