you are an artist feature

Yes, You Are an Artist

I’ve wanted to “be an artist” my whole life, but guess what? I have been… and so have you. Whether or not we ever tap into our artistic vein, we are all natural-born creatures of creativity. Image: Lisa Tate

As my youngest headed into middle school this year (first via Zoom, and now in person), she and pretty much every other sixth-grader in the country was asked to “pick an elective” in the creative arts when she first had to register.

This was difficult for her, as she worried if she had to choose one option, she would be stuck with it for life. What if she wanted to try different things? What if she doesn’t “have any talent”? I told her many students do take more than one extracurricular activity, along with their classes, and can enjoy a pretty diverse selection of activities.

That wasn’t good enough for her, since this particular “pandemic year” has made the choices a little more streamlined.

I had to remind her that no matter what is offered in school, there would always be a way to try out different creative fields, and somewhere, somehow the tools will be made available to us, as long as we use what we have. Talent is only part of the choosing, as tapping into your creativity is like going on an adventure to sights unseen. You don’t know what you’ll like until you get going.

I shared with her videos of street artists using chalk and a driveway for their canvas, and people using themselves for percussion instruments, like these talented folks from Egypt, The Percussion Show:

“If you have the desire to learn and create, the tools to do it will fall into place,” I reminded her.

This I knew because it was a lesson I had to learn myself as a student, as I faced a similar choice.

My daughter’s generation isn’t the first to have to pick a “fine arts” pathway, and I remember myself not wanting to be cornered into just one option when I was entering high school in the early 1980s.

Since I was asked as a kid in kindergarten, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” it was always “I want to be an artist.” I wanted to learn so many of those great creative things that weren’t yet offered in grade school. My high school started with eighth grade, and elementary went through seventh grade where I was, so I had to wait a little longer to move up. All these separate art classes in their own rooms and building wings were so new to me. It was like a buffet of ideas… but we had to choose just one thing at first. That’s like going to a decadent dessert bar and coming back with one cookie.

I chose visual art during my first year but got drawn to theatre, where I was pretty heavily involved for the rest of high school. When I had an extra elective my senior year, I added art back into the mix, and also joined the staff of the school literary magazine. We didn’t have much money, but my parents allowed the indulgence of private guitar lessons. I even had a friend talk me into being in the “flag corps” in band. I pretty much hated that experience, and only stuck it out a few games, but to this day I can toss and catch a giant spinning lamé flag with the best of them.

Now, the reason I’m sharing my boring high school schedule is because that is my love story.

I fell in love with all of the creative arts by trying different things out, and like most good love stories, there had to be some conflict. I knew I wanted to do something involved in the arts, but my parents were “practical” people who steered me towards a major in animal science. I needed a good, solid steady career-oriented major, but was free to take any “artsy” class electives I could fit in.

With the competitiveness of college comes the pettiness and politics. By “politics” I mean to jockeying for the “look at me” positions among the students. Of course, since my major wasn’t in any of the arts, others didn’t take me seriously. This was the case through graduate school as well. I have to back up here and say I was blessed with the opportunity to be able to pursue an advanced degree, and I’m not putting down my choice of study at all. However, since I first uttered “I want to be an artist” in kindergarten, I dreamed of being one. I also felt, deep inside, I never would.

I came home one summer semester depressed and disillusioned and told my dad I was scared I would fall into the slot of so many people slogging along day to day, knowing they are “doing the sensible thing” and never letting their artistic abilities (which we all have) see the light of day. I was scared I would never be an “artist.”

My dad then said something so out of character for him, it still sticks with me for this day.

“You are an artist,” he said. “You draw most every day. You are an artist. You play the guitar. You are a musician. You’ve performed in several stage plays. You are an actor. It doesn’t matter if you ever do any of these things for money; you’ve already achieved your dream. BUT, if you want to make money doing something creative you are good at…. you can write.”

My youngest daughter built up her own art gallery during the summer using only scraps of cardboard and leftover school paints. Image: Lisa Tate (artwork by Erin Tate)

And I did. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science like a good kid. Then, I ignored my major and worked as a reporter, freelance writer, and editor for several years. When I lost my main writing job of more than 20 years in March, art was still there. I never had much extra income for expensive supplies, so I continued to use what I had, including many of my daughters’ school supplies. I used cardboard boxes and scrap paper as canvasses, and my daughters soon followed suit and found what items they could around the house to turn into art.

I’m still using what I have available to try, at the age of 51, to make it into a business. Even if I don’t, I now know I am an artist. Maybe I’m not the most nuanced or accomplished, and maybe I will never be able to support myself and my family completely with it, but I will no longer put in on the back burner in my life. I’m starting to play guitar again (even just for myself) and relearning to dance as a fun way to workout. 

Now, when my daughter asks me what she should do in the “arts” area of her STEAM learning, I’ll tell her even is she has to pick one for her schedule, try them all if she wants. Take choir in school, but come home and paint or build something with found items. Pick drama, but come home and learn guitar or ukulele with the help of YouTube videos or with me.

I took me several years to realize I didn’t need to wait for an opportunity to become “an artist,” I just needed to do it. Even if my kids choose very different career paths, I want them to know that everyone has a creative vein that needs opening up every once in a while. My oldest is already doing that. While she is majoring in forensic biology, she still draws and knits every day, and is taking classes in graphic design.

Yes, you too are an artist. No matter what supplies we have in our pencil draw, or how much dancing space we have in the house. Just use what you’ve got, and if nothing else, we all have our imagination.

If you want any more proof of this, here’s Senegalese artist Boubou Niang (aka BouBou Design), who creates beautiful, large-scale designs using everything from cell phone to roses, as well as dumbbells, bicycles, or even the tops of other people’s heads.

Here he is using roses for a tribute to the legacy of actor Chadwick Boseman:

Whatever you choose to pursue in life, keep your creative side ever-present because artists—all artists—are most happy when they can create.

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