Sunday, January 15, 2017

Are You Gonna Eat That? Confessions of a Starving Artist

Swim at Your Own Risk
 Oil pastel on vellum,   Laura Z

There are so many cliches and stereotypes that surround the word "artist." Just because they are often true doesn't mean they aren't also problematic, both for the artist's identity and how s/he is perceived.

Usually when I tell people I'm am artist, I get THE LOOK. Most people won't come right out and say the word crazy, but I can tell it's rattling around in there somewhere, along with questions like:
         "Is it contagious?"
         "Should I avoid eye contact?" 
         "What does an artist eat in the wild?"

Which leads directly to the second universal assumption, which usually kicks in right after the (silent or otherwise) amateur assessment of my mental health: 


This one's tricky.  Am I starving? No, though I did have to dig through my dwindling supply of canned goods this week.  I will probably never be hungry enough for that one can of peas.

But I am definitely financially challenged. For most people, being an artist means having a nice hobby. Something fun but not especially meaningful, a way to pass the time when it is not spent doing something more important. Most artists do this for a very long time: an art habit is not cheap, and neither is life. 

I'm fortunate in that my artistic obsession can be fairly economical - I often joke that if a dystopian meltdown ever happens, I'll still be an artist because there will still be rocks. Sure, I'd have to give up those fancy acrylic gel mediums I love, and find an abundant low-tech solution. 

Which will probably be mucus because there also won't be any more Zyrtec. It's best not to ask about the post-apocalyptic snot-rock paintings.

Either way, it's safe to assume I will not be painting with crushed rubies any time soon. 

As an artist I have a peculiar relationship with money. I do not have any desire for a lavish lifestyle. I am really quite a simple person - if my ambition is outsized it is not for financial success, but for the validation it signifies. 

I'm neither impressed by nor covetous of material wealth, though I admit being a little envious of people who can put all the bills on autopay, who don't have to stress about scraping together $60 before the car insurance lapses. 

But if I've got gas in the tank and I can still shove that can of peas to the back of the cupboard, I'm as close to contented as my restless nature will allow.

I can see the way that cultural assumptions about the tortured impoverishment of the artist identity play out in my life. Just because it's a stereotype doesn't mean it isn't true.

I do have a tumultuous mental health and employment history. I'm educated, and I've held a few good jobs, but after a while my eccentric restlessness gets the better of me, if bad luck doesn't get me first.

It's not that I don't want to work. I'm just...odd. I'm acutely aware that I don't fit in, and I care about it far more than I want to. My artistic nature is not something I can put aside until I have "free" time. It's who I am: the all-consuming passion that drives me crazy is the only thing keeping me sane.

Though I am perfectly at ease on stage performing in front of a packed audience in a ridiculous costume, I never got the script for "real life." I have no idea what it means to pass for normal, stable, employable.

Even though my life depends on it.

The mask that never quite fit begins to look weird after a while, and I know in my sore thumb heart that I'm not fooling anyone. I start to feel like a fraud and a liar - and I am a terrible liar. My face always betrays the roiling depths of emotion and I cannot hide.

It is only a matter of time before this simmering anxiety begins to boil, like a kettle shrilly announcing the gig is up. Then I gather my things and go home to smash rocks and paint while I wait for another last paycheck.

Being an Artist is a miserable excuse for sucking at adulthood. I don't want to hide behind it as if to say, "I know I'm maladapted to a calm life of maturity and responsibility, but in my defense, I'm an artist and I can't help it." It crosses the tongue like so many dinners of Ramen noodles, tasteless and shameful, and void of nutrition.

Herein lies the deepest, most inaccessible desire of my heart. Supporting myself through my talent instead of my lackluster ability to feign being normal will require recognition - otherwise I might as well add delusional to my lengthy diagnostic record.

Validation is a wonderful thing, and I've had a bit,  but so far it doesn't pay the bills. I remind myself that I've already sold many times over the number of paintings Van Gogh sold in his lifetime. And I still have both my ears. It's a small comfort.

Accolades or monetary success have never been my primary motivation for chasing this impossible dream. What I crave more than anything else is to justify who I am. I long for the day when I can celebrate this maddening sensitivity, and see this peculiar obsession as the gift it is, instead of a shameful and cowardly excuse for all the things I'm not.

What I'm truly hungry for is vindication for being me. I'm going to do it anyway, and I'd like to know how it feels not to need an excuse.

And I really, really don't want to eat those peas.

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