Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Painterly Line In The Sand

The following is more of an essay than anything else. There is no image for this post, only words.

I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who is also an artist. He is actually finishing his BFA right now at the school I attended. I had called to ask him a question about a show we're both in soon and he told me that he had just seen a slide of one of my pieces in his practical concerns class. This is a capstone course that is intended to acquaint the student artist with the professional word of Fine Art. Although I found it funny and kind of nice, I never thought to ask him why the professor had shown it.

I later called him to ask why my piece was shown. His answer soon became irrelevant as he elaborated on his own thoughts about the piece. Being that this was a piece I did a few years ago, it was done in a style that has since evolved into a pretty different look. He said he liked the drawing because it was more of a drawing and less like an illustration. I laughed to myself and asked him "What do you mean 'less of an illustration'?"

"In school they teach you that the head is round and there is a shadow under the bottom illustrator seems to just use that and generalize the figure. It's like they draw every ear the same instead of looking at each ear and (interpreting them differently). It's just interesting how all illustrators seems to be out to suit a really wide audience and fine artists like me could care less...what the manager at Kroger thinks." My only defense is that I have yet to be hired by Kroger or any of its employees. And I bet that if the manager at Kroger offered to by one of his pieces, he would care just a little bit about what that person thinks.

This conversation reminded me that the illustrator (which I now know definitely means me) is discriminated against by the fine artist. Despite what even my closest friends tell me about my work, we will never be equal to some. In school, it was very obvious that illustration and graphic design in general were seen as lower forms of expression. I even felt this way at first. I struggled a lot with the fact that I had no idea what my work should be about. This was a crippling conundrum because it led me to make no personal art. I did school projects and always had the mural stuff going on but I never really had a clear vision of myself as an artist. It was very frustrating because I developed a lack of respect for commercial artists but at least they knew what to draw and were getting paid for it.

One day I was with a friend in his apartment and I told him exactly that: I have no idea what my art should be about. He was studying graphic design at the time and said "That's because you're an illustrator dude." I was a little shocked that he would know that because I had not considered a career in illustration since the fifth grade (when I also wanted a pet cheetah). After some research I realized there was a world of opportunities for people like me who get a kick out of showing others what their thoughts look like. I had done it my whole life just for fun. In the fourth grade I hung an envelope on my desk marked 'drawing requests' and took all comers.

Now, as a career commercial artist, I have a different opinion about art. My professional work is what led me to an understanding of the artist I am. I eventually learned that I do have a perspective and a voice. But, I have also learned that there is a legitimate tragedy in making images I would never dream of doing without the promise of money. I still think that the truest form of expression has no dollar amount attached. Also, to a degree, what I do during the day is not art because its intent is not artful in nature. I generally have to meet the demands of a client that has never met me, has no concern for my creative relevance and little or no knowledge or appreciation of art at all. That last part is the hardest pill to swallow but it does not change the fact that I am filling a creative need.

In a world where we are literally faced with ads and propaganda all day long, it's nice to know that i can make less of it suck to look at.

As an in-house artist, it's not about what I want or believe (although I rely heavily on what I know and think to get the job done). Most of the time, I make work that has little personal significance and I usually forget about most of it because I tend to move quickly. I think fine art is about challenging ideals and always exploring but that's not what pays my bills at this point. I am not offended when people don't understand my personal art or even if they don't like it; I have dealt with that from the start. I don't expect people to get it or even care about the stuff I do in my free time. During the day, though, I have to care what others think because it's not my opinion that matters most. Someone with a real creative need depends on me directly or indirectly to know what to do when the time comes.

By comparison, Fine Art prides itself on not having to please anyone in order to be justified. While that is a great reason to be an artist, there do not seem to be any artists buying my work or hiring me for anything. Although I care very much what they think, pleasing other artists has not been nearly as profitable as pleasing those who simply need some kind of art. If that sounds like selling out, well it kind of is. But art school only gives you a degree in a hobby, it's up to you to make it a career and this has worked for me so far.

I have been invited by other artists to hang art in group shows. This is the highest honor I have received as an artist. There is no promise of money or future work, but it's proof that I am respected by my peers. It's proof that I exist in the community and that I have my own ideas. That's what we're all looking for in the end: a place in the art world. It's good to make a living doing what you always wanted, but there is no shame in just having a job where you draw stuff for people. I say get in where you fit in; a lot of other people never even had a choice.

I later told my friend that we need to talk about these things more often.

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