Why I don't identify as an "artist"

Friday, November 13, 2015

Recently I've taken to listening to the Crafty Planner podcast by Sandy Hazlewood during my sewing sessions. As I've been devouring both new and past episodes, I've noticed a theme during Sandy's interviews with various sew-lebrites: the idea of being an "artist."

In episode 35 with Mandy Lein, Mandy tenuously calls herself an artist, as if she is unsure if she's earned the title. While I have nothing but respect for Mandy and I would never challenge the way someone chooses to identify themselves, I was struck by my aversion to identify myself as an artist.

This isn't a new revelation for me. I've never felt quite right calling myself an artist. Even as an art major in college, I felt that the title was still missing the mark. Hearing people talk about being artists within the quilting industry stirred up my bottled up university art department experiences. I think that some people call themselves "artists" in order to elevate their work. A person who makes quilts might introduce themselves as an artist rather than a quilter because they feel that the former title has more distinction. The problem I have with this rationale is that it implies that being a quilter is not good enough. 

It's no secret that pursuits like quilting, knitting, scrap booking, etc. are deemed "crafts" or "hobbies," while the mediums that have historically been dominated by men (painting, photography, sculpture, etc.) are the ones we call "art." On the Crafty Planner podcast, Lizzy House (episode 35) even comments that when a woman makes a quilt, it's a quilt. When a man makes a quilt, it's art.

This is where my college art major angst kicks in. Most of my professors and peers were firmly in the fine art scene, with many being conceptual artists. As a representational artist, I frequently found myself at odds with others. I was unintentionally trained to bullshit a conceptual thesis to bolster my illustrations, for without one my work was deemed to be shallow, empty, or vapid. In their minds, a piece is good when it sparks a 30 minute discussion or debate. To me, art should leave you speechless. I feel that when ideas are more important than aesthetics, it should be called "visual philosophy" or something like that because the medium is nothing but an incidental vehicle to express the thought. One of my professors began referring to my work as "illustration," (a term I have zero issue with) like it was a dirty word. In college, some dismissed my work as illustration, and now some dismiss my quilts as "craft."

During my senior year of college, I vowed not to let illustration be a dirty word. I began introducing myself as an illustrator. These days, I wear a lot of hats. Quilter, pattern designer, fabric designer, blogger, etc. At the core of it all, I am a maker. There is no definitive answer for what makes something craft or art, but either way, they both involve the act of making. Making things is what brings me joy, and the word "artist" always makes me think of judgement and elitism. I am not an artist.


  1. Well said.
    My husband & I used to debate the difference between Art & Craft. His position was that anything a person made was Art, varying from Good Art to Bad Art. Then there is they saying that Craft is anything made with the hands & head, Art is made with the hands, head & heart.
    Yeah. Well. Whatever.
    I once attended a meeting of Art Quilters & found them insufferable. Modern Quilters don't want me because my hair is gray. But then, I don't feel I fit in with my gray-haired cohort. Like you, I am a Maker.
    I doubt you ever look at my blog, but I did a post similar-ish to this one called "the in crowd".

    1. I read your post and I totally get it. I felt that way a lot in college, like I was in a weird limbo between two worlds.

      I was watching the documentary Stitched about art quilters and I just kept thinking, "I would probably not get along with these people." Like conceptual artists, they seem to take themselves VERY seriously.

      But, I disagree when you say modern quilters don't want you! We do! I've missed you at the meetings recently!

  2. Well Amen girl, what a good dicussion on a topic close to my heart! I say I am a quilter and people say "Oh you make blankets!" Um no it is so much more that but how do u explain. I love ur blog, your quilts, etc. keep up the good work!

  3. As another art school grad, I totally agree with your sentiment. I have never identified as an artist, not then and not now. My work has always been textile based, usually garments or other wearable accessories (until I took up quilting last year!), and calling myself an artist just didn't seem to mesh with my work that was created to be both beautiful AND useful. Some deemed me a craftsperson or crafter and while I don't mind those terms, I feel they gloss over the intensive training and practice I've invested into my work. Luckily I had an amazing mentor in college who called herself an Artisan and I've found that term works for me as well. I feel like it honors my skills but doesn't imply that I make things for any other reason than to be beautiful, yet functional at the same time. - @handmadebyjaia (IG)

  4. I loved this post! It was also interesting to read your comments. I come from the writer side of grad school education, and we debated the terms "author" and "writer" until we were blue in the face, and there was also a lot of posturing and (as you so succinctly put it ) bs-ing of writer's statements about their words on an page. Ah, yes. It's all about the discussion. I remember blathering on about something in one of my classes, and afterwards had several students come up to ask me for help. I just laughed and told them I was making it up on the spot (I'm not a Creative Writer for nothing) and that their brains were as good as mine. I minored in a subject that had me taking multiple art classes, and for my class project I wanted to bring in my quilts to hang in the student gallery. The art proffie that ran the gallery said "over my dead body," so I went with one of my hand-made accordian books. I loved reading your progression to calling yourself a quilter--at this point in my life (I'm 62) I don't care much what people call me. My work stands on its own. And isn't that the important thing? Like you, that matters more than the labels. Thanks for this--would it be all right to quote you in a blog post on my blog? (I don't often get back to blogs I've read, so if you have an objection, please email me.) Brilliant discussion!

  5. Thank you so much!! I proudly call myself a crafter, be it sewing, quilting or knitting.
    I couldn't agree more about the pretensions of the art world. It doesn't get any better when these people go out into the world. If it isn't angry, or a rebuke of our society - it isn't art. If it is simply pretty or pleasing - it is dismissed. What is interesting is that when museums want to increase attendance they have a 'craft' show - and boy does attendance go up! I'm glad you learned how to play the game in college and I'm even more thrilled that you have found a way to make a living being a maker of beautiful thing.