Am I An Artist?

What is the definition of an artist, and do I qualify? Also: Come see me perform at the SFMOMA TODAY!

Mar 15, 2012 at 5:29pm | Leave a comment

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I was standing in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on a Saturday shortly after the new year when I realized that I might have a stranger-than-average reaction to contemporary art. Or, maybe not. Maybe I just don’t know any other artists, people who fit the definition in the more traditional sense of the word.

I get unusually worked up around complicated installations. I can lose hours staring at photography exhibits. When traveling, museums are often a go-to destination. I don’t just look at weirdo performance pieces, abstract paintings, and sculptures made out of rotting garbage. I pace around them, stare and point, and get very irritated when small children run through the space, distracting me from the oh-so-serious, terribly important business of appreciating art.

I kid, but I do tend to focus without trying. At some point while roaming through the SFMOMA’s Richard Serra exhibit, I’d left my partner behind. I didn’t notice.

When he found me, I was gaping at a floor-to-ceiling black canvas. (I should point out that all of the Serra drawings were giant black canvases. It was definitely a love/hate sort of show.)

I pointed dramatically at the white corner of the room without a canvas.

“I look at that, and I see nothing,” I whispered.

“But,” I swept my arm back to the black shapes dramatically, “I look at this and I see potential.”



I knew how ridiculous I sounded, and we both promptly cracked up. But I was also expressing a very genuine emotion in yet another example of me getting very, very worked up about abstract contemporary art. I don’t know why I thought that day’s options -- including the Serra exhibit, The Air We Breathe equal rights mixed media collection, or Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break film and photos -- would be an exception.

Thing is, I’m not an artist. Not really, anyway. No one puts my photos on the wall except me, and I can’t draw or paint to save my life. After a disastrous attempt at making a snail out of wire, the clay portion of my high school sculpture class was the only reason I passed. My green kiln-fired blob sort of resembled two people leaning together. It was the making of a proud B student.

Granted, there are lots of different kinds of art. I’ve dabbed in video and photography. I’m a writer, but I don’t consider my everyday labor to be particularly precious or consistently imaginative. For all intents and purposes, I feel that I either never gave myself permission to call myself an artist or that I genuinely lack certain talents. I imagine both are true.

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If anything, I'm merely an artist's helper. Observe: I was once a clothed art model, which sounds hilarious and was, but it was also a fab experience with a super nice painter who just happened to have enormous windows on her highway-facing studio. Hence, we kept it PG. 

While I get that appreciating and interacting with art is different than creating it, I do wonder if specific creative types are more drawn to certain art. My programmer partner is an innovative guy, but in the MOMA, we both had agendas. I went straight for the video screens and big black walls. He made a beeline for the collection of German-designed electronics.

None of this would have struck me as odd -- just another museum outing for us, really; we fell in love in the Boston Institute for Contemporary Art, in fact. But when I met my now-good friend Mona a few years ago, it came up pretty quickly that she considered me the artist half of my union. Mesmerized by some random public sculpture one day while we were on our way to lunch, she stopped and said what I guess many people already thought about me.

“Well B, you know you’re the artist in the family.”

Really? I am? Does every family have an artist?

And then I wondered, what counts? Do you have to be professionally employed in a creative field? What if I'm just paying my dues as an art model? Or is being the terminally underemployed uncle who paints in the garage good enough?

Mona knows me well enough to know that I have certain free-spirit tendencies. I suck at proper desk jobs, something I finally gave up on a few years ago, much to everyone’s relief. She also knows I’m always mulling over some philosophical dilemma. When we talk on the phone, no matter how brief the call, we always circle around to discussing abstract concepts of happiness or what it means to be your true self.

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Unintentionally related to all of this musing about work as art as passion, a friend recently sent me an invitation to perform in a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit. Suddenly, all my musings became concrete possibilities.

The Department of Media Arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is looking for participants with a background in writing to perform Dora Garcia's Instant Narrative.

I immediately called the assistant to the curator, who seemed pleasantly surprised and a little bewildered that someone was already asking to help out. When I showed up for orientation a couple of weeks ago, Garcia told the room teeming with excited performers-in-training that she had to take a photo. No one back in Spain would believe the turnout for her project. I guess I’m not the only goofball who goes gaga for a chance to play in the museum.

During my first shift, I intently watched everyone who came in and out of the room, dilligently writing up what they did and if they spoke to each other or to me. I realized pretty quickly that small children are especially taken with the exhibit, which is essentially a real-time transcription of the room's activities, published on the wall seconds after it happens. They jump; I type, "She jumped." Everyone is totally thrilled. I also remembered just how fast I type and what a keen observer I am of folks around me.

And, I liked it so much I'm headed back for another shift. If you’re a Bay Area xoJaner with an hour and $18 $9 to blow on half-price Thursday night this week tonight, swing by the fourth floor gallery and look for the gal at the corner computer. For once in my museum-loving life, I won’t be zoned out gaping at a painting. But I might transcribe our convo if you say hi.