A while back I was listening to an artist talk about their art practice. During their discussion they stated (Note: this isn't a direct quote, but how I remember it),
"I make art full-time. I'm not a weekend artist who makes work whenever... I am an Artist."
Now, before I delve into my criticism of what they said, I want to explain that I still respect and admire this person's artwork and art practice. Primarily I mean to express my frustration with this type of thinking and I want to challenge it. I think it's an easy model to fall into; after all, professionals work in their profession full-time right? For many people, that is what defines them as a professional. Or, as some others define it, you should be making your primary income from your profession to be professional. However, for most in the arts, this is a near impossible standard.
My art practice comes from the art institution. I was in a program devoted to creating work full-time or, at least as much as one could manage. Though I didn't have a studio space for most years, I was a full-time student who worked in the communal studio often. My life was going to class and creating work, sleeping, then doing it all again. I had part time jobs and worked in the summer, but I had the privilege of focusing my time and energy completely to painting, drawing, and printmaking during the school terms. In my Master's program I had a private studio. I could create for 10 hour stretches, sleeping on a somewhat questionable though comfortable couch I inherited from a previous graduate. I'd get to the studio by 8AM, work, go to a class or two, then work some more until 11PM. It was an incredible feeling to devote so much time to reading, creating, and writing. I was incredibly lucky that I could learn how to work like that. It takes time and strategy (and lots of small failures) to build the endurance, focus, and patterns to be in the studio productively for long stretches at a time. Learning to work with that time and space taught me how to create practically, to bounce between projects, to accept when I'm burnt out and switch gears.
At the time it felt like anyone could do this.
This privileged space I was given also gave me the assumption that I could keep it up. I thought that my art practice would continue from there, that I would only get more adept at moving ideas from my mind into my work. However, after completing my MFA three years ago, I felt my practice deteriorate.
I no longer had a private studio space: I had a small table in a carpeted basement at my parents' house. I was lucky to have the space, but I no longer had hours of uninterrupted time. I had a job which required overtime for events and projects which piled up every 5 weeks. I began to experience chronic pain which made it difficult to sit or stand, and exhausted me by the end of the work day so that on bad days I would come home from work, nap, eat dinner, then go back to bed. Mentally I had been shrugging off struggles that had piled up like a freaking jenga tower of anxiety. I was not dealing very well with the new stresses. I needed to take better care of myself and my relationship to other people. Making artwork took a backseat.
With my new practical (and emotional/mental) restrictions I tried to find other ways of making artwork. Fortunately, I applied for and was accepted to a mentorship that demanded a certain commitment of me, but was focused on improvement and skill-building rather than a realized product. This was an great move for me at that time as I was feeling lost without deadlines and accountability to others. I had the excitement of learning to work with new media and I also began painting smaller with less toxic materials (as I didn't have the freedom of space and ventilation for oil paint). I rediscovered my love for gouache and have felt my painting quality shift and change with the material.
I also realized that though the institution gave me lots of time and space to create, it did not "professionalize" me beyond the status of a degree. I left the art institution not understanding my role in the art community. How do I work with galleries? How do I price work, photograph it? Do I apply for grants? What kind of artist do I want to be? My art school did not lead me through these questions, and there are questions I'm still working on answering. Regardless of all the time and space and academic privilege, I did not have everything I needed.
All people have limits of different sizes and shapes and depths. Trying to identify and address my limits has actually helped me work better, despite the very challenging imposter-syndrome feelings I can experience. Unfortunately, hearing things like "Weekend Artists" referred to with subtle derision incites the Imposter-Syndrome Gremlin living in the recesses of my brain. "Heeehee, they're talking about you" the gremlin giggles,"you're a weekend artist, and last weekend all you did was binge the Office and do laundry."
But Maia, you may say, isn't it just a fact that someone who works harder, for more time, is going to be a better Artist? Part time musicians don't get to Carnegie Hall after all!
Okay, let's unpack what qualities make a "good" artist.
(Granted, this is my own opinion and I'm happy to discuss the intricacies.)
I believe a "good" artist must:
Practice their skills and consistently try to improve;
Engage with concepts in the world around them;
Read about, look at, and engage with Art as much as possible;
Address their professionalization (by this I mean research pricing methods, market yourself on social media, track expenses, research and incorporate healthy studio practices, improve your writing, be professional in your dialogues with galleries, artists, and administrators, etc.,);
and, finally, they should CHALLENGE their art practice. Question their methods, their representation, their intention. Always challenge yourself conceptually and practically. Stretch your medium. Try something different. Change something, create some liminal space within yourself.
If you do the above, on the weekends, isn't that still being an Artist? Maybe you will work a little slower than the full-time Artist. Of course you will, that's just how it works. Maybe you won't be going to "Carnegie Hall," the Venice Biennale, or attend residencies every weekend, or run a new solo exhibition each year. But ... isn't that okay? And you know, if that isn't okay with you, then there's some restructuring in your life to consider. If you want solo exhibitions each year and residencies every other weekend, then you better HUSTLE. But I do not think that more art-making time makes you more deserving of being an Artist.
If the only true Artists with a Capital A are "full-time" artists, we're dismissing the validity of a lot of really great artwork. We're dismissing the creative practice of people who work full-time, people raising children (because let's be honest raising a little human is like a full-time job), people who can't afford to retire, people who have illnesses or challenges that keep them from creating art consistently.
It's about your practice, whatever that looks like. You don't become an artist and then stop - you evolve that role and your relationship to it over your entire art career. Identify the gaps and just keep working (on weekends).