Monday, November 1, 2010

what makes an artist?

Recently I found an interesting blog post on What Makes a Professional Artist? Even the story of how I came to read this particular blog post shows what a small world we live in. My internet friend Valerie Goodwin--herself a wonderful quilt maker from Florida--had posted this on Twitter and Facebook wanting to raise the question for discussion. The article begins with  a discussion of a situation I am sure we have all been--the nurse, friend, seat-mate on an airplane, even relative who announces that they too are professional artists. What do you say in that situation? How do you define what being an artist is?

Now the word professional is one that I think we can figure out--don't we all know what a professional lawyer is? What about a professional doctor? Would you want to be treated by a non-professional one? And why is the term "professional politician" considered an insult--oh don't get me started there.  Back to the topic at hand, the term professional usually implies a seriousness of purpose and certain standards of conduct and responsibility.

The issue becomes more what is meant by the term "artist". How do you distinguish between art and craft, art and fine craft? Is there a distinction? I know there are many art quilt makers who are trying to get their work recognized in the fine art market. There is a believe that painting is considered more serious--and by definition more lucrative--than quilt making or sewing or fiber arts or textile arts.

OK--I can agree that earning money from your art is a good thing--at least for me.  I have been supporting myself for 29 years making quilts. So I post on a discussion on LinkedIN that I am willing to make a blue and red quilt if that is what sells. And the question becomes whether I am then "selling out." Of course the blue and red quilt has to be in my style--I may love the Double Wedding Ring pattern but I don't want to make.

Indeed currently I am working on an order for a quilt similar to first light.

It is an order for a specific place in a specific lovely architecturally designed home. Yes, there is thinking to do--artistic inspiration. How to make it twice this length and keep the feeling for the piece. What happens when the piece is seen looking up at it? How will the sky appear? Will the lines in the quilt echo the lines in the house?

I think of some of the "old Masters"--the Dutch Masters with their assistants and wealthy patrons, Sargent who painted the four young daughters at the request of their parents. Even the "primitive" portraits of Colonial America painting the sons and daughters of the wealthy.  Audubon published his birds in wonderful portfolios that you could subscribe to. Without the orders and the patrons, we would not have this art.

And interesting I discover on reading more about Nancy Natale--she used to have her studio in the same small town in western Massachusetts where I live. What a small world this is. Note to self-- maybeI should get out of my studio more.

And you--where do you draw the line? What is art? What is professional?


  1. I certainly have experienced the blank looks when referring to myself as an artist, even more so when I answer, "textile artist." But even with the blank look or followup question, I do try to briefly acquaint my listener with an explanation. If possible, maybe point them to a nearby exhibition or show where they might see textile art.

    As to commissioned artist is asked to do a piece of art because the patron likes the particular style of the artist. To my mind, as long as one stays true to that style, it is not 'selling out". The commissioned piece may be much larger, colors not usually used by the artist, but the style is still recognizably the artist.

  2. I agree with Bonnie - if someone needs a "sailboat image" for their hospital waiting room, and if I can enjoy the challenge of making one in my own collage style, why not? Similarly, don't most artists create small inexpensive "lines" of their art to sell to those with fewer funds (think cards, miniatures, etc.?). The purpose of these pieces is to sell, but that's not the same as selling out... Every form of your art has it's challenges and rewards.

  3. Thanks everyone. I agree that custom orders can still be considered art--and artists do make smaller lines of work for those with minimal budgets. Great points.

  4. Hi Ann,
    I'm glad that my post led you to a discussion of trying to define professional artist and artist in general. It's certainly a topic that's not easily resolved.

    Not only did I used to live in Ashfield, but I used to work in Young & Constantin's office right down the street from your studio/gallery.

    It's a very small world.


  5. Ann,
    Whenever I meet another artist, I get excited. If you question the level of professionalism, just ask "Where are you showing your work, I'd love to see it?" Of course you have given a copy of your lastest postcard or business card. If the person you are speaking with doesn't have a show, gallery, exhibition, studio, etc. then you've met a potential patron with an obvious interest in art. Or you may have met a studio assistant, some one to mentor, a booth sitter or a friend.

  6. It is a small world Nancy. And Yasmin, I love your approach. Brilliant--thanks for sharing.