A few months ago I gave up on the notion of being an artist (or musician). The reason why I want to share my decision of letting go of the label “artist” is to open a discussion on what it means to be an artist. Maybe you have had similar experiences and I invite you to share your thoughts.
I studied art with the idea of becoming a professional artist. As many of you know, it is extremely difficult to be a self-sustainable artist in a socio-economic driven society. After I completed a Master’s degree, I was employed at a private school as an art and music teacher. I decided to become a teacher with the hope that I could become financially independent and pursue my career as a practicing artist-musician.
After a few years, I realised that my productivity and creativity were subsiding. I felt depleted and visionless. My energy, time and money were being sucked into this teaching job. I became a battery plugged into the system as some narcissistic asshole were gaining all the benefits. In the meanwhile, my dreams were being flushed down a toilet. Desperately clinging to the last strand of hope, I knew I had to make a drastic change.
A friend of mine mentioned teaching TEFL in Asia. The salary and working hours seemed reasonable as I would be able to work, save money, pay off outstanding debt and have enough free time to create art. Besides, the challenge of living in a foreign country seemed to be the ideal opportunity to break from stagnation and grow as an artist. After some hefty contemplation, I decided to take the plunge.
As I didn’t know how long this foreign endeavour would last and I needed the financial backing, I sold and gave away most of my belongings. Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard to let go of my generous accumulation of stuff. I sold all of my homeware, furniture, plants, equipment, tools and even my piano. I kept all of my books (which I am not ready to let go of yet), some art materials, my laptop, clothes and a small box with sentimental items. Getting rid of all these things felt liberating and promising.
After the huge transition and initial culture shock, I felt terribly anxious. I still wasn’t making art or writing music. In fact, I had no studio, tools or musical instruments. Even worse, I was detached from the art community and connections I had in my home country. I was paranoid that I might be sabotaging my career and that my worst fear would realise. I was afraid of becoming a failed artist.
Within this uncertainty I found stillness. I asked myself: Why is the idea of “making it” so important to me? Why do I feel worthless as an artist if I am not “selling” or being recognized by others as a “good” artist? Why do I connect my worthiness to success? It was then that I realised that all these ideas are only attachments. These ideas are created by a society of what we think things should be. Fuck it. If these ideas make me anxious and paranoid, then fuck it. Fuck the institutions, fuck the organisations and fuck the system. Fuck the definitions and fuck the labels. Within this uncertainty, I realised possibility and a potential to reinvent myself.
The making of art didn’t vanish completely. For the last year, I have been drawing mandalas almost every day. I discovered mandalas a few years ago when I did research on projects for my private students I had at the time. Eventually, mandalas became a means for me through which I could centre myself when anxiety, frustration, and self-doubt took hold of me. It is through the making of mandalas that I began to understand the potential and power of creativity. I began to understand that we create from our soul and that we are all creative beings. I don’t need to label myself as an artist or musician to be able to create. I don’t need accomplishment or recognition to be an artist. I am not an artist, I make art. I am essentially a creative being and I need to learn how to create for myself without judgement and the need for acknowledgement.
On this journey of reinvention, I have learned that the reason why most of my creative endeavours haven’t flourished is because it sprouted from weak and unnourished soil. It grew out of fear and were being sustained by negative energy. If I want to develop a creative practice that is self-sustaining, it should be built on a strong foundation. I should be grounded from within. I have to trust the source of energy that inspires creativity, I have to trust myself.