The day I met my husband just over 11 years ago he was working his “day job” as a professional clown. I was a young mother taking my son to his first Manhattan birthday party. Our how we met story is awesome, as anyone who is lingering in the happily ever after part, would say. We left the party together and the first question I asked him was, “So what do you really do?”
How ballsy, right? In retrospect, it was such a presumptuous and obnoxious, typical me thing to say, but the amazing part was he was so glad I asked because he took the opportunity to rattle off an entire litany of things he “really” did. It went something like this: “When I’m not doing children’s birthday parties on the weekends, I entertain sick children in hospitals weekly. But really, I’m an artist. More specifically, I’m a professional photographer, painter, sculpture, poet. I got a degree in acting, directing and playwriting from NYU Tisch School of Arts.”
“Wow,” I said (or thought). How could you be all of those things? But he continued.
“I was also in a band and I helped another friend with a children’s band write some songs. What do you do?” He politely tossed the question back at me.
“I’m in advertising.” This was as exciting as I got. “Recruitment advertising,” I further specified thinking could this get less sexy? I elaborated, “we basically create glamorized help wanted ads and do the careers sections of company’s websites. Corporate Branding. Like instead of an ad for Coca-Cola, we created ads to convince you to work at Citibank.”
His eyes were too busy staring deeply into mine to actually register what I said. Years later I learned as an artist who has never dipped a toe in a corporate job, whenever anyone starts to talk about office jobs, he gets a glazed look in his eyes and I know he’s checked out. Powerpoint decks, meeting requests, or “low-hanging fruit” aren’t part of the clown/artist repertoire – nor should they be.
As we walked the 30 blocks from the birthday party to my apartment, him as a clown, me with an almost 3-year-old running and stopping ahead of us, he offered up a taste of my own presumption and asked me what I “really” did (or wanted to do). I was 30 years old with a successful job, a large windowed office, and my name on an engraved gold plaque saying “Employee of the Year.” Artists have a way of reading a person’s aura because they’re accustomed to having to inhale and memorize the world around them to recreate it; in pictures, movies, books, paintings, or plays. His implication was clear: anyone in a corporate job is stuck, dreamless, trapped within a box and living vicariously through the artists of the world who have built a colorful world of flexibility and struggle around themselves.
“Well, I’m also kind of a writer,” I suggested. Was I looking for things in common or things to make me cooler? Wasn’t my too-short Mickey Mouse t-shirt, low-rider jeans and black blazer hip enough? Years later my husband confessed to ass-crack glimpses every time I bent over. He didn’t care about the commendable career choice, he was enamored with my ass. I told him I was a journalism major; I wanted to write a novel (who doesn’t?) and I proved it to him by showing him the notebook I carried everywhere.
“Well, I also like photography,” I say so sheepishly I hoped he hadn’t heard me. “I’ve had a camera since 4th grade and I took photography classes in high school and college. I even spent a summer taking black and white photography at UCLA. I won a few photography contests in high school and set up my own black and white darkroom in my parent’s basement.”
“Wow.” Now it was his turn. Was his a real wow? I never knew.
I always thought of myself as an amateur, even after walking around life for 20 years, framing images with imaginary squares and hearing the gratifying click. I brought a camera wherever I went but just because I took photos, I wouldn’t call myself a photographer. Just because I wrote, I didn’t call myself a writer. This is a common struggle in our culture; we define ourselves with titles only if they have money to back them up. You’re an artist not if you make art, but only if you sell it. You’re a writer, not only if you write (even every day!), but only if someone sends some bucks to back your words.
I’ve always had a hard time owning the writer title.I’ve written 60,000 words in 76 essays in 76 days and I still won’t own it.
Even harder still is when my husband uses the A-word to describe me. “We’re artists,” he’ll tell the soup lady we get into a conversation with at Whole Foods or to the couple sitting next to us on the beach. But I cringe when he says it.
What makes someone an artist? Is a writer even an artist? I enjoy arts and crafts and appreciate photography. For some all they have to do is have one creative thought and they’re ready to brand themselves an artist. For me, the criteria for earning the title is still unclear. Does it all come down to parenting? As Soviet immigrants, my parents wanted me to have a practical “profession.” If I liked photography, I considered photojournalism, but I ended up getting my degree in the more sensible Journalism. Only my passions weren’t aligned with my degree and in following roads which found me rather than the ones I created, I was treading water, never getting anywhere.
Two years ago while I existed in a writer/artist denial I needed a gift for a special friend who had a baby. I created a letter out of buttons and crystals and personalized buttons I drew out of shrink dinks. My friend loved it so much I decided it was going to be my new go-to birthday, new baby, all occasion unique gift. Before long people were requesting them for purchase. I blinked my eyes and suddenly I had a little business creating, for lack of a better word, “art.” I’ve since created almost 200 pieces and funded my daughter’s preschool.
The button business should have theoretically justified an “artist” title in my head. All of my clients told me I was so talented, but I didn’t feel pride. This wasn’t what I wanted to be known for; this wasn’t what I wanted to tell people I did for a living or for my life. I am a writer. (Maybe also an artist.)