Updated: Oct 9, 2019
What makes an artist an artist?
achieving a degree in art?
exhibiting at the local gallery?
exhibiting at a huge gallery in London, New York or Paris?
when someone purchases your work?
making enough money from your work to survive without another job?
having your work completely ignored and discredited until someone rediscovers it decades after you die and decides you're a genius?
practising art in your spare time?
people thinking that your work is good (or so bad it's worth talking about)?
having 100k followers on Instagram?
being way too important to need social media to raise your profile?
when other people decide you are an artist?
having the confidence to call yourself an artist?
Take your pick. Some people have degrees in art and never pick up a paintbrush after the day they graduate. Vincent Van Gogh went to art school at the age of 27 and by his death had only sold 1 painting, with 900 unsold or unseen. A contemporary Spanish artist of Van Gogh called Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala enjoyed great success in his lifetime, painting work for the Palace of Madrid, but have you ever heard of him? In 2014, his works surfaced at an auction where one was bought for only $3000 and another two weren't bought at all. I know people now who sell their creative work like hotcakes but have less than 1000 followers on Instagram, and others with tens of thousands of followers who struggle to shift their work from their Etsy page to the post office. But in all of these instances, the individual could be labelled as an artist.
I can't think of many other 'jobs' that are so difficult to define. I only begrudgingly define myself as an artist to make it clear to followers what my Instagram account offers.
I studied History at university. It was the familiar, safe way of getting a ‘proper’ education (although I'm sure the Sciences students would disagree with that) and a job afterwards. I've always harboured a little regret about not pursuing a more creative subject.
The problem was, I didn't think I was very good at it. Although I got an A* in GCSE Art, a C at AS level knocked my confidence and convinced me I would never be good enough to study it formally. So, I became something of a closet creative – I painted, I drew and I wrote in the privacy of my room. And when I finished something, I hid it away. My constantly brimming level of teenage angst told me people would definitely laugh at it, which meant laughing at me in turn. The worst nightmare of a socially-conscious 17-year old.
I had a designated drawer where anything I made was expertly concealed underneath old magazines, broken hair straighteners and redundant tat I was hoarding. It acted as a good deterrent from anyone wanting to root through. One day a boyfriend invaded the drawer, found some sketches (I can't even remember what they were of) and to my horror, he did laugh. I made an excuse about how it had been for a school project, but the damage was done and my fears were confirmed. I was rubbish and should give up. So I did. Until I was about 22, when I began my MA in Arts Management.
I thought if I couldn't be on the creative side of art, I could at least try and get in on the administrative side. In our first seminar, the question posed to us was, ‘Who here has practised or studied art in some form before?’
I was one of the few people who didn’t put their hand up. These people had actually studied art at university. Except as I later found out, most hadn't. They just had enough confidence in their hobby to own it in front of a room of people.
Around this time, I noticed how Instagram was being used as a platform for artists whose ‘real’ job or qualification wasn’t art-related at all. It democratises creativity and offers a genuinely engaged audience for many artists who would otherwise struggle to gain a following.
For me, creating art is as much about the value of the process as the final product, but it's nevertheless incredibly validating for your finished creations to be appreciated. For those who rely on it for their living, it's imperative.
I tentatively started sharing some illustrations. Nobody laughed. Nobody sent nasty comments or messages. In fact, most people were encouraging. It gave me new found confidence and in 2015 I was working at The Whitworth (an amazing gallery in Manchester) and organised an exhibition with fellow gallery staff (who also moonlighted as artists) to showcase our work. It was called 'For What It's Worth' and considered the value of our art and creative practice in the context of our very much non-creative roles in the gallery. I gained more of a following online. I was asked to paint commissions. Slowly, the Impostor Syndrome that had dragged me down for years was starting to loosen its grip.
I then discovered embroidery.
I've been stitching for years now. I've sold work, delivered workshops where I teach others how to embroider, I have a large following and regular messages from people asking for advice. Despite this, I still struggle to describe myself as an 'embroidery artist'. At least, out loud. Maybe it's because really, I'm not. It isn't my 9-5 job. But then, it's probably the thing I define myself most by and brings me the most fulfilment (not including the people in my life).
I think it's more than just Imposter Syndrome, which can afflict the most talented, incredible human beings (i.e. the goddess that is Michelle Obama) but also because of the reasons I began this blog post with. The definition of an artist is so fluid and different to each person, that anyone with self doubt can find a reason to be reticent about admitting that they are one. And I think, lots of people (even non angsty-teenagers like I was), are afraid to be laughed at.
I know I'm not alone in this; so many of the people I have met on Instagram who produce the most beautiful, accomplished work say they still feel like a fraud.
Despite all of the issues and problems surrounding social media these days (which I FULLY sympathise with. I can easily slip into a insta-story-scrolling spiral and compare myself to others far too easily), Instagram as a social platform has been a revolutionary factor in the revival of the craft movement and can give great exposure to artists of all kinds. It allows people to reveal their work without admitting their name or showing their face when they want to safeguard themselves from embarrassment or insult.
Without it, I'd still probably be hiding sketches at the bottom of a drawer, hoping they'd never be seen.