By ELLIOT WEISS
This post was written as an assignment for Professor Cindy Shearer’s CIA 7091, Interdisciplinary Arts Workshop. As part of a community of artists working across art perspectives, students in this course get the chance to present their work and teach each other about their art form(s), practice, lineage and influences, and are challenged to inquire into the interdisciplinary arts as well as forms new to them.
It has taken me 57 years to understand and envision calling myself an artist. The word artist has always had particular definition in my mind. In my mind an artist is someone that draws or paints. I inherited this definition from the culture, values, and morals of the neighborhood where I was raised. A very good example of the mindset of my neighborhood is represented in a movie written by a performance artist and actor, Chazz Palmenteri (A Bronx Tale). The neighborhood that I was raised in was located in the Northeast section of the Bronx, New York, 15 minutes away from Yankee Stadium.
It was working class, controlled by organized crime. Italian, Irish, and Jewish people all mixed together, however, living apart. Fighting between the Jews (which I am) and Irish occurred more than altercations with Italians. The mindset and values of my household and the community wouldn’t allow for the possibility of promoting a person with artistic capabilities. Most people with artistic capabilities were viewed by the community as strange or weird. However, an artist that had a talent for sports was exalted.
Why didn’t I gravitate towards my artistry? Well, I had a hard time gravitating towards anything because I was obese, heading quickly to morbid obesity. The main stimulus in my mind was not art, it was food; at a young age I was addicted to sugar and junk food. Also, in my family one was either college material or worker material. I was not considered college material by my parents and was urged to find employment that coincided with the worker mentality. Postal worker, sanitation, truck driver and other employment in the “blue collar” fields were the possibilities assigned by my parents. To consider the arts as a career, well a famous saying goes, “fugghedaboutit."
Thinking back I was always who I’m becoming now; however, no one knew it…including me to a great extent.
The possibility of promoting the talents within me wasn’t a thought at all. At a young age (8 years old) I displayed a penchant for acting/performing. I remember fondly acting in plays in school and summer camps. Being obese, I was very depressed and these experiences provided me moments of happiness. I felt “normal” on stage, the only place I’ve ever felt normal to this day. I didn’t realize as a child that this artistry was a part of me, a part as big and valid as the part of someone that wants to become a lawyer or doctor.
But what I’ve learned from so many years of performing is the word artist and what it means to me is basic and simple. By calling myself an artist I am thinking with a healthy mindset. It’s a healthy mindset because I’m already an artist. I just needed to realize that and work with my talents. Pursuing my talents that I’ve been blessed/born with: that is really the real me. I remember being asked in an acting workshop, “Why do you act?” My response was: because I need to. Thinking back, the artistry in me is the major reason for my restorative health project. My health was wrecked due to morbid obesity. What kept me alive when at age 14 I was teetering on the edge of killing myself was a thought: if I kill myself (with food) I’ll never be able to act/perform or listen to music again. This was a light in a very dark existence; I’m alive because of this thought. Being an artist has an inside-out effect. I know that to be the artist I want to be necessitates my focus and dedication to be in the best mental, physical, and spiritual health that I can be. Artistry and being an artist is therapeutic on the inside and a lot of fun on the outside. I’m an artist and this is what it means to me.