When I was an undergraduate art student, I was lucky enough to study with internationally acclaimed artist Terry Allen. I loved the class and worshipped the teacher, but I didn't always get my assignments in on time. One day a student asked Terry how you know if you are really an artist. Terry turned to face him and said, "An artist can't stop himself. He really has no choice about it." What an answer! I was mortified. I definitely was not an artist by Terry's definition. Even though I wanted to be an artist more than anything, I wasn't exactly clamoring to be in the studio. To be honest, I spent more time running away from making art than actually making it. Then one evening, after chastising myself for wasting yet another day, I finally understood what Terry meant. What he was really talking about was obsession. It didn't matter whether I was actually making art or not, because if I wasn't making art, I was torturing myself about not making art. I couldn't stop myself. I didn't have a choice about it. So my choice wasn't whether or not to be an artist, but whether to be an artist who worked or one who didn't.¹-Cay Lang, Taking the Leap
Lang goes on to say in the paragraphs following that which is quoted above, that being an artist is difficult, and one should only do it if they are obsessed with art, and not because someone once told them they were good at drawing. This is all true, but it was not the only lesson that I learned while reading those passages.
What stuck with me is that if you are obsessed about art, then even when you are not physically painting, you are still an artist. In the case of Lang's example, she was hindered by her own fears of creating, and once she stopped worrying over whether or not she WAS an artist, she could focus on what was preventing her from creating.
Many artists, despite hard work and the best intentions, may sometime face a period when they are unable to create. Perhaps it is a psychological block, or maybe the needs of a loved one temporarily supersede one's desire to paint. Maybe they are prevented from painting by a lingering illness, or maybe an "economic downturn" forces unwanted changes in in the artist's income, and they must find a short-term alternative for paying the mortgage. In other words, "life happens."
What these artists need to remember is that they are indeed still artists. Stop worrying over the label; worry about getting around the roadblock.
In truth, when you are art-obsessed, you never stop painting anyway. Every day you grow, and every day, you see colors and compositions that you picture as a painting. Catalog that information, and when you get back into the studio, let all those inspirations pour out into your work.
And on that note, it's time for me to get back to my easel as well!
¹ Cay Lang, Taking the leap: Building a Career as a Visual Artist (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998), p XV.