Last night I faced the question I mostly dread these days. Sitting around the table at a fancy event with well-meaning, newly-met acquaintances, they asked innocently: “So what do you do?”
I felt that moment of uncertainty, tinged with panic. A simple question, expressed with genuine interest. In America, we commonly inquire about a person’s job as a starting point for conversation. But these days the answer feels so complicated.
I could simply and honestly say that I care for four children. That, in and of itself, usually satisfies people. Even without mentioning that two have special needs, chasing four kids around is recognized by most as a time-consuming and worthy pursuit. But, I also find that the conversation usually dead-ends at this point, as if people can’t quite think of follow-up questions for how a mother of four actually fills her time.
I could mention what I used to do as Director of Orphan Care for Hope’s Promise, up until a year ago, and explain that I left because I needed to re-allocate energy to my kids. This response usually leads to a good discussion about global issues I still care about passionately. But in a way it feels less than true, since the zeal fills my heart but no longer determines my day-to-day tasks.
Last night was a first for me. I managed to choke out (literally stumbling over this simple phrase), after mentioning our four kids, that I “do art.” It felt very vulnerable. Because of course the follow-up question is always, “Oh, where do you show/sell your work?”
I could mention this blog. Connecting with you and exchanging ideas with you across the globe is richly rewarding to me. But, my goal in blogging is not to generate income. And, what it boils down to, really, is that selling art is society’s general measure of worth, of whether one is truly “working” as an artist.
I could mention Pamba Toto, a creative outlet that brings more joy to me than my heart can hold. But since I don’t actually earn personal income (my dear friend Debbie and I created the business to generate funds for Sanctuary of Hope homes for orphans in Kenya), it isn’t truly a job by our culture’s standards.
What I struggle to mention in response to this question is the persistent whisper of a dear friend of mine. “You are an artist,” she has been saying since we became close as teenagers. Through the years, I’ve told her all the reasons I’m afraid I’m not. At the same time, I stumble into frustration and depression when I don’t create. Through it all, she patiently asserts the same words yet again, “You are an artist.” Part of leaving my job last year was ultimately an attempt to believe her, even as I felt utterly terrified. As long as I didn’t really try, not succeeding as an artist would not be my fault. But if I truly listened to her and tried to live as if I am an artist, and failed, then would I cease to be an artist?
I admit that having the courage to even say “I do art” last night originated at least in part in outward validation.
I’ve showed my work since I was a kid and even earned a degree in fine arts. I’ve created pieces fairly regularly since then and sold a few originals and fine art giclee prints along the way. But it’s only been in the last year that I’ve produced work almost daily and immersed myself in the creative process (amidst taking care of those four kids!). Several months ago, I planned to submit three pieces to the Colorado Springs Art Guild (CSAG) Spring Show.
I mailed in my entry form ahead of time and framed the work. Then I almost didn’t enter at the last minute when we realized we needed to leave town before the artwork drop-off time for my son’s baseball tournament in Steamboat Springs. My dear husband, who has never failed to concur with my friend, took charge and coordinated with my mom, my first and one of my biggest champions (along with my Dad), to deliver them. I knew the pieces made it into the show since no one called her to retrieve rejected pieces later that day. I missed Opening Night since we were still at the tournament, but I felt thankful simply for the opportunity to share the images with viewers.
A couple days after the show opened, with my son’s baseball team knocked out of the tournament, we quickly shed our disappointment and reveled in the beauty of the area. We took a gondola up the ski slopes. While admiring a spectacular view, my phone rang. In a literal mountain-top experience, a CSAG member told me that I won Best of Show for Carried.
Certainly I thought of this award when I choked out, “I do art” last night, though I am so adverse to drawing attention to myself that I didn’t even mention the show. But, is this what makes me an artist: winning an award? I hope that one day, whether my work sells or not, whether it shows in galleries or stacks in my basement, I’ll be able to say “I am an artist,” without flinching…
But I hope I am more than that. That my definition of what I “do” is founded in what I believe God is calling me to do; and that, even more importantly, my definition of who I am is who He says I am. Regardless of outward validation or worldly measure of worth.
My purpose in blogging is to share about my life, not to sell artwork :), but just in case you are interested, the original of Carried sold through the show, but we do have limited edition fine art giclee prints of Carried available through Pamba Toto, with notecards featuring the work coming soon as well.
Also in case you are interested, you can find the original post for Carried here.