(On Raising an Artist)
originally written & posted for Creative Pinellas, when I was honored as an Impact Returns/Emerging Artist Grant recipient, 2017; updated
Today, I find myself thinking about my kid. His name is Danny, and he is 16. In his short life, he has drawn, painted, sculpted, beaded, origamied, and written stories (he even wrote a 50k word novel last year!)—almost to an obsessional level. I know he can draw and I know he has natural talent, but I didn’t realize I was truly raising an artist until a number of years ago, when he turned to me during the Strawberry Fields scene in Across The Universe and said,” mom, what do the strawberries represent?”
Of course, I should have seen it much sooner. You’d never catch him dead with a coloring book, even as a small child. Color someone else’s drawings?? Not my kid. Or when he was six, and at a friend’s paint-your-own-pottery birthday party, he picked up a figurine like it was a dead rat and declared, “this is NOT real clay”.
On second thought, perhaps I’m raising an art snob.
When I was growing up, my mother would say to me, “It doesn’t matter if you want to be an artist or not. You just are. You have no choice.” I hated those words at the time. It sounded like obligation, and even as a kid I hated that concept. I didn’t like being told what to do or who to be. But as an adult (and mother myself), I better understand these words. If Danny wanted to torch his sketchbooks tomorrow and begin his life as a flag football player, I’d support his every stumble. But neither his nature nor his nurture can ever be removed from his blood—he is an artist. He has no choice. (Sorry, sweetheart.)
There are things I know to do, and things I struggle with when it comes to raising an artist.
Though I have nothing but respect for the artist who creates masterpieces on modest cardboard, or uses recycled materials, I’m the kind of artist who is made giddy by oodles of glorious bright and shiny art supplies. What is better than going to the art store and coming home with bags of new brushes, pencils, pristine erasers, blades, canvases, whathaveyou? For me, it can’t be beat, and I see that same lightbulb in Danny’s eyes every time we’re at the art store. And so I load him up (finances permitting) as often as possible, with the best supplies available.
I talk to Danny about my theories of life. I want him to look beyond what he sees. I want him to think about why people do what they do. I want him to understand that he doesn’t have to agree with the world. Or fit in. I’ve always talked to him about adult ideas, things most people would think are beyond the grasp of a child. But that’s because I’m not raising a child—I’m raising an adult. And I want him to be the most diverse and independent and fascinating adult possible. I want him to dismiss the idea of beauty, not only because it’s subjective and sets us all up for failure at the whims of the masses, but because beauty is dull. It’s boring and overdone. If every artist is striving to create the same “beautiful” thing, no one is creating anything truly interesting.
I try to introduce Danny to every medium I have access to. Every medium trains your brain to see the same subject matter in a completely unique way. I’m a better writer after I’ve painted or sculpted, and vice versa. It’s truly shocking to work in your chosen medium, and watch yourself improve because your brain has tapped into the expertise of another. But it’s hard to convince a kid. He likes watercolor, so why should he do anything at all with that lump of clay I just plopped in his hand? Some things are a work in progress…
If there is one thing I’m eternally grateful for in my journey as an author and artist, it’s (drumroll….) my day job. Yep. I feel as though I’ve tapped into a universal honesty that most creatives ignore. You’re never going to pay your bills with your art. Yes, yes, I know there are exceptions. Of course there are authors and artists out there who do nothing but toil away in their studios and make oodles of dough (I don’t personally know any, but I’m sure a friend of a neighbor’s cousin knows one). But let’s be honest, it’s not a likely outcome. When I was growing up, I was taught that because I was a good artist, I was going to “make it”. I was going to be rich and famous. This was the single-most misleading and damaging thing I’ve ever been told.
But having a day job does not mean waiting tables or working at The Gap (unless you’re into that). I love photography. And so I’ve spent the last couple years of my life building a successful freelance photography business. I love what I do every day. And because I’ve put effort into creating a day job I love, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life as a broke, starving, tormented artist. And this is a lesson I talk about every day with my kid. He sees me trot off with my equipment, he sees me editing the photos from my home office, and then he sees me pecking away on my next novel, or building my art portfolio. We talk frequently about the need for balance in all areas of life, and for an artist, this is the most important balance of all. He wants to be a special education teacher when he grows up. And an artist too, he says. But he says “artist” like it’s an afterthought. An extra. A bonus. And I couldn’t be happier about that. That’s what art should be. If art isn’t your job, it will always be fun. If art isn’t your job, it will never let you down, or fail, or cause you frustration. May art never carry the burden of success. May art always be an afterthought. May art always be fun.