An Artist’s Questions

Whenever I get asked the question about my profession, I get to tell people that I am an artist. The reaction is always positive followed by either stories about a family member who also paints, questions about the exact nature of my work, and/or self-deprecating comments about their own lack of creativity. That is usually accompanied by “I don’t know how you do it! How are you so creative? You are living the dream!”

Until recently I thought that people were either just trying to be nice or their standards for life were too low. I had a very stern, pessimistic, fatalistic, and somewhat whiny voice inside my head monologuing… "After all, do they know what it actually takes to be an artist? Do they know what it feels like to sit in the studio, staring into space for hours not knowing what to do? And when you actually start doing, there is harsh inner criticism and doubt that won’t leave you alone. And the whole process feels like cruel and unusual punishment. And then there is this thing called an exhibition opening where people look at what you have been doing and saying many nice things, or not saying anything, but for the most part congratulating on the accomplishment of something important, something worthwhile. And all you want to do is get it over with so that you can return to this really important activity called “being an artist.” My inner cynicism, criticism, and complaining about the difficulty of being an artist were endless.

But eventually, I stumbled upon questions that disrupted this whole whining cycle and put the soundtrack on pause. Why? Why continue? Why make art? Why spend hours in the studio? Why have exhibitions? If this is not fun, if the process is not enjoyable, why continue to work? These questions have occupied my mind for the past several years, even as I continued to make work, to have shows, to teach. The questions remained unanswered as I went through various possible solutions to my inner crisis. The accolades, recognition, and sales were promising goals but upon achieving them I still returned to that hollowness inside. I was still lost, I felt like my life lacked a trajectory. I could do any number of things, and do them well, and get paid well, but somehow I wasn’t getting the fulfillment I sought. Something was missing.

At this point you might expect me to tell you that I eventually realized the answer and figured out the higher purpose of being an artist and now my life has meaning. That’s what I was expecting anyway. I really thought that I would eventually figure it out.

But…. instead of finding the answers I realized that all along I had been asking the wrong questions! I have been asking the least important questions! The main questions are not the “whys” but the “whats."

What is creativity?

This, I feel, is the most important question for all those who are interested in creatively expressing themselves… meaning everyone. What is the definition of a creative person or an artist? What is the creative process? What is creative “work”? This line of questioning made me realize that the only person who can and has the pleasure of answering is oneself. This is equally thrilling as it is terrifying. It means both that I can define for myself what it means to be an artist and choose to enjoy my experience as well as that I actually have to do it. I can’t play victim, I can’t indulge in complaining, I actually have to create something. So over the next few weeks I will attempt to address these “what” questions with the intention of changing the broken record in my mind and hopefully engage in a discussion with others of you who are exploring similar themes. Perhaps you would like to offer your perspective on the subject?