I met a woman this summer who told me art is not a word. She told me about how indigenous cultures, like her own Native American tradition and heritage, don't label creation in this way because art making is so woven into the culture. It just is. It's a way of being, honoring, healing.
She shared this with me after we had gotten to know each other for a while. She felt comfortable telling me a truth of hers that might have been made more false to me if we'd not known each other better and we were just engaging in chit chat. There was an intimacy in this information that she wanted me to understand - her life lived, believing there is no need for the word art and therefore, the term artist to describe what she does, and perhaps what I do, too.
I remember feeling very open, then. Hit over the head with something that helped me see things more clearly, as if all of my years spent training and educating in the arts was a preparation for this moment when I realize how the labels and the training have hemmed me in and made me a member of some club when really, one might say, I've been engaged in art from the beginning.
And I know this gets into religion and spirituality and cultural differences and even, perhaps, a celebration of all things as art. And I could march down that road and say this is your way and this is my way, or that all ways lead to art. But I'm not interested in that broader discussion at this moment, except to parse it out here to get to the finer thing I'm trying to find as I write. I feel I'm writing to you to share something else.
When she expressed this to me it felt like she was saying, There is another way to look at this whole art thing. And it wasn't to debunk my way of perceiving things as art and myself as an artist. She wanted to make things much more multiplicitous than they were in that moment, a desire for complexity which, in my mind, is really a strong desire for the truth.
She was also telling me that she never considered herself an artist until someone else told her she was. Someone else told her she was. How true is that for us as women and artists? That either someone else tells us we are an artist and we feel validated by it or not worthy of the definition, or no one tells us and we feel like we're not one because no one has declared us an artist, or we tell ourselves we're an artist but then we feel like a poser, like some pretentious thing.
She makes all kinds of beautiful things, this woman does. She makes baskets, necklaces, bracelets, woven gourds, canoes made from birch bark... the list goes on. She showed me some of what she makes and then showed me more and more. Her storehouse of creations was bottomless. The definition of prolific, she is.
But I was flabbergasted by this moment of someone else telling her, You are an artist. Claim it. It suggested such dismissal and an objectification of her and her world so as not to have to understand it or appreciate it but, rather, own some aspect of it and help people appropriate it so they might own some of it, too. It felt like somewhat of an trick to get her to join the club of art. And I had the sense in her telling me this that she knew the trick of it and let it happen, knowing the full truth of who she is and how she lives. But to truly know her reasons and story would require more time and care and a conversation with her in person, I feel. And I can't arrange that for you. I wish I could.
What I can tell you is that there was real intimacy in our exchange because she was both honest with me and also, still, somewhat confused by the definition - it was as if she was telling me this to further explore these definitions and what it means to create. And I think, in writing this to you, I am trying to further that space for exploring what these definitions mean and how we fit ourselves into them, or reject them and create our own models and definitions as artists.
I saw her creations as an extension of her body and her heart, like the water and the trees are an extension of the Earth's body and heart. I felt that in order to be in this world and honor her knowing, her nature, she has to make these beautiful, beautiful things and teach others how to make them. But again, you'd have to sit with her to really know. And I wish you could sit with her.
I'll also tell you that I needed to be knocked over the head by art is not a word. I needed to have this space of questioning open up. My last year has been an explosion of making in my life, from photography to writing to knitting to designing to dancing. I don't know where it's all coming from but it's coming. And hearing my older, wiser female friend tell me that there is no word for art was, in a lot of ways, a relief.
Right, I thought, what I'm doing is what needs to be done, when I make and make and trade forms and find expression through whatever medium I can find. Let others label it as they wish. Let the labels lie. Let the gate between good and bad, art and craft, become blurry for a time. Let the doing be being. Let that be enough. Let language be the virus it really is.
"We have not escaped, nor have we in any sense diminished, the mystery of our existence.
We have only rejected any language that would seem to acknowledge it."