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July Issue 2003

A Few Words From Down Under on
Who Says Who's the Artist?

by Judith McGrath

More often these days, when introduced to someone, we are expected to define what it is we do in order to explain who we are. We need a label, something to write in the box marked OCCUPATION on forms. Of all the labels available, Artist is the one most debated. We've all argued the difference between painters and artists, wood or metal workers and sculptors at one time or other. When it comes to Artists, what qualities distinguish the hobbyist or the amateur from the professional artist? And who makes that distinction, the individual or the rest of the world? The following art practitioners are real, I know them, their names have been changed to protect the innocent (me). Of the four, only one writes "Professional Artist" in the OCCUPATION box on forms. I invite you to read their accounts and guess which one it is.

Ladies first. After the kids were grown, Cassie attended art college part-time, to ascertain the talent she already owned was legitimate. She has been making art all her life; her first memory is of drawing a picture. Although her family has priority over painting, when she's on a creative roll or trying to resolve a problem with a composition, nothing comes between Cassie and her canvas. She creates bold colourful abstract paintings that always include a figure, enjoys experimenting with her medium and challenging her limits. Cassie has never approached a gallery nor held a solo exhibition, she doesn't need to. Her large works sell well through Interior Design showrooms where they practically walk off the wall at premium prices, a fact that continues to surprise her.

Then there's Charles who died early this year at the age of 95. He taught art for awhile after graduating from a prestigious art school but soon discovered he wasn't suited to the job. With a wife to support him, Charles retreated to his studio where he spent every day for almost fifty years pursuing his art. At the age of 86, Charles held his first solo exhibition in 1994, which I was able to give a good review. When I first met Charles at his second exhibition in 1996, he thanked me for my generous words and revealed I was the only one who ever wrote about him as an artist. His third and last exhibition in 2002 was a sell out. Charles' legacy is a six-room studio filled with an amazing collection of drawings, prints and paintings.

Soon after Dale graduated from art college he was offered a job as a part-time lecturer in the same school. He was a talented sculptor who won some big ticket public art commissions, held two successful solo shows in commercial galleries and received a government grant to put on a third, which received good reviews. Ten years ago, after securing a full-time teaching post, the one man shows ceased, however he has participated in a few mixed shows put on by a small collective of sculptors to which he belongs. Dale's job is very demanding; in addition to teaching he is expected to coordinate community art projects secured by the college, and mentor students who participate. Little energy is left over for his own work, which has not progressed since his first show.

Gerald earned a Masters of Fine Art from a reputable university art school more than twenty years ago. When he was the new young lion on the scene, he won prizes, exhibited work at good galleries in major cities around the country, participated in shows overseas and is represented in some prestigious collections. Gerald continued to develop and define his Minimalist style even as new cubs emerged, each taking their turn as leader of the pack. These days Gerald holds a solo exhibition every second or third year in a top gallery and participates in a few prize exhibitions. His high priced works continue to sell, if not like hotcakes. Gerald will sketch and paint every day when he finishes working at his full time job as a landscape gardener.

As stated above, only one of the four fills in the OCCUPATION box on forms with Professional Artist. Can you guess who it is? It's not Cassie; she'd never call herself an Artist, the tag is too ostentatious for her to wear. She would pen "Housewife" in the box with a certain flourish. Cassie will never stop making art, it's always been a part of her; she is an Artist. However, since she doesn't exhibit in galleries and hasn't had a write up in an art journal, the art world considers her just a clever painter with a paying hobby. That's fine by Cassie.

Gerald wouldn't write Artist either; he'd pen in "Landscape Gardener" on forms because that's what pays the bills. The money earned in landscaping allows him to keep painting. And he does keep painting because he has to; he is an Artist. Meanwhile, because he exhibits in a gallery, gets decent reviews, has been written about in art journals and won prizes, gallery managers and collectors call Gerald a Professional Artist. Well they would, they have a vested interest.

The late Charles would have left the box blank or written "Unemployed". But Charles spent a lifetime exploring different techniques and perfecting his skill in a variety of artforms within the parameters of Modernism, while maintaining a signature style. Why? Because he was an Artist. The art establishment doesn't know much about Charles, he came on the scene too late and left too soon. He did receive one good review but it wasn't in a major magazine, and he sold work but not to top collectors. He is considered unproven, an amateur but called an Artist in deference to his age not in reference to his work.

Oddly enough Dale is the only one of the four who would fill in the form with "Professional Artist". Unfortunately the public commissions he produced long ago have lost their identity as art works as they've become part of the landscape and few know who did them. Meanwhile the few works he exhibited over the years are static. Although his friends and students call him an Artist, new members of the art establishment don't know him as an Artist, but they do recognise him as a good art teacher, which is what he is.

So what quality defines an Artist, how do we distinguish the professional from the amateur or hobbyist, and who makes that distinction? There are sufficient reasons to call all four above-mentioned practitioners "Artists"; each shows creativity and skill and owns a decided talent that has been recognized and appreciated by others. But is that all it takes to make an Artist? The Housewife, the Landscape Gardener and the Unemployed Charles display no single specific that distinguishes them as either professional, amateur or hobbyist. Each are equally dedicated to their muse, driven by a passion to pursue their own creativity and reach their potential, and not give a hoot about titles. These are the artistic qualities they live by. These are the same qualities once practiced but now only taught by the teacher, the one who calls himself a Professional Artist.

Oh well, who's to say!

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her website at (www.artseeninwa.com).

A collection of her articles which have appeared in Carolina Arts can be found at (www.CarolinaArts.com).

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