Are you an outsider? Do you stand at the edge of an interesting, complex, and wondrous community, desperate for a way in? Do you have a dream job title that you want emphatically to be able to print on your business card? Me, too. And as it turns out, it was true for post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau as well.
THE PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A TOLL COLLECTOR
Henri Rousseau worked as a Parisian customs officer in the mid to late 1890s until he retired. Then, with no training and no connections to the art world, he embarked on a career as a painter. He painted dreamy jungle landscapes from his adventures in the Paris public gardens and zoo, entered his art into competitions, and was derided by critics time and time again. They called his work “primitive” because of his jungle subject matter and his lack of formal artistic training. They mocked him with the nickname “The toll collector” in reviews because that had been his job title before being a painter. He made art until his death, in spite of never seeing any critical or commercial success for doing the thing that he loved.
I learned about Rousseau’s sad tale in my college art history class. It’s a cringe-worthy story that I’ve carried around inside of me for more than twenty years. The mental image of Rousseau desperately attempting to gain access to the art club, being denied his deepest desire, and then spurned for it, has haunted me. “Don’t ask because you won’t be allowed access,” I reminded myself when I thought of pursuing my artistic dreams. And I allowed that narrative to shape who I was for a really, really long time.
I spent a lot of years not making art. I worked as a graphic designer, where I was art-adjacent but not creating traditional art; a computer tech; and being a full-time, stay-at-home wife and new mom. All of those were (and are!) good things to do and be, and I’m glad I’ve been afforded the luxury of doing them, but they are very distinctly not about making art.
And then one day, after my children were all finally in school, I was just done. Done overthinking things. Done sitting on the sidelines. Done wishing for the thing I wanted and not having it. Done with not making art. Someone gifted me a copy of Noah Scalin’s “365: A Daily Creativity Journal: Make Something Every Day and Change Your Life!” I decided that I was going to make a thing. I wasn’t trying to be an artist. I didn’t want to sell the thing. I didn’t want any acclaim for the thing. I just wanted to make a thing. And so I did. I called it my Make Something Every Day Project and I started it over three and a half years ago. (I talked about that ongoing journey over on Caylee Grey’s blog.)
DEMENTORS, CRITICS, & MAKING THINGS
Rousseau’s story still hovers on the edge of my consciousness like a Dementor. (I’m an art history nerd AND a Harry Potter nerd! It’s totally your lucky day—two nerd-doms for the price of one!) “Real artists know how to draw.” “Real artists don’t spend their time gluing paper together.” “Real artists have studios.” “Real artists have work in shows.” “Real artists sell things.” “You aren’t a REAL artist.” My inner critic would do Rousseau’s critics proud. But now that I’ve decided to just make things, I can ignore my inner critic about 95% of the time by showing up to my art space, putting on my apron, turning on some music, and getting to work. The other 5%, when the inner critic whines too loud for me to silence it, I fight it by shopping for a few new supplies, scratching around for ideas to jump start my process, crocheting, spending time with friends and family, and, of course, there’s always chocolate to aid in recovery after a particularly harsh encounter with a Dementor.
Sometime during year two of Make Something Every Day, I realized I was getting up almost every day eager to work on art. I was making things in series. I was thinking about and planning what I could come up with to make next. I was dreaming up yearly goals for my practice. I was reading about creativity. I was scanning blogs and websites for techniques and tips. People were asking me questions about making the things they wanted to make. People were paying me actual American dollars–that they worked hard for–to own the things I made. I had inadvertently gotten serious about making art. My life had taken on the high patina (see what I did there?) of being an artist.
ACTIVIST. ARTIST. CRAFTER. DESIGNER. MOM.
And so when people would ask me what I did, I made the decision to start saying out loud, “I am an artist.” (I had to practice saying it in front of a mirror so I wouldn’t make a weird face or roll my eyes when I said it.) It’s not always a smooth conversation. People make assumptions about what artists do. I don’t paint landscapes or pretty flowers, so explaining my non-representational collage style to an engineer is kinda a nightmare. And even though the second before I say the words “I am an artist”, my heart starts to pound and I worry that someone will laugh, I say it anyway. In my mind, I defiantly flip Rousseau’s critics the bird as I say it.
It’s more than a little bit funny to me now that Rousseau’s name is listed with other post-impressionists, like Gauguin, in the history books. He is often listed as a direct influence on the Fauve and Surrealist art movements. His critics, though, the ones who chastised him for his lack of training and laughed at his mysterious jungle landscapes and badgered him about his previous employment, are all but forgotten. Take that, critics in my head!
Do I think I’m going to go down in history as part of a major art movement? No, of course not. But you know what? Who cares. I make things I enjoy. My friends and family, especially my kids, see that I spend my spare time pursuing something that brings me joy and that I don’t cave to the critics in my head. I’ve found a club that I enjoy and they value my contributions. Best of all, seriously, best of all: my business card says “artist.”