Proficiency and Identity

I was recently talking with a colleague who had worked with Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. and the colleague reiterated how Amos says he's "not an artist." The colleague also mentioned they like to write but when people ask if they are a writer they say not really. I asked my question of why people feel compelled to say they are or are not something. My colleague immediately said, "I think it is about proficiency and identity." We both stopped and thought for a minute, surprised at how clear that seemed.

Let's look at that idea, because I think that is the answer to my previous post, "Talking about Art."

Proficiency is defined as "a high degree of competence or skill; expertise." Asking someone if they are proficient at something gets complicated when you look at all the underlying questions: Are you competent or skilled at this thing? How does it show? Do you believe you are? Do others believe you are? Do others have to believe you are good at it in order for you to actually be deemed proficient? Which others have to believe this? Why is their opinion valid or more valid than another person's?

All those underlying questions can be positively off-putting! Here's an example: I used to practice calligraphy (high school and a little in college). I would get paid to make place-cards, address envelopes, make signs. Those who did not do calligraphy themselves would say I was very good, proficient. But when I compared my work to professional calligraphers, masters in the field, I knew that I was not. I could see that my strokes weren't parallel, this o wasn't the same as that o. Did I call myself a calligrapher? At the time, yes, and did until I realized I was not going to become a master of it. It's possible I could have, if I had solely done calligraphy, but I did not. Those outside the field would say I was proficient (and they would ask me to continue even after I quit). Those inside the field probably would have said not so much. Outside, inside. Judgments. Curious to think about.

Self-confidence about what you are doing and commitment to the work are just as important as how others view what you are doing. Even if you aren't as skilled as you would like to be, believing you are at least somewhat skilled or have a little talent or aptitude for the task will keep you moving forward, learning, and becoming more proficient.

Identity is a popular word right now. It is defined as: "the fact of being who or what a thing is; the characteristics of determining this; a close similarity or affinity." I think identity gets tricky when we are talking about groups or characteristics of people. Because, what are we doing? We are creating stereotypes of that group. Sometimes those stereotypes are accurate; sometimes those stereotypes, or generalizations are true sometimes and for some people. Perhaps they are the median characteristics: many people are like this, but not all. 

I identify as a writer and as an artist. Within those broad terms, I identify as a writer of short stories and poems. I often say, "I am not a novelist." Within art I say I am a printmaker, printer, book artist. I have said, "I am not a painter," although I do paint on paper. When I think of painters I think of painting on canvas. Because I do not paint on canvas, I do not identify with the group I generalize as painters, who, in my mind, also have shows in galleries. My paintings stay in a drawer or become books. I don't identify with painters as a group. Calling myself a printmaker or printer, I identify with ink on one's hands, a mellow and friendly working style, a sharing culture, and a geeking out on certain kinds of marks.

It seems, then, that having both proficiency with the medium and identifying with the group of makers would allow a person to call oneself a writer, artist, calligrapher, painter, novelist, etc.. Being confident about who you are and what you do definitely helps you accept the title(s). (I wrote about this from a slightly different angle back in 2012: "Success = Self-Confidence + Humility.")

These days, I'm working on accepting a new term for myself: quilter. I still feel more comfortable as a printmaker working with fabric and as a bookmaker working in large-scale, open books. I suspect this allows me to skirt around my insecurities. But I am definitely making quilts, which is also what quilters do.


Unknown said…
Alisa, thank you. I'm appreciating your deep dive into those words. Very timely for me, as I struggle to find my path as a writer in the art world.
Alisa said…
Emily, you're welcome. There is something even more complicated when you do more than one thing. I've been calling myself a writer and an artist since I was about six years old, but people like to ask which one I like better, am better at, finder easier, etc. Probably the subject of another post…
Good luck to you!