A recent conversation with a friend and fellow artist prompted a few thoughts on the evolution of what makes an artist. Its hard for us to step back and look at our careers in a thoughtful way. But each of us goes through a series of stages in our development as an artist, that for some often begins long before they even see themselves as artists.
For me, I often note my decision to retire from photography and become a visual artist five years ago as a turning point for me. A moment where I consciously made a decision to be what my mind perceived to be "a real artist".
But the fact is I'd been on that path long before that moment. I'd been a professional photographer for 15 years at that point and before that I'd attempted to be a writer. Looking back I can see that my life had been one long evolution towards art.
My friend who I mentioned above has been a professional photographer (and one of the best I know) for twenty years. But a recent restlessness is bringing about an evolution in who he is as an "artist".
When this happens we are often oblivious to what it means. We just sense a dissatisfaction with our current level of abilities. A longing for something else that we cannot name. This is a crucible for many artists because its the point where we can become something more or we can trash it all because we do not understand what is happening to us.
If we misinterpret then we end up saying "fuck it" and become a used car salesman instead. If it happens in our middle age we misread it as a midlife crisis.
But it is simply natures way of telling us "okay, your ready to take the next step". But when your the person its happening too it often ends up being a battle of "do I set everything I've done for years aside and do something new or do I grit my teeth and be unhappy?".
For me, I risked setting aside a career where I was good at what I did just because I was dissatisfied with that career. It didn't even dawn on me that I wasn't really setting aside photography, I was merely adding a new artistic skill set to what I already knew.
But I approached it as a career change. I set aside the title of "professional photographer". In fact I reproached it. When someone would say "hey aren't you that photographer?" I would reply rather curtly, "I don't do that anymore".
I was lying to myself. What I really meant was that I don't photograph pouty, get over yourself, you ain't that cute, wannabee fashion models anymore. No I won't photograph your daughters prom night. No I won't go photograph your headshots so you can get that part in that local movie. Please go away. Now.
I'd reached a point where I thought I had to become what I perceived as "a real painter" was the only solution to my dissatisfaction with my career or I'd implode. No more of this "Oh your a great photoshopper" business. I'd place my hands in paint and show them that I could create real art.
When all along I had been creating real art as a photographer. But I had no experience to show me that I was taking an evolutionary step as an artist, not replacing careers.
It wasn't until later that I could look back and see what was really happening. The funny thing is, I think I photograph more now than I ever did when I was a "professional photographer". I use that skill set constantly and I create (what I hope) is great art from it. I didn't replace one career for another, I merely advanced the original career.
Looking back further I can see that my early years as a failed writer were not a failure at all. I use the written word constantly in the art I create today. Its merely one more extension and skill set of what I am as an artist.
For my friend, he is at the same turning point I was five years ago. While I cannot know if he looks at this in the same way I do, I see the same trends for him that I saw in myself and that I see in many artists.
We like to think that an "emerging artist" is something we are when we first start out on our artistic career. But the truth is we are emerging over and over again as we grow.
Once we get on that fast track we can still lose track of our evolution. We don't see new skill sets as part of that track. But most artists go through a constant cycle of adding a new skill or technique, refining it, making it our own and moving on to the next.
It is in this refining and evolution that artists really hit their mark. Some artists stumble along the way. They find an area that suits them and that is where they stay. Sometimes its because the money is good, sometimes its because they are afraid to move to the next level. Sometimes its just from laziness and being in a comfort zone.
I could have been in that same comfort zone five years ago. I was making good money, had regular clients and didn't have to think much about what I was doing. But I was also holding back my own evolution as long as I stayed on that plateau.
I think we all know subconsciously when its time to move on. but we refuse to open our eyes and acknowledge it, or we misinterpret it.
As for me, I'm glad I made that change in my life. I've never been happier than I am now as an artist. And as for my friend, I think he'll see it also and adapt as he should. I hope we all will.