Lately I have been pondering the question “what does it mean to be an artist?” I started taking art classes since I could remember. When adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always answer with pride “I want to become a painter”. My favorite art teacher considered me one of those very “gifted” children who were supposed to pursue the artists’ path and go to art school. However, reality hit hard; assignments and exams took over my life. I couldn’t go to art classes anymore and stopped drawing altogether. It almost felt like that part of me never even existed.
It was not until the second year in college when I started drawing again. I remember vividly that it was after watching La Belle Noiseuse, a movie about a painter who is fascinated by the female form. All of the sudden I was feeling inspired and started drawing with a black ink pen and it was a such a beautiful experience. Then I drew a portrait of my roommate according to one of her Facebook profile pictures. Without any charcoal drawing training, I surprised even myself by how good it turned out and the amount of compliments it received. From then on, I would draw and paint in my spare time; for me it was mostly just an artistic outlet and meditative process.
After graduating and traveling around the world, I returned home for a while and began oil painting at an art atelier with my mom who always believed in my artistic talents. I enjoyed it very much but at certain point it got frustrating because I could be a painful perfectionist and expect everything to be exact and take long periods of time to finish one painting. For my mother, it would only take maybe a few days because she was so much more care-free and less self-critical. She would often tell me that the reason for the schism was that I was not yet confident enough to completely express myself creatively despite my superior artistic skills. I did not agree with her then, thinking that I simply set higher standards for myself. However, now when I look back, I agree with her, being an artist is all about self-expression.
To be more free in self-expression, first of all, we have to be more in touch with our inner life and be genuine with our true emotions. It is about reinterpreting our experiences and transform our perceptions, thoughts, and emotions into something more tangible that can communicate with others or just yourself. In present society, we are so used to putting on masks and usually end up creating things that cater more to the taste of others or for commercial reasons. A music blogger Bob Lefsetz, once wrote about what it means to be an artist.
“It means to lay your soul down. Your truth. The fame is ancillary. If the success comes first, then you’re an empty vessel. It’s kind of like love. Would you like to get all your sex at a brothel? Sex without love isn’t as good as masturbation. Because what makes sex so good is the connection between the two people who are doing it. What made the records of yore so good was the connection between the creator and the listener.
Oh, don’t tell me you’re into this artist or that. It’s kind of like the movie business. We’ve seen it all. It’s just endless remakes. Endless riffs on what’s come before. But what if an artist went off on his own path, only following his own muse, desirous of connecting but unwilling to compromise. Then you’d have Stevie Wonder.”
Art is love, passion, life. Art is paradoxical, irrational and full of contradictions. Being an artist is allowing yourself to be vulnerable and completely open before engaging in the practice of contemplation and creation. It can be a daunting experience but only in this way can you create something you are passionate about and call yourself “an artist”.