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When Does One Become an Artist?

April 8, 2021 - Joy Reed Belt

Michele Mikesell, "First Flight," Oil on Canvas, $2.400

"Mother Earth Laid Bare" by Alexander Hogue

Alexander Hogue

One of my young colleagues asked me an interesting question the other day. She asked,” When Does One Become an Artist?” To put her query into context here are some facts. My colleague is a smart, artistically talented and a technically competent young woman from Edmond, who after graduating from high school was offered scholarships to both the Chicago Art Institute and The Pratt Institute in New York City. She decided to attend Pratt and major in Visual Communications. When Covid became rampant, she elected to take a gap year, return to Oklahoma City and work in our Gallery. So, when she asked me “When Does One Become an Artist?” I thought she really was asking when she will be confident in asserting that she is an artist. What must she achieve in sales, education and/or technical competency to be able to tell the public that she is an artist and not feel like an imposter? While giving consideration to my response, I recognized that she had asked a very profound question, so I decided to reach out to five artists and three curators in an attempt to find a universal answer to that question. When you read their responses you will note that the curators gave more objective answers while the artists I queried personalized the question. 

Julie Maguire, formerly a Curator for USB Bank and currently working for a private collector in New York City responded: “I think one becomes an artist when they have output that comes from a creative place. Is it a painting, a sculpture, quilt, a photograph. I don’t think it matters as long as they are expressing something inside of themselves to the outside world.”
Michele Mikesell, a painter whose work is currently hanging in the Gallery, reminded us of the famous Picasso quote about all children being born artists and that we have to try to remain artists as we grow up. Michele stated that “Children create without questioning, without expectations. They are fully confident that their marks are exactly as they intended. It’s concentrated artistic energy that hasn’t been diluted by second guessing and revision. I don’t think there’s an artist out there that isn’t striving for that.”
Beth Hammack, "Abstract Landscape VI," Acrylic on Canvas, 11 x 14 in., $190
Sheridan Conrad, "Wooden Bracelet #1," Wooden Bracelet with Sterling Silver Bezel Set with 3 Turquoise, $300
Pablo Picasso
Katherine Allen Kerr, a mixed media artist, talks about how she became an artist: “I can remember as a small child the visceral pleasure of mud sliding though my hands as I sculpted little pies. That original pleasure echoes today in each brush stroke of creamy paint that slides into my canvases, I loved it then and I love it now. At its core art is love, a love that we are all born to, but that for artists is especially felt. As artists we yearn to deepen this love throughout a lifetime of attention, practice and sharing. Becoming an artist is to feel an innate love, which leads to a search, that finds a teacher, which brings an audience, that returns the love, which completes the circle.”
Heather Ahtone, Senior Curator for the First Americans Museum which opens in Oklahoma City this month and formerly a curator with the Fred Jones Museum in Norman, responded “Someone becomes an artist when they begin to understand their capacity to visually organize the world-
through color, form and motion. We are all born creative, but as we begin to think and act on our imagination (beyond the impulses of need and basic communication) we take different paths to fully define ourselves as human. Those who find that artistic expression and give voice to what they see, what they want to see, what they feel...then, one has become an artist.”
Sheridan Conrad, a jeweler, who will be having an exhibit in the Gallery in May and June, says, “I have always known I was an artist; art is in the air I breathe and the lens through which I see the world. Creating art for me is a necessity for my spirit to be revisited daily, and in the mind as often as possible.”
George Oswalt, former educator and prolific artist, commented that he became an artist, “when it became apparent that art was one of the basic ingredients for me to have a meaningful life. I found the visual arts and it is part of the air I breathe.’
Beth Hammack, an abstract painter who will also have an exhibit at the Gallery in May and June, believes that her journey to becoming an artist was influenced by her mother’s encouragement and a lifetime of recognition that started when she was in the second grade. She recalls that an instructor at the Chicago Art Institute put a bright red hat on one of her third-grade drawings and Beth knew from then on that she wanted to be like that instructor, an artist!”
 George Oswalt, "Faith," Oil on Canvas, 36 x 36 in., $1,800
Katherine Kerr Allen, "Far Horizon I," Acrylic and Thread on Canvas, 12 x 12 in., $600
John Wolfe, multi-media artist, responded that he probably always knew he was an artist, but probably didn’t put a name to it until high school or maybe even later. “As a child I was always creating, usually drawing then painting and a bit of sculpture.” John cites a museum visit to Philbrook when he was about 6 or 7 years old as a formative art experience. “The first painting I really connected with was Alexander Hogue’s “Mother Earth Laid Bare.” He says that painting is still one of his favorites and that in his opinion depression area painters are still some of the best. He is drawn to their subject matter and colors.
Pablo Barrea, Associate Curator for Oklahoma Contemporary, says that over the past two decades, “I have engaged with various styles of painting, printmaking, ceramics, photography, sculpture, illustration, design, textiles and wood working. However, merely understanding processes does not make me an artist. I would instead say I have used artistic processes to produce a visual result. Process becomes a series of opportunities for the artist to honestly test their choices or the artist to honestly test their choices for articulating an idea in a visual manner. Rembrandt did not just make portraits, and Turner did not merely paint seascapes.
After giving the question, “When Does One Become an Artist” much thought and reading the responses of artists and curators I admire, I agree with everything they have said. But, I have concluded there is something else an aspiring artist must be willing to do to become an Artist. They must have the courage to claim the mantle of being an artist...they have to be able to say: “I am an artist.”

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