Q: Kay, so… How do you deal with people telling you that art isn’t suitable for a career/doesn’t count as work/”I took a home-ec course too, sweetie.”/etc. I hear this from almost everyone in my life, despite putting in over twenty years for my craft. And please don’t tell me to just ignore anyone because I can’t get a new mother, ya know? Anyway, I’m grumpy because some asshole (by which I mean an irreplacable loved one) just implied my life’s work is hollow, so sorry, bye!
A: Sometimes, this attitude comes from people who really hate their jobs. So to them, anything you enjoy (or even anything you don’t hate) is labeled as “not work.” A lot of these people have a very narrow definition of what a “real job” is. If it’s not at a specific time of day, it’s not a job. If it’s not in a separate building from where you live, it’s not work. Yada yada. It comes from a place of jealousy and sadness.
And then there’s the fact that a lot of people who do art are hobbyists. You don’t really see a lot of amateur surgeons who perform appendectomies on the weekends as a way of unwinding after a long work week. Most people have spent some part of their life doing art, even if it’s just coloring books when they were kids. Art is one of those things that can be a career or a hobby. So you get a lot of people who think “Well, when I did art, I like it like this and for these reasons and therefor that must be how and why other people do it, too.” And if they didn’t take it seriously, they think you don’t either.
I knew I wanted to be an artist since I was around 2 years old. I just decided, and spent the rest of my life working toward that goal. Every chance I could, I took art classes, and even convinced my mom to let me take some during the summer at the high school near my house. And me being a kid, Mom was fine with supporting that. But when I got into high school and I was still at it, still spending all my free time drawing comics and all my electives at school filled with art classes, Mom got less supportive.
She tried so hard to steer me toward sciences. Which I was also good at. But I didn’t care about the way I did art. I started looking at art schools for college, and she kept insisting I not go. It began to make me very sad and discouraged, yet all the more determined to be an artist. I didn’t go to art school (couldn’t afford it) and went to community college, where, against my mother’s advice, I took as many art and writing classes as I could.
I got a 2-year degree in art. I got a job doing graphic design. My webcomics were getting lots of attention. I got top 3 in an international comic competition. I won a grant. I published my first book.
And the day the books arrived, Mom insisted on being the first one to buy a copy. Which threw me for a loop. She was so excited about it, couldn’t stop talking to everyone she knew about it.
I thought back on her life. When she was 18, she went to school for photography. She worked as a photographer for a few years, mostly as an assistant, before getting married and quitting her job to raise us kids. She would sew us clothes and take pictures of us for the family albums, but mostly she watched kids, her own and others’. When I was in 7th grade, she went back to school and back to work, becoming a registered nurse. And it made her so, so happy. Even though the work was often very hard, she loved what she was doing. She also discovered scrapbooking, and it became her obsessive hobby, filling up my childhood bedroom. And she was married to my dad, who had once had a scholarship to art school but lost it through a clerical error and became a carpenter.
She had gone into arts and did not succeed. She had gone into sciences and found both success and joy. To her, art was a hobby she enjoyed, but could not build a career on. For her, seeing me do art, I think it scared her, the way seeing your kid getting too close to a ledge is scary. She was proud of me, but worried for me, and perhaps to her, she was trying to protect me by steering me away from art.
But holding my first book in her hands, I think she began to realize that my motivations were different from hers. I felt the way about comics that she felt about nursing. And with this first tangible piece of evidence that I could have a career making art, I gave her proof that I was an artist whether she encouraged it or not. It was never an issue after that.
I’m not saying your mother is my mother or that they’re even similar. Some people need that proof and some people will never be satisfied no matter what evidence you bring to them. I don’t know your mother. This is my experience, dealing with complicated human beings with complicated feelings who didn’t know how to communicate them for a while. I resented the lack of support I got when I was younger, but I’ve long since forgiven her.
I do have to go through these same steps with friends, too. It’s a constant process. I think of this as just another part of being an artist, having to justify my existence. I don’t take it personally. I’ll get grumpy and mad about it sometimes, but in the end, I know I’m an artist. It is the #1 thing that comprises my identity, and it won’t go away just because someone doesn’t believe in it.