On defining an artist / by Laura J. Lawson

This has shown up in my social media a few times during the past several weeks:


The comments are totally full of stories about people being afraid to call themselves an artist to other people until they’ve hit a certain milestone.


Just as I sat down to write out my own struggles with artist-identity, I was kindly invited by The Cedars Union to join a panel discussion on this very topic. (Since this event has passed, this post has been edited.) Erica Felicella moderated the discussion between Jeremy Biggers, Melissa Turner Drumm, Hatziel Flores, Riley Holloway, and me.

Here are some pieces from my story.

I have always been a bit of a Hermione Granger. I was good at school, and I have spent years taking comfort and pride in the fact that my GPA was a good reflection of the things I know. I did not major in art in college, and because of that I desperately needed some sort of academic validation when my art career chose me. (The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter, and these references are never going away.) My MFA did so much for me in terms of becoming a better artist and actually feeling like one.

This is not a required path to become an artist. I look up to many artists who have no MFA, BFA, or formal art education. What matters is a dedication to one’s practice, and an eagerness to learn from peers and mentors, with or without an expensive document and set of robes.

The really magical bit was how I accepted my path in the first place. I studied abroad in Paris, where I took several art history courses, despite being a Psychology major. Out of all the unsmiling European ID photos I had to take, one in particular changed my life: an unlimited student pass for the Musée du Louvre.

Some of Madame Mandel’s classes met in a little classroom with tiny desks and a noisy projector, but most of the time we gazed upon the topics of her lectures in the flesh, at the Louvre. We would make it through two or three petits galeries in three hours, and after class I would stay. On days off, I returned. On weekends, I went back. Even when rooms were thick with tourists and noise, I wedged myself onto a bench, spellbound. I knew that somehow, I had to be a part of this.

Jardin de Luxembourg, 2009. These are not my flowers.

Jardin de Luxembourg, 2009. These are not my flowers.

There were many times between then and now where being an artist was so hard, I thought it impossible. I worked, I looked for better jobs, and I made terrible paintings in tiny apartments. Even when I thought my work was unshowable, I knew I had to keep making it. To give up art would be like giving up both lungs. Maybe I wasn’t a great artist, but I couldn’t deny that I was one.

Celebrating my life choices in 2016.

Celebrating my life choices in 2016.

Fast forward to today. The number of works I deem fit for consumption is exponentially greater. Rejections roll off my back and motivate me to increase my proposals. I am comfortable in this difficult and competitive field because I have stopped treating it like a competition, and started treating it like what it is: humanity’s creation of culture.

My peers at The Cedars Union have significantly different measuring sticks for what success looks like. If I used their stick, I would fall short, but if they used mine, so would they. We are finding success as artists by being true to ourselves on what we want and who we want to be.