Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas




May 2007

"If I meet someone I don't know…and 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 I am…"
Jasper Johns, "The mind's eye-the merciless originality of Jasper Johns" The New Yorker, 12/11/06


An Artist and Poet's Identity: What's Alike, What's Different?

Dear Reader,

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 and poet?
    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 painting successful.

  • 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 poet:

  • 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:

Next month, I will continue to dip into the questions from April 2007 and see what comes up.