Friday, February 29, 2008

Artist, Hobbyist, Professional, Amateur....or?

One of the best things about the Synergy conference is that it is generating discussions. Discussions that occurred at the conference, and discussions that are spilling over into the blogosphere. There is one going on right now that began with Susan Lumoto, at Polymer Clay Notes, and was picked up by Libby Mills, at her blog. I feel compelled to jump in.

I have used the words hobbyist and artist in the past to refer to people who create. But who is the hobbyist, and who is the artist? And who gets to decide? Likewise, what makes a person a professional?

Libby's post has caused me to consider when and how I use these terms. I could mean one thing, but someone else might receive it differently than I intended. What do I mean when I say artist? Who is a hobbyist? Are they mutually exclusive? Who is an amateur, and who decides who is a professional?

hob·by 1 /ˈhɒbi/
–noun, plural -bies.
1. an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or
relaxation and not as a main occupation: Her hobbies include stamp-collecting and woodcarving.

art·ist /ˈɑrtɪst/
1. a person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily
subject to aesthetic criteria.

2. a person who practices one of the fine arts,
esp. a painter or sculptor.
3. a person whose trade or profession requires a
knowledge of design, drawing, painting, etc.: a commercial artist.
4. a person who works in one of the performing arts, as an actor, musician, or singer; a public performer: a mime artist; an artist of the dance.
5. a person whose work exhibits exceptional skill.
6. a person who is expert at trickery or deceit: He's an artist with cards.
7. Obsolete. an artisan.

according to

According to the dictionary definition, a hobbyist is someone who pursues something for fun or leisure. Yet, we can all think of someone whose hobby consumes their life. The job helps them make a living, but the hobby gives them a reason to get out of bed, or keeps them up late at night.

When I look at the definitions for artist, the verbs used to describe an artist is someone who is producing, practicing, working. There is a certain level of skill or knowledge implied in some of the definitions.

If I think about some of the presentations last week at the Synergy conference, being an artist is about achieving a certain level of workmanship, having a distinctive voice, and perhaps even wanting to tell a story with your work, or make some kind of a statement.

The problem I have with all of this, is I was calling myself an artist well before I reached any of those milestones. Was I wrong to call myself an artist? I certainly did not have the degree. I was not selling my work. My workmanship was not at a level I aspire to today.

Taking on the title of artist for myself, was an act of healing. An act of owning my passion and embracing it fully. It was the realization that someone does not confer the title "Artist" onto you like the Queen confers knighthood. No one taps you on the shoulder with a paintbrush. The title comes from inside. For me, owning the title was the renewal of a journey.

From the time I was a little girl, sitting on the front steps with my pad of paper and pencil drawing a picture, I have been an artist, whether I called myself that or not. Working and working to learn how to do a better job drawing a face, or a tree. I did it because I had to do it.

What about professional versus amateur? In general, whether it is in the arts, or any other area, professionals are paid, amateurs are not. Yet, look at the endorsements recieved by Olympic athletes, who are probably at the peak of their athletic performance. By the rules, they are amateurs, in spite of these endorsements and the paychecks that come along with that. No wonder we get confused by these terms.

For me, when I began to sell my work, I began to look at my work through another set of eyes. I began to ask, "Is this at a quality level that someone would pay for?" Eventually, I saw that having a voice or distinctive style, was something that benefited me in the marketplace. It created a signature to my work. In the production work, a deeper understanding of the material was gained. Time spent working with the clay led to more ideas for me, than sitting down to stare at the empty table, pondering what to make today.

I guess it is not so much about whether or not you are selling your work that makes one a professional. Maybe it is more about embracing the idea of trying to do the best work that you can. Looking with a critical eye at your own work, not to judge your adequacy or inadequacy as an artist, but instead, to see if you can do better. Perhaps it is aspiring to a level of excellence, versus accepting "good enough" as your standard.

My kids are very tall. There was no avoiding this given their genetic make-up. They are at an age where this fact gets pointed out to them regularly by their peers. It occurred to me the other day, as my younger daughter talked about people reacting to her height at a visit to a new school, that the observation is not about the how tall she is. It is about what height seems to represent. Taller equals older, more powerful, in control. Adults can be all those things when you are a kid, and adults are nearly always taller than kids.

When people point out to my daughter that she is taller, they are reacting perhaps to what that represents for them. Is this person older? Is she more powerful? No. Not by virtue of her height at least. But sometimes people have to process a subconscious reaction to her height by pointing it out. She knows she is tall. But the other person has to figure out what that means for them. This is where the need to comment comes from.

Perhaps the need to categorize someone as an artist or hobbyist is more about where we place ourself. It may be a way of saying we have crossed a line that we have established, and by categorizing others, we are trying to say where we fall on the spectrum between hobbyist and artist. Who do we consider to be our peers? But for some, artist may imply someone who takes themselves too seriously. For someone else, hobbyist maybe someone who doesn't take their art seriously enough. But, maybe they are both wrong. Maybe we are the only ones who can decide where we lie on the spectrum. And maybe, we can be both at various times.

I am not sure there is a clear cut way to use these words without potentially stepping on someone's toes. But perhaps thinking about our intent, and why we are using a word is a starting point. And on the receiving end, if it strikes you that someone has implied something with the use of these words that seems misplaced, ask them what they meant. They may not have an answer right off the bat. But at least the question might make them think about it a bit more deeply. Just like Libby made me think. BTW, Libby, I think you are an artist who just happens to not want to have a business selling your work.

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