Last year, I was at the book launch event for my business book for artists, Art Inc. I was signing books, one by one, and chatting with each person who came to the table. Two young women approached, with big, eager smiles on their faces.
“I am so excited about this book!” one of them exclaimed.
“Oh, thank you!” I replied.
And then I said, assuming if she was excited about my book it must be the true: “You are an artist!”
The young woman paused with clear hesitation. “Well, I do some graphic design…and I paint in watercolors, but…”
“So you’re an artist!” I replied matter-of-factly.
“Um, I guess so?” she said, her cheeks turning red.
I have long pondered why it is so hard for artists — especially women — to own their status in the world. It took me years to identify confidently as an artist. Why are we so hesitant – at least until we’ve graduated from school or until we feel we’ve “made it” or until we’ve hit some crazy apex in our careers — to proclaim, “I am an artist”?
Just the other evening I was with a group of women who I see regularly (all of us are established artists who make our full time living from our art). We get together monthly to draw and enjoy each others’ company. I brought with me to the get-together a new tote bag I’m selling in my shop and a few new notebooks to pass out to the women. These new products of mine are emblazoned with one of my favorite phrases: I AM AN ARTIST. I set the notebooks down on the table, and one of the women excitedly grabbed one. She looked it over and proclaimed, “I need this notebook! I sometimes have a hard time saying this out loud. This will be a good reminder.” For a moment, I was dumbfounded. This woman has made her living from her creative talents for her entire adult life. And then I realized that I would have said the same thing myself just a few short years ago.
I hear constantly from readers and followers and friends that, like I once did, they struggle with identifying confidently as artists. Some have no trouble calling themselves artists, but they have real doubts that they can ever make a profitable & sustainable living from their work. Some fear deep down that they don’t deserve success because they’re self taught or didn’t get started until later in life. Others believe they can’t claim their identity as an artist until they start making money from their work. And most just fear their work isn’t good enough.
For time immemorial society has seen artists as a different breed. We are “moody” and “temperamental”. We “starve” to follow our passions. If we are at all concerned with making money or if we do make money from our work – especially through commercial work – it must mean our intentions as artists are somehow corrupted or that we are not “real” artists. From all of this has grown the starving artist myth.
And, furthermore, most of us have been taught – either directly or indirectly – that if what we create brings us any reward at all (financial reward, a decent income, recognition, even industry awards) that this reward is fleeting. This notion that our endeavors as artists are built on a foundation of scarcity (which is no foundation at all) has permeated our society and our psyches.
Even some of us who do make a living from our art believe in some small way (or many of us in some big way) that at any moment it could all go poof! and disappear, that the people who pay for it today could go away tomorrow and pay for someone else’s work instead. And that is, in part, of course, because art is subjective. Our careers and our future careers as artists are based on whether people like our work, whether it becomes a commodity others want to own or pay us to create. We are always reminding ourselves that we could tomorrow starve, so we better be grateful for what we have today and hustle for what we want to achieve tomorrow.
Many of us spend a lot of time feeling like we are lucky at best and that if we are making money from our work we might not even deserve it. Even artists who have been at this for years and years (like the friend I mentioned earlier) may feel like “impostors” in this world, that at any moment they will be “found out” and exposed for not really being talented or legitimate.
This sense of impermanence, of treading lightly, of not knowing whether my future was secure, even after my work was in demand, has been a big part of my story. And I have come to learn from talking to scores of other artists that this an incredibly common story.
It has been 15 years since I first picked up a paintbrush. I spent much of that time feeling like an impostor. I didn’t study art or illustration formally in school. I did not follow traditional pathways to get where I am. A good part of what I do most days I taught myself how to do. I don’t even know most of the time if there is better or easier or more “right” way to do what I do.
And for that reason, I used to spend a lot of time feeling inferior; like for some reason I did not deserve the success I was experiencing. And worse than that: that’s what I feared others might think about me too.
But at some point, I decided, this is bullshit.
And that’s because I realized that these kinds of limiting beliefs and fears are damaging. They keep us feeling small and from expressing ourselves fully or living our best lives. While they feel real, they are just perceptions that we adopt from a culture that believes artists must struggle or that being a “real” artist is reserved for some chosen elite. These beliefs can also come from years of negative messages from people in our sphere of influence.
And so the next part of my story became my internal fight to think in broader, more confident terms about who I am as an artist and what I can accomplish — not just in the near future — but over my lifetime.
I began spending a lot of time reminding myself that regardless of whether this has all been luck or whether I have any talent isn’t what matters. Who cares about that? What matters is that I am happy getting up every day to paint and draw. What matters is that I make my best effort every day to be myself in my life and work. What matters is that I work really hard at my career. What matters is that I am thoughtful about the work I want to make and the people I want to work with. What matters is that once it started, making art for a living hasn’t failed me.
I have also come to own & embrace all of my experience, including my unconventional (and late blooming) path, including feeling like an impost0r, including my mistakes, including all of the less attractive parts of my story. Because all of those things, in addition to my hard work & my successes, have helped to make me who I am.
I am an artist.
If you can relate to any of what I’ve written here, you might be interested in my upcoming three-day eCourse, aptly called I AM AN ARTIST. Part of the course is designed to help identify and reframe negative or limiting beliefs that may be holding you back from your artistic dreams and goals. We’ll also delve into finding, honing & expressing your voice so that you can begin to more easily build an audience for your work. And we’ll cover key art-business building blocks — things like goal setting, workflow, task organization, email & social media strategy and seizing new opportunities. You can learn more about & register for the course here. Or join me this Friday 11/20 for a LIVE Q&A about the course! I am going to be doing a live broadcast on Periscope 12:00 NOON PST. Your questions about the course answered! Send your questions in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll include them in the live Periscope chat! (You must download Periscope on the App Store & follow @lisacongdon to watch live broadcast). Can’t participate in Periscope? Email me with your questions about the course at email@example.com.