Recently I reconnected with a friend that I hadn’t seen or spoken to for 20 years. We’d been very close before we lost contact – he even attended my wedding. We got to talking and he commented that he’d looked at my website and told me that he was amazed that I was creating art. That he hadn’t known this was something I could do, let alone had an interest in pursuing as more than just a hobby. I thought about that and the plight of a self-taught artist who comes into the art world late in their career after being absent for decades.
I ran into a former art student of mine who was working at a local food market. We had a brief chat, she, behind the plexiglass scanning my purchases, me, on the other side still sporting my covid mask, about what she was doing these days.
“I was going to school for cooking before the pandemic,” she said, “but then covid happened and of course, in person classes were cancelled.”
In the meantime, she took a full-time position at the market. “Obviously,” she said, “I’m not going to work here permanently, but for now…”. I asked her about the culinary class and she told me that at some point, she realized that cooking was really just a hobby, not a career. That made me sad, because of course cooking is a career and I wonder whose words might have gotten in her head that convinced her otherwise.
Because when we are young, there are so many voices. Voices that tell us what to do, what we should think and what we should really be doing. These voices may come from people in our lives, or they might very well be our own.
I was probably six when I thought of myself as an artist. Of course, I didn’t know what an artist was exactly, but I knew that I loved to immerse myself in drawing or painting, cutting and gluing papers, or shaping clay. I remember getting spanked by a teacher in first grade when I was busily finishing a drawing and didn’t put my art supplies away quickly enough for nap time. As I got older, I branched out into new mediums, especially oil paints, and my dad built an easel for me so I could paint like a real artist. In high school, I was proud when my pieces were praised by teachers, especially in front of fellow students, because, in my self-conscious world, this was the one thing I knew I was better at (usually) than my classmates, and my fragile ego craved the attention.
But even then, I never entertained the idea of being an “artist”. I was going to university and artists didn’t go to university, because real artists were just naturally talented, and by then, I didn’t think that was really me. It never occurred to me that art was an option for a career, because I, too, knew that painting and drawing, for me, was just a hobby.
So, I went to university. I got rid of my easel, stored away my paintings, drawings and notebooks. Packed up my paints, pastels and pencils. I got a job, graduated, got a real job, and then another that turned into a career.
For many years, I didn’t draw or paint a thing. Oh, I visited art galleries and museums. I inherited or bought art books and photography books. I even took up photography for a while. But the only art I ever did was to create visual aids for one of my jobs as a corporate trainer. I did have fun with those. Other trainers would complain about having to draw – but because pictures are often better than words, it was part of the job. I loved it – it was a bit like being back in art class.
I did try to go to a real art school, twice. The first time in Chicago, but I chickened out because my inside voice said to me, “what are you thinking? You’re not good enough for this.” The second time was in Sydney, where I actually put together a portfolio of paintings and drawings, and waited for my scheduled interview with all the undergrad candidates. When it was my turn, the panel told me that because of my age (I was 45), I wouldn’t be considered because they wanted to give opportunities to the younger applicants. Maybe I should consider sculpture, they suggested. Those voices. I guess I should have started earlier.
I didn’t dive deeply back into art until my girls started school – because suddenly I had permission to do art again. It was part of being a mom. I started teaching classes at their grammar school and I got to paint and draw and cut paper, all those things that I loved to do so many years earlier.
They’re 19 and 21 now, and I feel like I’ve come a long way. I’ve mostly taught myself and have taken lots of individual classes over the years. I’ve done quite a bit online. But mostly, I’ve relied on my own intuition and creatively. Perhaps I don’t have the “formal” education of an art school grad, but I have, through trial and lots of error, discovered mediums, substrates and subjects I love. I am passionate about creating and art is my blank canvas. There’s a chance that I’ve experimented with more techniques than trained artists, because I haven’t been constrained by rules of art and materials. I have had failures, because I’ve learned the hard way, that some techniques just don’t work. At times I feel frustrated and limited by my lack of what would be basic knowledge for an art student. Perspective is a subject I always struggle with. But when I have a road block, I research, and read and really look at other artist’s work to see how I can figure out the right path. More often, I find my own way of solving a problem that satisfies my aesthetic.
I keep thinking about my student back in the market and hope that whatever she decides to do, she keeps the art of cooking in her life. Yes, she’s young and has plenty of years to find her path. But sometimes coming back to our “hobbies” reconnects us with our passion and gives us the most satisfaction in life.