One of the most important lessons I ever learned was that artists don’t have to “look” or “act” any particular way. Now, let me be clear that my perception of artists and writers was a little out there. I thought they perpetually traveled cross-country acting all broody wearing black and white striped shirts with skinny jeans while carrying a bongo drum/guitar (just in case) or that they had long curly chestnut brown hair and sat in coffee shops wearing hipster glasses, drinking espresso and having different flings with famous literary geniuses or artists every other week. My view of the artistic persona is partially due to the fact that I really became interested in literary fiction when I was introduced to beat generation artists and writers and became interested in visual art when I was introduced to Surrealism and Expressionism. It seemed to me that they all knew each other and that each member was uniquely cool, but in the same “artist-y” way. In a lot of ways, my perception of these different eras in art and literature, albeit exaggerated, is kind of realistic if I were to mold them all together and add a Parisian mime-y vibe. But in today’s world, that isn’t necessarily the case. You could work next to someone in the office who looks pretty plain-jane, is a social butterfly and not broody in any way. You assume that they are pretty cut-and-dry personality-wise, but what you don’t know is that she writes poetry and short stories in the wee hours of the morning, enjoys dancing erratically to live music when no one else is dancing and walks around in the nude eating cereal when no one else is around thinking it will bring on inspiration somehow (me, for example). Art and literature isn’t just being cool (that’s just how artists and writers are often marketed: that by accident they create a brilliant work of art because they are just so awesome), it’s a 9-5 job just like any other and a particular job can be performed by a diverse set of individuals from different backgrounds and personalities.
I always thought that my outgoing personality, my pretty standard style and appearance along with my mostly normal life precluded me from being an artist or a writer. I just didn’t have that indifferent, beat-like, ‘life sucks and I’m the only one who sees it,’ outward persona (of course, I think to some extent everyone has this inward view at times, artist or not).
When I went on my journey to the deep south as a Visual Art Teacher, however, I came face to face with the realization that artists don’t have to fit any particular sort of mold. Some of my best little middle school artists ranged from the silent brooding type, to the slightly geeky straight-A student, to the popular kid, to the video-game fanatic, to the kid who rolls around in the dirt between classes and throws erasers during the lecture. In other words, a great artist or writer can be ANYONE. I deeply lack respect for any of my former teachers who ever made me feel differently. Now that I’ve been a teacher, I can clearly see how talented every kid can be with hard work and focus.
I taught at a school that had been failing for five years and had just become a performing arts magnet school. Previously, there had not been a true fine arts program (although there’s an awesome growing one there now!). My goal was to create as full of a fine art program I could. However, when I started at the school, the culture across the board was that visual art is coloring books or tracing. Although tracing can be a valuable part of many forms of visual art, it was more the thought that tracing was the only way to achieve a realistic drawing unless you were ‘born’ an artist. Or that the only kind of art was art that was realistic. That irked me.
I realized that the crux of the matter was two fold: my students were a different demographic that the majority of fine artists shown in classical western art textbooks and materials and they were feeling like they didn’t ‘fit’ the mold to become a fine artist and there hadn’t been a fine art curriculum that showed the many forms, eras and styles of visual art. The fact that this was the current state of things at the school didn’t sit well with me. I could go on a whole other tangent about how text books and resources for school materials often lack multicultural diversity, but the gist of it was that they, like me had this feeling that they just weren’t “it” when it came to being an artist. Even though we were both coming from different angles on the subject, we felt the same in the end.
For two years, I tried my hardest to present a diverse set of artists from all different backgrounds. I watched Art21 religiously on PBS to study the “artist persona” and realized the common thread was that they were devoted to their art and worked extremely hard. I read blogs and surfed the net trying to depict to my students that art is art in the end. What matters is an informed process that creates a great end product.
While teaching this to my kids, I realized (as an artist and writer myself) that you don’t have to walk around aloof, taking drugs or drinking wearing strange clothes just because you think that’s how artists/writers need to be. Now, by all means, if that’s who you are, go on with your bad self and live it! But you certainly don’t have to put yourself in a box because the people that make it are the ones who simply are who they are. So, the old adage, ‘Teaching is Learning,’ really did apply here.
My goal was not that students “become artists” or that they “produce x amount of works of art,” but that they express themselves. If by the end of the year, they were creating art that represented who they were and what they thought and felt, then in my mind, they had passed with flying colors. Of course I also had a rigorous curriculum with unit exams based on the old NY Regents exam and unit-long projects with artistic goals such as using line and rhythm together, etc to go along with the qualitative goal.
In the end, I was freed from the constraints that had been holding me back for most of my artistic career. I never felt that I ‘had it.’ Seeing my kids, each awesome and unique in their own way create amazing works of art with creativity never ceasing to surprise me made me feel like a career in the arts, was possible for me too. I hope that someday I can open a gallery or publish a book so that I can then use my foot in the door as a way to open it wider for my students who come from an impoverished town that sometimes feel as if it’s made only of closed doors. My journey continues to teach me that if everyone was the same, art and literature would be boring. You don’t have to fit a mold or break a mold or even consider a mold at all. Be you, because the you that you are can add something to the collective whole.