An Artist and Poet's Identity: What's Alike, What's
Photo Credit: Jennie
"If I meet someone I don't know
they ask me what I do, I say I'm a painter,
and if they ask what kind of a painter, I say
an abstract painter. It's a way to get out of
saying anything else. Or I just say I'm a modern
artist. But I don't know what kind of artist
Jasper Johns, "The mind's eye-the merciless
originality of Jasper Johns" The New
Years ago, when it was my turn in line at the Department of
Revenue, I stepped up and said, "I am applying for a tax-free
number." The clerk asked my occupation, and I gave the
same answer as Jasper Johns: "Painter." Maybe it was
because of the way I was dressed, but he said, "House?"
So much for his even wondering what kind of paintings I made.
Jasper Johns says that he doesn't know what kind of painter
he is, but there is no question that he knows he is an artist,
and a living legend at that.
What gives people the right to call themselves artists or writers?
And if they do both, what are some similarities and differences
between identities, other than making them curiosities? The
knee-jerk response is that both possess discreet skills that
must to be practiced to the point of frustration and be fed
by talent and inspiration. However, that could be said of any
vocation requiring dedication and passion.
I believe that I have been an artist and a writer since I was
born. One Christmas before I had even started school, I asked
my parents, a.k.a. "Santa," for a typewriter and was
insulted when I saw that it was a toy, and not the real thing.
I was already taking myself seriously. My passion for art oozed
from my pores since childhood, and almost ten years ago, I returned
to art making for the first time since high school.
What similarities are there between the identities of artist
Except for the very few, most of us toil in obscurity. We
continue to work at it because we
choose not to do anything else with our time.
One of the saddest conversations I overheard was between
two artists who hadn't seen each other for awhile. When
one asked what the other was painting, his answer was: "I
haven't painted in a couple of years. I realized I wasn't
getting any better at it." I wanted to grab him and
say, "Define 'better'!" or "How are you going
to get any better if you don't keep practicing?" and
"Don't give up, mister!" I kept silent for the
sake of my friend, who quickly changed the subject.
Even though it is a constant struggle to have people recognize
us as artists and poets, we stubbornly continue to look for
spoken word venues or journals to publish our poems and exhibitions
to show our artwork. We don't give up. Every time a sale is
made, a brief moment of elation will be eventually followed
by your tax return and the question, "What have I sold
so far this year?" When a poem is accepted, happiness
and a rare small check or two copies of the journal will be
your payment. One reason I keep updating my résumé
is that it reflects my identity, as well as records which
end products have made it to the outside world. What about
the hundreds of poems and paintings that will never be seen
by anyone? They are the well I keep filling and drinking from;
they hold the failures that end up making a future poem or
When I tell people that I am a visual artist and poet,
many of them say "I can't draw a straight line"
or "I never understood poetry in school." American
education has failed when people are unable or too inexperienced
to connect to art and poetry. Then comes the question: "You
can't really make a living doing that, can you?" which
automatically devalues what I do. And if I end up feeling
bad, it means that I have just handed over my identity to
someone else (see "taking yourself seriously").
Now to shift to two differences between being an artist and a
Money: The cost involved in making art has turned out to
be a major difference. I am not talking about taking classes
or buying books, although both are necessary for my growth
as an artist or poet. (Come to think of it, that's a similarity,
isn't it?) When my husband suggested that I take a painting
class at the Worcester Art Museum, I knew from experience
where all kinds of money would be going: materials, materials,
materials (Judy's Journal September 2006). And that was just
the beginning. The back hall skylights were a wonderful light
source but the space was limited, so I made the decision to
take my life's savings to build a studio on the back of the
house. When eyebrows arch at the price of my paintings, I
know the potential buyer has no idea what it took to make
it. While the investment in making paintings is huge, it is
a necessary part of being an artist, so we (and/or our patrons)
dig in and spend. Call it an earned identity. The difference
with writing poetry is that the cost is less in terms of dollars,
if not in blood, sweat and tears. Unless you consider the
computer I sit in front of to write this or the postage to
mail work to publishers, writing is less expensive. And for
those who support my work by buying it, so is the cost of
my book or journals that carry my poetry.
Time: I write all the time. When I am in the car and see
something, I can write about it. When I am reading and connect
to an idea, I go to my notebook and start to write about
it. I write anywhere and anytime, and eventually end up
at the computer for hours making a poem, which is the end
product of something that haunts me and won't let go. You
could say that I spend more time on writing than I do in
the studio, the place where I have to be to make art. There
is a similarity in the collecting phase of making art and
poetry. I may see a building that will emerge in a future
painting. So, I am constantly absorbing images and colors.
Making a painting is very different from making a poem:
I need to be in the studio to see what is going to happen
and be face to face with the mystery. No balance of time
exists between writing and art. At the end of some months,
I will have spent more time painting than writing or vice
versa. I get asked the question, "How do you decide
which you will do on a given day?" My decision is based
on need. I know when I need to work on a poem: it has reached
a critical mass and will not be ignored. I know when I need
to get a canvas, decide my medium and begin to arrange my
paints. The need is in my gut, and I just know when it is
time. A writer writes. A painter paints. We take time. We
make time. My happiest days are when I do both writing and
painting. How greedy I am.
One of the problems with taking on the writing task of exploring
the similarities and differences between making poetry and art
is that there is so much to be said, and this journal was just
the beginning of the exploration. What do you think? What are
your experiences? Contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next month, I will continue to dip into the questions from
April 2007 and see what comes up.