By JENELLE CAMPION, MFA student in the Writing and Consciousness MFA program
This post was written as an assignment for Professor Cindy Shearer’s Aesthetics of Value course. In Aesthetics of Value, students explore their arts heritage and inquire into the values that guide their creative work.
She's an artist, she don't look back
She can take the dark out of nighttime
And paint the daytime black
-Bob Dylan, “She Belongs To Me”
I came across an old photocopy of a definition of the word “artist” around the time I was beginning my MFA at CIIS. I hung it on the wall near my electric fireplace as a reminder to myself about what I was working towards. I then proceeded to forget that it was there until a few weeks ago when I reread the page while working on my aesthetic statement for Cindy Shearer’s "Aesthetics of Value" class.
After spending weeks reading, thinking, and writing about beauty and how it relates to my work, this encyclopedic entry which once seemed evocative of some identity larger now seemed dry and misinformed. It struck me now that this attempt to explain “artist” positioned her as an outsider to some kind of normal standard. I underlined phrases such as “governed by imagination,” “individual style,” “create during moods,” “haphazard,” “sensitive, aware and alert,” “live in accordance with their own natures,” and “tolerated by society.” All it had to offer me now was a list of buzzwords used by people looking at artists and not a way to see oneself as an artist.
It bothered me that I would have chosen this limited definition to represent my artistic identity. However, I think I chose it as a challenge to myself to define my relationship to the framework of an identity this paper offered. Engaging with it again made me realize how far my understanding of myself as an artist has come in the last few months.
After rereading it, I left the paper there on my wall so I could use it to reflect on what is it that I now thought about what it is to be an artist. I believe it is an innate human need to express ourselves through artistic means. I don’t think I'm special for feeling drawn to the power of art, but in this world right now I am unique for continuing to create art. It was once suggested to me that artists don’t apologize for anything in what they do. And that really stuck with me: I went home and wrote the phrase “Artists Don’t Apologize” on top of the text.
I think part of making a life in art involves searching for a way of expressing something authentic about yourself. What I have learned this last year is that first you have to find a way to hear yourself and then make the space for others to hear you. Both seem incredibly challenging to me but going through this MFA program I feel like I am being walked through the process of setting up my life to be able to hold that kind of authenticity in a larger way than I had been able to conceive of before.