This post first appeared on my previous blog on August 19, 2013, but its message is still applicable and I wanted to share it in this new home. Hope you enjoy.
A few months ago I took a trip to Fargo, ND, to meet up with a group of friends and strangers, of artists and troublemakers, and to listen to the experiences of some pretty inspiring people. It was a deliberately small event called Misfit Conf, and the idea was to unite a diverse group of people under one purpose – living a life of intention and purpose. While I was there, more than a few profound things happened to me, but ironically it was one small question that seems to have had the most lasting impact.
It was our first day in Fargo, and I found myself sitting a few rows back from the “stage” – a solid black platform that rose a foot off the ground with a beautifully ornate rug resting on top. It had been a morning full of fantastic speakers, and I was gathering my thoughts while most of the other attendees were mingling in the front room, refilling their water jars and coffee mugs. I sat cross-legged on a refurbished church pew, balancing my small notebook on my leg and retracing some of the notes I had taken. As I always do with a fresh notebook in hand, when the conference began, I felt compelled to make my notes “pretty” and so I had some doodles and font treatments haphazardly but deliberately drawn on my open page. A woman passing by must have taken a glance down at my notebook because she looked at me, and with wide eyes she said, “Oh, are you an artist?”
Am I an artist?
Guys, it sounds so stupid, I know, but I swear it was like the question came out in slow motion. Something in my head wouldn’t allow me to say yes. If I said yes, it felt as though I was somehow declaring to the world Look at me! Look at me! I have talent! It felt arrogant, which made me really uncomfortable, but beyond that, it felt like I was a fake.
I guess I just have this perception that to be considered “an artist,” you have to have some sort of formal training. My formal training? Well, aside from a semester in 8th grade and a Friday morning sketchbook class in college (with spotty attendance nonetheless), I’ve never taken any real art classes. I certainly don’t have a degree in fine arts. In fact, while majoring in advertising, I was discouraged by an advisor to pursue a career as an art director because I had ZERO design skills at the time. Every single thing I know about figure drawing or Photoshop or basic design principles I’ve learned by simply doing. By doodling. By playing with markers. By volunteering to paint giant banners that hung outside my college sorority house. By designing business cards for friends when I didn’t know how. By taking things that I find beautiful and trying to recreate them in my own way.
So what did I say to the woman? Funny enough, I can’t remember my reply exactly, but I’m sure it was some self-deprecating remark about how I was ‘just messing around.’ What I do remember exactly was the sinking feeling that was in my stomach after she politely complimented my work and walked away. It was a mixture of pride and guilt and frustration at myself for not simply being able to say, “Yes, I am an artist,” and thank you in response to her acknowledgement.
I’ve had months to think about that exchange. What I’ve determined is that there is no universal measure of what an artist is. Or a writer, or a designer, or so on. To be an artist is simply to create art. To be a writer is to write. To be a designer is to design. I’ve been furiously creating art since I could pick up a crayon. I’ve been writing since I could put words into sentences. I’ve been designing things since I graduated college and taught myself Photoshop in defiance of that college advisor that told me what I could and couldn’t be.
And last Tuesday, three days before my 25th birthday, I finally launched my portfolio website, announcing to the world that I am a designer and an artist. Because I am, in fact, those things. And even if it feels a little self-aggrandizing sometimes, I will continue to try and hush the voices in my head that say “You’re not good enough… you couldn’t possibly…” and replace them with the voices of friends and family that insist “you ARE good enough… you CAN possibly.”
Never forget: You are what exactly what you decide to be.
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