This is the article I wrote for the American Tapestry Alliance's Fall 2011 Tapestry Topics which came out last week. The newsletter is currently for members only, a practice which I fear does not further the knowledge of tapestry in the wider world, so I am making what I wrote available here. If you are a member of ATA, make sure you read the whole issue. If you are not a member but are interested in the subject of professionalism as it is related to fiber art, perhaps asking ATA for access to the newsletter will help us make it more widely available.
A question of validation
What makes you an artist? Discussion of professionalism and what constitutes art vs. craft is something that I think is rare in the field of tapestry and in some places is even discouraged. I believe this kind of dialogue is important among makers of tapestry if tapestry is going to be regarded as an art form in its own right. The field of art is a large monster that often feels intimidating to me and this leads me to questions of my own worth as an artist and musings about my own cobbled-together art education.
I am a tapestry artist who is attempting to make a significant portion of my income through art, but I am lacking a BFA, an MFA, or another pile of letters relating directly to making tapestry. When I went to college, I was interested in art, but the messages I received growing up and from the world in general were that art wasn’t a stable or acceptable professional career choice, so something else would have to do. I could make art as a hobby. Years later and somewhat disenchanted with the medical career I found myself in, I started weaving tapestry. I love it. I should do this. But I don’t have an art degree. I have a masters degree in a medical profession (occupational therapy) which used to be craft-based, but now is solidly medical. In this country (USA) anyway, many of the messages we receive growing up indicate that to be a professional anything and to be “successful” you have to have a degree. So not having a BFA or an MFA psychologically hinders me at times when I am thinking about “being an artist”. When I finish a new tapestry or sell a couple in the gallery, I don’t feel that an art degree is needed. When I am in the midst of a dry spell and inspiration is far away, I am working too much as an OT, and nothing is selling, then I question myself and look for validation… and inevitably start considering art school. Perhaps this is also a longing, as I am getting closer to the end of my 30s, for more knowledge and a new means of inspiration.
|Emergence II by Rebecca Mezoff|
In order to practice as an occupational therapist I am required to have at least a masters degree, pass various national and state exams, complete large amounts of continuing education every year, and maintain several licenses. In order to call myself an artist, I only have to make art. Is this true? Certainly not everyone who has an MFA is really an artist. Maybe it really does come down to the “What is art?” question and a real inability to answer that in any concise way. Perhaps that is as it should be. Art is what it needs to be for each of us. Some of us are in the “I just want to make pretty things” camp and some of us are in the “I want to change the world” camp (and sometimes those two camps are one and the same—and is that the difference between craft and art?).
|Emergence III by Rebecca Mezoff|
|Emergence IV by Rebecca Mezoff|
I believe that as tapestry artists there are intellectually significant questions that need to be asked and I don’t see many people asking them. How can we start these dialogues? I think our need for validation is part of the human condition. In general we all need support and positive regard. However I do find that the issue of professionalism in regard to tapestry art specifically is something fiber artists don’t talk about much. In the absence of these kinds of discussions, the need for validation is even stronger.
In the end, validation has to come from inside myself. I hope that if in my work I search for what is essential and valuable for me, the work will reflect some inner truth which will hold value. The act of making that thing that is valuable for me, I hope, is the only validation I really need. If this is not true first, then art school will not make any difference at all.