Wednesday, August 8, 2007

"I Am An Artist" - Gwendolyn A. Magee

The following was originally printed as a commentary piece for the April 2005 issue of Artist Quarterly, the Alabama, Arkansas & Mississippi Regional e-mail newsletter of SAQA
(Studio Art Quilt Associates)
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“I am an artist” – four little words, each fairly insignificant by itself, but so extremely affirming when strung together. Four little words, “I am an artist”, powerful beyond parallel – when believed.
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How do you present yourself to others? Do you speak with assurance about yourself as an artist? Do you converse with confidence, with passion, and with enthusiasm when talking about your art? Or are you tentative in your response when someone asks about you and/or your work? If so, they in turn will certainly be tentative about whether to consider you as a “real” artist, as well as tentative about whether to consider your work as art. This in turn will affect the extent to which they have interest in purchasing or exhibiting your work, as well as their perception of its appropriate monetary value (i.e. how much they think your art is worth and how much they’re willing to pay for it – keeping in mind that these are two different considerations).
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TAKING CONTROL
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Talking About Your Work to Others – Informing / Raising the Level of Consciousness
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When asked about my profession, my usual answer is simply, “I am an artist.” This is stated forthrightly, directly, and with looking the person in the eye. And that is where I usually stop – with a period at the end of the sentence.
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My thinking is that this does two things: 1) this simple statement is affirming and provides me with the clarity (not to mention the backbone) to talk about and/or promote myself and my work with assurance and confidence; and 2) it communicates clearly and unequivocally to the other person(s) my expectations in terms of dialogue – i.e., it “sets the tone”, helping to dismiss any notion that what I create is basically what their Aunt Matilda use to make. I think making this distinction is very important whether you are devoting yourself to your art fulltime or as an avocation (which, by the way, is definitely not the same as “hobby”).
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Usually there is a follow-up question similar to “…what is the medium in/with which you work?” My response is fiber, fabric, textiles and thread; that I am a fiber (or textile) artist. That is usually enough. If questioned further or if the person says something to the effect – “do you make quilts?” My response is that the art form through which my work finds expression is based on what is traditionally thought of as a quilt, but that what I create is not even vaguely similar to a bedcover.
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I have taken ownership of how I and my art are to be perceived, communicating this in how I talk about my work and in letting others know clearly the expectations about how it and I are to be regarded and related to. Nonetheless, I don’t take this to the extreme. When, for example, someone introduces me as a quilter, I don’t get my hackles raised and snootily state that “I’m an artiste”. I make judgment calls and at times decide it’s neither appropriate nor worth the effort to make an issue out of it. However, I did rip the tonsils out of a person that once referred to my work as “blankets” (he was deliberately trying to “put me in my place”, but you can be assured he will never make that particular mistake again).
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You alone have to decide how important this distinction is to you as well as to what and how are the best ways to describe and/or present yourself and your work. In any case as stated earlier, if you wish to be treated and taken seriously as an artist, you cannot be tentative or hesitant about how you view your own self. If you are not sure that you deserve to be called an artist, it will be very difficult to convince anyone else that you are.
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Periodically on discussion lists there are a lot of postings related to “…how do you describe yourself…” Once again, it is purely up to you as an individual regarding the terminology with which you are most comfortable. To some extent this also will depend on who your audience happens to be at the moment. Certainly describing your work as quilts is very useful in that people can grasp immediately a general concept and/or understanding about what it is that you create. It also is useful because people relate to quilts very positively, often with fond memories of the quilts their grandmothers made.
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On the other hand, without actually seeing your work it also usually poses difficulty for the non-initiated to make the conceptual leap to anything beyond “bedcover”. And this is what is so problematic. This is this factor that immediately drops what you do four, five or six notches down their continuum of respect, and subsequently how much (translation – “how little”) your work is perceived to be worth monetarily.
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It is sad that this has to be an issue at all, but the reality is that our particular art form is not ordinarily accorded the classification of being “fine art” – an invidious distinction is often made. Beyond the art versus craft pigeonholing, I am totally convinced that in large measure this is due to anything related to needlework traditionally being considered “women’s work” in our culture and society. This particular gender bias suggests implicitly that quilting is primarily “busy work”, isn’t serious, and therefore is much less significant than any of those “more worthy” avocations usually associated with the producers of a high level of testosterone; sculpture or golf for example.
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You sometimes therefore have to demand respect for yourself as an artist by not letting others denigrate your work or define your reality. Depending on the extent to which this is an issue for you at all (there are those for whom it may be irrelevant), if someone introduces you as a quilter, you have the option of gently correcting them – but it has to be immediate – by simply speaking up with a smile and saying, “I am an artist – my work presents itself in the format of what is usually thought of as a quilt”. Remember – it is up to you to be the ever vigilant guardian of the respect that is due to you as an artist, and with which you should expect to be accorded.
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If desired, you can easily continue the conversation by saying something to the effect that, “…quilting is the tradition from which the type of art that I create began. Think of me as someone who uses textiles and threads as paint, who creates brush strokes using a sewing machine, who can manipulate the materials with which I work into sculptural configurations or into highly textural surfaces that suspend from the ceiling or hang on walls.” The critical key is to always and frequently refer to your work as art throughout the conversation – you must keep that concept on the table and in the forefront of any discussion you are having whether it is with others, or only with yourself.
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Bottom line: Do not allow anyone to take liberties with how you
or with how your work is defined.
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For a different point of view read David Lance Goines’ article: http://www.goines.net/Writing/what_is_artist.html

4 comments:

Sonji Hunt said...

Yes yes yes, Gwen. Everyday we have to LIVE IT. As always, I appreciate your words of wisdom. Very well said.

Gwen Magee (Gwendolyn Magee) said...

Yes Sonji, "Live it" and always believe in yourself and your work!

Sue B said...

Beautifully said, thanks for posting it.

fudgebudge1 said...

i like it