On Affirming Ourselves as Artists (or, WTF just happened there?)

Last week the artistic identity I've been building for the past eight years was flattened in a matter of a few minutes. So was its fragility. I blame no one but myself.

It happened during a conversation with another artist. The exchange went something like this:

Her, after I asked if she painted: “Oh I'm an artist,” she said.

Me, confidently: “Really? So am I!”

Her: “Oh really? What do you paint?”

Me, fumbling for words: “Oh well, I'm still sort of finding my voice. Portraits, mostly, right now. I've done abstracts too in the past.”

Her: “Do you sell?”

Me, feeling less and less like an artist by the moment: “No, I don't. … I've shown in the past at my friend's café, that was fun.”

Her: “And did you sell any there?”

Me, laughing politely, feeling like a complete artistic failure: “No.”

Her: “Well portraits are kind of hard to sell, it's pretty personal.”

Me: “I dabble in florals, too.”

Her, cringing a little: “You know I've noticed that florals don't really sell well either. They can be kind of dated.”

And BAM! In the space of a few exchanged sentences my confidence as an artist was shattered.

I'm not blaming her; she wasn't out to shatter it. I let it happen.

The conversation led to a genuinely pleasant tour of her art space, because no matter how shitty I feel about myself it's always fun to visit someone else's art space, after which I came back home with only this on my mind:

“WTF just happened there?”

I wasn’t angry, I was baffled.

I've been painting and creating for the past eight years, taken multiple art classes and workshops, completed a series of 100 sketches of faces this year and am nearly halfway into a second series of 100 contour drawings. How could my artistic identity be so easily rattled?

Fresh from the art table: Louisa, 12x12, acrylics on canvas, © Stephanie Guimond

Fresh from the art table: Louisa, 12x12, acrylics on canvas, © Stephanie Guimond

Once the bewilderment subsided curiosity got the best of me. I did two things: I reviewed my personal criteria for calling myself an artist and took an honest look at my artistic goals.

My personal criteria for calling myself an artist

Being an artist and being an “artist who shows and sells her art” are distinct things.

For me to consider myself an artist I must make art. Simple. Preferably I make art on a regular basis, but it’s OK if it’s sporadic. For now.

Being an artist who shows and sells her work entails a little bit more.

Today, my personal criteria for being an "artist who shows her work" is to show my work in at least one venue within the next 12 months. My personal criteria for being an "artist who sells her work" is to sell at least one piece – maybe two – in the next 12 months. It can be an original or a print, sold in person or online. (Note to Universe: I am open to more if you are!)

Of course all of this may change tomorrow.

My artistic goals – am I ready to stretch?

I noticed a twinge of envy when the artist with whom I was chatting mentioned that she was selling so much.

When I reflected back on that I recognized that despite wanting to make my work visible, show it and maybe even sell a few pieces this year, I haven’t done much to make it happen. That twinge of envy was telling me that it’s time to put a little more focus on my goal. BONUS: Now I know someone who does this successfully, maybe I can learn from her.

What I learned from this exchange

After reflecting on the exchange and my reaction to it, four things stood out:

1. Being an “artist” and being an “artist who shows & sells her art” mean different things to different people. The key is to figure out what it means to me, be comfortable with that and let others have their own definitions. (Note: You could replace the word artist with writer, photographer, potter, sculptor… choose your creative vocation.)

2. How I define myself as an artist may change, it's OK to be fluid. Life happens, priorities change, goals are released and others are re-ignited. It's good to re-evaluate my criteria on a regular basis to make sure it still fits my circumstances.

3. Articulating what makes me satisfied as an artist will help me feel more solid in my identity and worry less about how I measure up to others. If I know what my goals are and I'm working towards them, I'll feel less inclined to get caught up in the comparison game.

4. If I notice myself feeling envious of someone else's artistic success, it might mean that it's time to take a look at my own artistic goals and what I'm doing to reach them. Is it time to stretch a little? On the flip side, I might allow myself to feel the envy and still be content with where I am. It all comes down to my personal criteria and goals (see #1).

All of these help me affirm my identity as an artist.

Your turn

Do you call yourself an artist? If so, why? If not, why not?

What are your artistic goals this year? Are you happy with your efforts or progress so far?

If your goal is to be an artist who shows her work, what would that look like? How would you know that you've met your goal?

If your goal is to be an artist who sells her work, what would that look like? How would you know that you've met your goal?

Remember that the goal is clarity OK? Not self-flagellation. There are no wrong answers only true ones for YOU, today.

You might discover that the truth means a little more effort or work on your part:

"I wanted to start selling my art this year, but I haven't done anything about it. Time to bring it to the forefront!"

Or that it brings an enormous sigh of relief:

"You know what? I'm OK with playing in the studio for now, I don't need to sell anything to feel satisfied. YAY!"

Either way, knowing it is a great first step to being an artist on your own terms.

In spirit of discovery,




Further reading: