Saturday, February 10, 2018

"I'm Kathy, and I am an artist"

Many times I've participated in discussions of how difficult it is to announce to the world -- and maybe even harder to announce to yourself -- that you are an artist.  I vividly remember the first time I said that to another person.  Strangely, it was probably five years after I had announced to myself that I wanted to make art.  I had become comfortable with that idea, and that wording, but the next step was still hard to take.

I announced that I was going to be an artist to a woman sitting next to me on an airplane, one week before I retired -- my last business trip.  She said something like "that's nice."  The world did not end because the word "artist" had crossed my lips.  This surprised and reassured me.  I soon tried it out again on somebody I knew.  Pretty soon I could say it without even stopping to think whether it was OK.

This memory was prompted by a blog post written by Alisa Golden, an excellent book artist who has recently decided to also make quilts.  She talks in this post about two qualities that enable people to describe themselves as artists (or writers, or calligraphers, or any other kind of non-credentialed but esteemed calling).  The qualities are proficiency and identity.

If you're not sufficiently proficient, compared to others whom you clearly regard as artists, then it should be difficult to call yourself an artist, and if you are, then you should be able to claim the name.  But proficient in whose eyes, Alisa asks.  In your own eyes? In those of others?  And which others count?  Your mom may have thought you were an artist since age four, but her opinion probably doesn't count as much as the opinion of an art professor.

Then comes identity -- whether you feel that you are a member of the group.  Clearly you have to feel like an artist before you can call yourself one.

I like Alisa's breakdown of the situation, and if you have struggled with this situation, or are struggling with it now, you might like to read her entire post.  But I am particularly intrigued with her last remark, "These days, I'm working on accepting a new term for myself: quilter."

Imagine me with a rueful smile as I think of Alisa, who easily calls herself an artist, trying hard to call herself a quilter.  By contrast, I easily called myself a quilter for decades, and then had to try hard to call myself an artist.  Not just that, but since then I have spent many years trying NOT to be called a quilter.

Perhaps it's because I live in a region where traditional quilts were part of the culture, and are still highly prized and widely made.  So many times, when I would say the Q word to describe my work, the response would be "Oh, my grandmother made quilts!!" and then I would have to explain that my quilts were not like those, that they belonged on the wall and not on the bed, that they were made by machine and not by hand, that they didn't use traditional patterns.

I'll make a Q quilt, but avoid the Q word

And within the wider world of art, I have often felt that quilters, unless they come from Gees Bend, are not regarded as "real artists." So for a long time I have most comfortably called myself a fiber artist, and tried to avoid the Q word altogether.  But even that seemed to have a faint aura of second-class citizenship within the wider world of art, so for the last few years I have pretty much dropped the word "fiber" too.

Alisa's right -- it all comes down to identity.  We all have our strange ways of feeling and expressing that, and one person's take can be quite the opposite of the next person's.  How do you describe yourself?  Was it hard to reach that point?  Has your chosen nomenclature changed over the years?


  1. I call myself a textile artist but find it hard to call my work room a studio. I have had it for 20 years or so and my daughter who is an artist calls it my studio. I was so delighted when she said the word. Irene from a lovely sunny Northern Ireland

  2. When I read that article, I too paused on that sentence. What does it take to call yourself a quilter, besides making a quilt? I call myself a quilter, because physically it makes more sense to people. I'm think I'm also an artist, but I let people figure that out for themselves, since it is more subjective. I don't need anyone doubting it.

  3. I have a memory that I will share here. I was pregnant with 3rd child, had just moved with family to small town a year previously. My husband and I started to go to a birth class - all the other couples sitting on floor in circle. The instructor asked us to introduce ourselves. "What do you do?" she said. I was first to answer. It was really really hard, but I said it out loud. "I am an artist" . Nervous giggles and looks from the rest of them, my own face red and hot. "No, no my dear" the instructor said. I asked you "When are you due?"

  4. I have been painting acrylics on canvas for 2.5 years, impressionistic and abstract works. Painting has made me feel legitimate when I say I am an artist. But when asked about my medium, I say that my primary, serious medium is fabric and quilting, and that I’m a beginner painter. Painting has gotten me over the hump about feeling authentic.

  5. I absolutely love reading your blog...I've never thought of myself as a deep thinker. It may be that I simply need someone else to express for me something to think about deeply.

  6. I am always a quilter and so proud to be part of this long tradition. Sometimes I am artist but mostly I am just very happy to be able to spend so much time in my studio doing what I love. I lately have been puzzled at the use of painting with fabric, I often make quilts for the wall but never think of them as being painted. Love the Q quilt. The identity thing is interesting.

  7. People sometimes insist I'm an artist. I don't think that's accurate. My grandfather was an artist in several mediums. I am an above average craftsperson. I *could* eventually become a textile artist, but that would require actually doing it on a regular basis an not getting lucky once in a while, or translating the work of others. Following directions and creating another's design does not an artist make.

  8. My conundrum is that my work is all about quilts and about elevating the concept of Quilt, and honoring the quilter, yet I am not a quilter... I am an artist... funny how we need labels.

  9. I have somehow recently become...something different from what I was. I make a variety of things that hang on the walls of my church. Large, small, fabric, paper---this has been going on for more than a year and it is a steep departure for me in many ways. I don't know what to call it, and I've struggled to express what it is, but it happens whether I stick a label on it. Since I have no need or desire to promote the work, it can go without (for now anyway).