Work in Progress

I’ve been thinking about being an “artist.” It took me a great deal of time to accept that title for myself. I always knew that I was creative. From a young age I was interested in arts & crafts: knitting, crochet, modeling clay, painting, drawing, paper mache, needlepoint, cross stitch, etc.  When I was in my 40’s, I had great debates with my Aunt who insisted I was an artist and I would insist I was not, but I wanted to be.

I’m confident now and it’s mainly because I found my artistic voice. There’s a medium (textiles) that I prefer to work in and my subject matter is well defined in my brain. My artwork is original and not copied from someone else’s vision (or style). I’m never lacking an idea for a new piece and the subject always is nature inspired. I still dabble in other things, but they are solely for me. For example, I’m working on a quilt to commemorate my grandmother’s journey to the US via Ellis Island. I always have at least 2 knitting projects to work on. And, I like this new slow stitching, because it (along with knitting) settles me when I’m sitting.  But these things aren’t my art.

As I’ve traveled this journey, I’ve struggled with the title “artist.” It reflected in me through imposter syndrome: “How dare you call myself an artist? You’re working in textiles and that’s CRAFT!” Through the journey, I realized that this is not something I’ve made up in my own head. It’s things that I’ve heard and used to judge myself. Studying art, I realize there isn’t one definition (although some insist that there is).

One perceived distinction is the comparison of professional artists vs non-professionals. I’ve heard some people argue that artwork should be viewed (judged/juried) differently between professional and non-professional artists. Well, what is a professional artist? If I sell one piece during the course of my life does that make me a professional? If I quit selling my art, does that remove the title “professional” from my classification? Does it mean someone who chooses to never sell their work can never have the talent of a professional or show in professional categories?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and realized the term “professional” to describe artists really bothers me. It is part of what fueled my imposter syndrome and self-doubts. I hear a level of arrogance in the term when people demand to be segregated because they are “professionals.” Wouldn’t a ranking by mastery be a better judge of skill (novice, competent, experienced and master/expert)? I still have some growing and refining I want to achieve  with my art. So, until the rest of the world catches up to my thinking, I’m going to refer to myself as a “working” artist who is highly experienced. I am a work in progress.

15 comments

  1. Marilyn P Waite says:

    Thank you Nanette. Started to respond but there is no quick response and not enough time right now. Hope to soon!

  2. Portia Nrown says:

    I like the term “working artist” as it speaks directly to the core characteristic of problem solving and is not inherently comparative in the way the term “Professional” is. I also like the reflection on being in process; such a key element of nature.

  3. Michelle Sirois Silver says:

    I’m trying to remember the first time I saw someone using the phrase ‘professional artist’ – I use that term on my tax forms and custom declaration forms. But I like the term ‘working artist’ – it sums up what we do. Thank you for sharing your journey.

    • Nanette Zeller says:

      I’ve heard “professional” artist recently where people where trying to segregate themselves from hobbyists. If someone works in the trades, they’re classified by experience level. In art, I’ve seen it classified by “professional” levels. It’s always perplexed me. Thanks for your insight!

  4. Lela McKee Friel says:

    I am on the verge of tears reading your share. Your words and questions really resonate with me. I have been on both sides of selling my work and not, currently not selling, and I still struggle with asking my self “am I really legit?” I am a textile artist which took me a long time to even tell people that much. If I said I am a quilter they would look at me sideways and say what does that mean? you quilt quilts? Thank You for sharing your thoughts on this subject. I love “The Work In Progress!” I will take that with me today as I enter my studio.

    • Nanette Zeller says:

      Lela, I completely understand your emotions. I have traveled this journey with you. I hope my writing gave you a feeling of courage. Thank you!

  5. Linda G says:

    Great thoughts! Those darn adjectives…if we declare ourselves as artists, folks always seem to want to know “what kind?” Answering with a title of “novice” through “professional” describes, as you say, a level of mastery, and that would be a good retort, and I like the terms “experienced” and “working” as well….so which to choose? I often feel I need to instead use my medium as a descriptor, but that often backfires as well. I finally got comfortable calling myself a Textile Artist (because I make art quilts, do surface design, mixed media on fabric, slow stitching and more) but sure enough, the last time I said that to someone, they replied “Oh, you’re a weaver!” Gah!!! I can’t win!!!

    • Nanette Zeller says:

      I can definitely relate. I started calling myself a “mixed-media textile artist,” because I’m just like you in the variety of approaches. Textiles of all sorts are my base. I usually get dialog with this approach versus some misunderstood assumption about what they think I do. If I say artist, I get “what do you paint?” To explain more, I’ll even say “I paint with fabric.”

  6. Anita Centeno says:

    Nanette, I think whatever adjective you want to use for the occasion is most appropriate. Observing the quality of your work as well as everything you’ve accomplished to this point makes you more than qualified for whatever term you choose to use. Your artwork is beautiful, your website is great, your blog is so relatable on so many points, you teach classes and lecture, you have solo-exhibitions of your work. All of these things are evidence of how invested you are in your career as an artist and the very professional well-thought out way you have been able to navigate your path. You should be most proud of all of this – your hard work shows! Continue your journey and don’t get too caught up on the definitions, you can always take ‘artistic’ license with that too!
    Your friend,
    Anita

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