In my elementary school, each week a new artist-in-residence was chosen among the students. And no, the residency didn’t come with a private office and time away from class with three meals a day—the piece of artwork that landed someone the gig was put up in a central place outside the Principal’s office. When I was 5, I made a collage based on my grandma, and was chosen as the first kindergartener artist-in-residence in the school, the youngest ever. I barely remember it, but it clearly made an impression on my parents; they were very proud. They took a picture of it, and for years I heard the story of that early artistic accolade. It was as if I had won the Guinness World Record at Edgewood Elementary.
It felt funny to me hearing that story over and over though, because although I was a creative kid, I wasn’t particularly attracted to making visual art as a child. I didn’t like to draw, and that always seemed like the main measure of whether you were a “good artist”.
I discovered photography only at 27, in a continuing ed class. I had always been curious about the medium (one my favorite books as a child was The Family of Man, a book based on a well-known MOMA exhibit ), but I had never considered trying it beyond snapshots at camp or on trips. I never took a photography class during high school or college when I had the option, partly because I think I was intimidated by the technical aspects of the camera.
It was my ex-husband who pushed me to get over my fear and take that first class, for which I am still grateful. Very quickly, something clicked for me, no pun intended. I ended up actually enjoying figuring out the f-stops and shutter speeds, and all of the other technical things I needed to learn in order to go out into the world and play with and transform what I saw through the camera. On an extended trip to Asia the following summer, I brought along my new 35mm camera (with film, which feels kind of hilarious and ancient history now—it was 2001). I was in between jobs and not sure what I was going to do, but I remember thinking at one point while I was shooting that whatever I did next, it would involve photography. I had never felt that sure about anything that I liked or was good at. It felt right.
If I had never taken that class, I might never have found my primary medium and become an artist. And through many years of playing with that medium, I’ve realized that I’m kind of a “found” artist. One of the main things that I do in my art is to take what’s already there and transform it into something new. I do that in how I choose to compose and frame an image, or by playing with long exposures, a flatbed scanner, or currently, with macro photography. Collage finds its way into my work often (some things do come full circle), and I love found poetry (like the erasure poetry we did for the Average Baby installation). I’ve never liked to make things up from whole cloth. I’ve never been good at writing fiction or making up stories, and I still feel uncomfortable drawing something that’s just in my head.
It seems obvious to me now that one can make art and be an artist without liking or being able to draw or paint, but I still meet people all the time who think they need to be able to do so in order to cross some invisible threshold. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “oh, I’m not a good artist” from someone, and they’re only talking about those mediums. It’s one reason why when I run workshops we work in a number of mediums, and they’re mostly found ones—photography, collage, audio interviews. I find people are less intimidated when transforming something that already exists. It’s a way into the creative process that can often help us get past the gatekeepers in our heads telling us we can’t make art unless we start with a blank page. I’m glad I got past mine.