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What is an “artist”?

I have been making and selling at markets since 2007, but there’s one word that I don’t use about myself – “artist”. I’ve been thinking about what to write about this for months – and now, I have finally got around to it!

A great opportunity for a start and end of decade photo op – me, in 2010


And me, 5 minutes ago (23/11/19), posing with my last bird design

Other people often call me an artist. Generally, I just let it go, because it’s a useful shorthand for what they mean – a person who creates things. When I do correct people, and tell them that I don’t see myself as an “artist”, they can get quite offended, or think that I am being self-deprecating, but that’s not what’s going on.

There are so many different terms and labels for creative people, and so much baggage associated with them, that I personally prefer the term “maker”. That’s why I called my markets (currently on pause) “Wrought Makers’ Markets” – because it feels more inclusive of all the different types of creatives who sell at markets, but also because of what the word means to me.

What is a “maker” to me?

In my personal lexicon, a maker is someone who sees a need, or a gap, and fills it with something they create. So any kind of problem-solver who creates their solution is a maker; this includes people in customer service, designers, solution architects; people who cook food, propagate plants, come up with innovations, design and 3D-print things…

Makers fall into different categories, in my mind. Here are some of them. 

There are conceptual problem-solvers, people who build their solution out of ideas – think entrepreneurs, inventors, people pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible.

There are everyday makers – people who make things that make our everyday lives better, sometimes without us even noticing. These are the baristas, the supermarket bakers, the home cooks and the burger-flippers, the gardeners and mechanics; the people who keep building better and more efficient technologies, the simple comforts that we take for granted, like having a washing machine that works, or being able to recharge our cellphones. The carpenters, plumbers, and the people who keep the traffic lights working. They are also the practical problem-solvers – for example, when something goes wrong with an experience and the person in charge fixes it for you – think customer service people arranging a replacement for a broken or lost item, or when a restaurant forgot to cook your bacon extra-crispy and you get a free dessert, or when a software support person implements a workaround so that end-users can keep working while the fix gets built.

There are the technical makers – the people who design bridges and car engines, the people behind renewable energy sources, the laser-cutters and the software programmers, the game designers and model aeroplane builders.

And then, there are the artisan makers – people who make the things that machines can make – the unnecessary but wonderful crafts. The wood turners, the potters and ceramicists, the chocolatiers and the pastry chefs, the jewellers and the glass workers, the blacksmiths and the leather-workers, the designers and illustrators. These are the people who make beautiful things that meet a practical need whilst being just perfect on their own – the bread that makes you stop everything to savour its crust, or the wine that deserves to breathe before you sip it while watching the sunset.

I drew a Venn diagram to show that these categories can all overlap, too – for example, you could be an artisan baker, or a technical conceptual maker. 

So… what is an artist?

In my mind, the phrase “art for art’s sake” is what differentiates an artist from a maker. There is, of course, a crossover – cooking the perfect steak is most definitely an art form, as are almost everything that makers make – but if we make a Venn diagram of “maker works” and “artworks”, the things that are “pure” art are the things that have no real, practical purpose. A canvas on a wall, a sculpture, a mural, a framed photograph, a glass bowl designed to hold nothing but light, an installation piece of hanging lightbulbs where no light is required – the only purpose of these pieces is to delight, inspire, engender a reaction, pass on a message, reveal a truth – they are pieces that have a huge aesthetic and emotional purpose, but they are luxuries. 

An artist, therefore, in the purest sense, is someone who creates beauty for its own sake. 

And that’s where I hit a wall. 

So… am I an artist?

Well, when I create, I definitely do it for my own satisfaction – but my satisfaction requires me to solve a problem. 
So in order to justify my drawings, I need them to serve some sort of purpose. Jewellery is a form of self adornment, so it’s in the centre of the artist/maker Venn diagram. So are my fabrics, home decor, scarves, and my craft kits. Practical, but also decorative – artworks by a maker.

So… am I an artist, if my work can be called “art”?

First of all, let’s address the baggage of the word “artist”. There’s all the starving, which I refuse to do, as well as the somewhat pretentious “art, dahling” world, which is not my scene. Yes, I know a good bit about the history of art. No, I don’t need to include visual quotes from the Hellenistic period, or hidden references to the Old Masters in what I create – I might, but that’s to celebrate them, not to separate myself from the ignorant peasants. 

Secondly, I find that “real” art needs a message. I have no interest in giving a meaning, or a message, to my pieces – I draw what I like to look at, in a style that gives me pleasure, for the purpose of creating fabrics, jewellery, embroidery kits, etc – so, no, it’s definitely not art for art’s sake, or for the edification of the viewer. My artwork is not political, even if I regularly play with things that are political. My designs do not require interpretation, even if I sometimes draw things that I find important, such as my a bird a day series, which is about our most threatened bird species.

Art is unconstrained by a need to serve a purpose, whereas my work is designed to do a job. 
So… no, I do not consider myself an artist. Artists and I run on parallel paths, but what I make is designed, end-to-end, to be used, not just to be.

So, if my “artwork” is practical, am I a maker?

Yes. Definitely. 

I am in the centre of the Venn diagram – and I choose to self-define as a maker, rather than an artist, although I am happy to call my output both “designs” and “artwork”.

I make things for specific purposes. BUT they are also primarily decorative – which is why I call what I make “functional art”. 

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