What does it mean to be an “artist?”

I made a personal decision earlier in December 2020 to take an indefinite hiatus from social media in order to free up more time, mental energy, and emotional space for practices that nourish me. There’s a lot of amazing creative work that happens on SM, so this isn’t a dig at the medium or anyone’s else’s relationship to it, so much as a reflection that for me personally it became a place to zone out and shift my attention to others rather than examine my own boredom/discontent/restlessness. That is to say that mine was unhealthy. One of the shifts that has emerged is feeling reignited in my creative process.

The question of what does it mean to be an artist, or what does it mean to be creative is something that emerges often in the therapy space. I couldn’t put a number to the times that someone has chastised themselves for not making enough progress in their creative work, faulted themselves for struggling to be in flow while juggling working for corporations and institutions, or feeling like they struggle to create without the use of mood enhancing substances. This essay has been percolating in notes jotted down here and there over several months, and as I begin to cultivate art-based group offerings it feels time to share some of those reflections, as I imagine that many of you have moved through similar themes and struggles.

I’ve always identified as an artist or creative, first and foremost. Not necessarily as a career but as a temperament.  My background prior to graduate school for Art Therapy is in fine art, and sculpture in particular. When I decided to switch my concentration from painting to sculpture it was not generally supported by many of my peers or my painting teachers. Some of the feedback was “but you’re such a good painter, why do something you’re not as good at?” Or “sculpture isn’t really a disciplined practice, it seems like everything is sculpture,” or worse yet, “sculpture is too big, very few people buy or collect sculpture” (!!).
I found myself in the dilemma many artists who aren’t able to support themselves with an art-based job; I had found a series of jobs that allowed me to afford a studio space to continue working but had almost no energy left to do so. It became a lonely practice, making art by myself late at night in an empty studio building, wondering how I could ever make money from my art so I didn’t have to work three jobs. It began to lose its magic.

When I went to graduate school most people who studied and practiced art therapy were artists, or came from an art background of some kind. This is perhaps somewhat less common in recent years, but I think it is the person frequently attracted to the field and a necessity because so much of what we do is rooted in the nature of creative process.
In many ways I view my work as a therapist and healing arts practitioner as a form of sculpture, or a sort of conceptual installation type of process. When I had the space and time to create installation work during and after art school, so much of what motivated my process was working with memories, considering what makes a memory, how could you recreate an experience in a way that allowed another person to be immersed in it. I thought a lot about the particular qualities of how a memory is not just a flat snapshot of an experience, that there were highlights or defining components that captured the feeling of it without focusing on objects and details that might have other associations. Like trying to capture the feeling and mood of snowy white light from early in the morning, the way it could stream into a room and before moving your head you knew what you would see outside, the quiet awareness of an environment made brand new and reflecting off the ground.
I didn’t know it at the time but I was quite immersed in my own self-art therapy during much of my early adulthood. I have often encountered some snickers and rolled eyes at my insistence that even though I have gone through long periods without making a physical product I feel every bit as much an installation artist now. What could be more a form of installation than assisting someone in expressing and communicating their unique emotional and psychological structure such that we could together traverse it as if on a shared landscape? Or working with a field of energy, collaboratively with multiple people and cocreating an environment for the optimal flow of energy and awareness?

But I digress, the point of this essay was not to tell you about my creative process, but to challenge how we define art and creativity. I’d like to imagine a world where if we could have a more expansive idea of what creativity and artistic expression is, we can then find ways to experience flow in whatever we do. How would that change how we see mundane tasks, as well as “high art?” 

Could we see working with and healing our own energy fields as a creative process, a form of sculpting and reimagining ourselves? Would valuing the non-verbal aspects of expression allow us to communicate more deeply, no longer needing something to be describable in order to share it with the world?

I would like to propose redefining creative expression as occurring in states of flow, and differentiating creating as an act of bringing something into fruition as opposed to creative process as a form of imagining, dreaming, and exploring. The idea that creativity or artistry is about making someTHING is yet another extension of capitalism, and imposing a value system in order to deem something worth of even being able to call it art. I was thinking about how flow and creative development require time, and in a general a baseline level of safety. That so often those with the privilege of tending to and nurturing that process are not those with the most sheer talent. Talent is also a subjective idea tied to capitalism in its relationship to extraction, that talent can be “wasted,” and that a product is the measurement of worthiness.

In a moment of synchronicity, I opened up Free Play and remembered how he speaks to creative process as ultimately an act of play, and therefore deeply connected to our younger selves. As I had been thinking about the archetypes of the Magician and the Fool as it relates to our younger selves and creativity I found this:

“It can sometimes be a heartbreaking struggle for us to arrive at a place where we are no longer afraid of the child inside us. We often fear that people won’t take us seriously, or that they won’t think us qualified enough. For the sake of being accepted, we can forget our source and put on one of the rigid masks of professionalism or conformity that society is continually offering us. The childlike part of us is the part that, like the Fool, simply does and says, without needing to qualify himself or strut his credentials.”

– Stephen Nachmanovitch

What are the ways that you can see you own creative process unfolding if we loosen the definition of art?

Could you, or do you see yourself as an artist?

How do you connect to the child within you when you create?

If you don’t identify as an artist, how do you experience creativity or “flow?”

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