More Than A Hobby: Choosing To Be An Artist

Van Gogh 5

Summer is a time I often longed for during the school year. It was a wonderful, albeit short, escape from my school-based anxieties.

In case you can’t guess from that sentence alone, I’ll tell you that I did not have a friendly relationship with school. If school were my neighbor, I’d be the guy that shit on their doorstep at 4 in the morning and they’d be the kind of neighbor to watch you get your legs hacked off with a hand saw, taking pictures and posting videos to twitter rather than calling the police.

So, I enjoyed summer. But, this particular year, the year I am about to talk about, I was not looking forward to it… because it was going to be my last one. It would be the last REAL summer, the last anxiety-free summer following an abusively persistent school year. For the first time since kindergarten, I didn’t want to see the school year end.

I’m sure it had to do with the fact that in my last two years of schooling, I was finally surrounded by friends that liked me and saw me as a kind of leader.

I’m sure it had to do with the fact I enjoyed my teachers and had finally gotten used to the very wonky setup of the High School building, which had confused me endlessly years before.

I’m sure it even had to do with some sort of nostalgic attachment to the place. Or Stockholm syndrome, more likely.

But, the real reason was Ms. Gantz.

Beginning at the start of Senior year, I kept hearing about this woman. I was warned by everyone from my friend Vincent (who was known to exaggerate), all the way to the teaching staff and guidance counselors. The message? Be wary and don’t buy into everything she says to you.

I didn’t let it bother me at first. It didn’t matter much to me, anyway. I would never have to interact with this woman… or would I? Nearing the end of my last year, everyone (AND I MEAN EVERYONE) was laying it on thick how important it was to go to college.You simply must go! Please, offer your non-existent money to the bottomless pit! It’ll come back to you, honest!

I wasn’t entirely convinced, or so I thought.

Yet, I was being pushed to get financial assistance. My Mom and I have never really had much money (and that’s being generous), and if there was even a slim chance that I might be going to college, the school staff wanted me to have help. Which, I suppose, was nice of them. If only they’d known who they’d be sending me to in order to get it…

Ms. Gantz was in charge of financial assistance and her M.O. was that she always liked to have several long, in-depth interviews with the kids before she decided to help them. I was set to just avoid this woman, who had less than the best reputation, but I soon found myself set up with an appointment.

First, however, I got to see the craftsmanship of this woman up close.

First, she interviewed my friend Ben. Ben was a year younger than me yet about a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than I was at the time. But, he’s a gentle giant. His love, since 5 years old, was singing on stage and acting for theater. I can tell you first hand that he has amazing singing chops and his acting skills garnered the respect of fellow actors in every play he was a part of. It was his passion and his love.

One meeting with Ms. Gantz and he’s telling us (me, my friends, and the teachers) how the show he’s doing will be his last.

When asked why, he tells us how theater just doesn’t pay much and it’s an unrealistic kind of job. What’s it good for, really? Where does it lead?

We were shocked. Ben was a strong-willed person. Once he’d decided one way or the other, he was hard to budge. I can remember a time he didn’t want to go to health class and he had a shouting contest with his guidance counselor for what seemed like hours, but he still would not budge. Ms. Gantz had not only made Ben budge, but she had crushed his ambitions.

Next up was my first real friend since elementary school, Vincent. Now, my friend Vincent was an amazing artist. I sometimes teasingly termed him ‘van Gogh’, which, although unoriginal, certainly fit his sometimes moody/brooding attitude and lack of self-confidence combined with his ridiculous artistic skill.

As far as I’m concerned, you’re not really friends with someone unless you can sit together in peace without saying a word and yet still be happy to be in each others company. And, that’s exactly how Vincent and I spent study halls. We’d sit on the landing of this staircase near the back of the school. He’d be playing his favorite calming Japanese music and drawing anime/manga figures intricately with his mechanical pencil on a moleskin sketchbook, and I would sit across from him with my laptop on my knees, clacking away on a short story or a new genius novel idea that’d probably never come to fruition. Unless or until a teacher would come along harping on him to get going on his Math or English homework, we could stay like that for a long, long time. Completely wrapped up in our artistry, and the music, and enjoying each others company.

Here are some of Vincent’s sketches (the one in the middle is my favorite):

Vincent’s art skills come from a lot of practice, mostly from all the time spent drawing in his bedroom, being ignored by his grandparents or isolating himself following scathing ridicules from his arrogant artist father.

When I first met Vincent, I could tell right away that he was in love with his art form, but I could also tell how seldom anyone ever paid him any compliment. I was one of the only people in his life at the time to encourage him to keep doing what he loved.

Vincent is a true artist. When he is sad, he draws while he skulks. When he is annoyed, he draws wearing an angry face. When he is happy, he draws while smiling. When he is tired, he draws until he falls asleep. When he is energetic, his drawings become more elaborate. Most of all, when he is dejected and lonely (which was often for him), he always had the mechanical pencils and sketchbook to fall back on, even if no one was there to encourage him or tell him that what he was doing was good.

One meeting with Ms. Gantz and Vincent nearly threw his sketchbooks in the trash.

Vincent told me about the meeting. He told me she had badgered him with questioning, expecting him to know every step of his life for the next five years. She asked him what he wanted to be, and so he told her, honestly, that he wanted to be an artist. Well, Ms. Gantz didn’t seem to think much of that.

“Do you know how little most artists earn? How do you expect to pay the rent, or for electric, or for food?” Reasonable questions, no doubt. But, they weren’t asked in order to help Vincent plan out his finances. No. They were asked to shine light on the things he did not know in an effort to squash his dreams, and it nearly worked.

“Does your family like your artwork?” she asked him. Vincent, I imagine, took a long pause and hung his head as he was accustomed to doing when he was made to explain, or apologize, or admit his shortcomings.

“No, not really.” he told her. Once again, he was just being honest, as he always tried to be.

“Then,” she said, and I imagine her saying the following with the same cruel excitement one gets when they finally hammer the head of a whack-a-mole with the mallet, “what makes you think that anyone else would?”

If it hadn’t been for myself and the homeroom teacher, Vincent might have quit on his art for good that day. And, what a shame that would have been for him, and for every set of eyeballs that would never have gotten to see his work.

On the day of my appointment with this threshold guardian of a woman, I thought I was ready. I thought that I had my dander up and all defenses were online. I had my friends and teachers practically huddled around me, reminding me again and again to be careful not to be lead astray. They weren’t worried about me crumbling under the pressure as others had done. To them I imagine I seemed confident, almost nonplussed. For, while I was royally pissed at what she had said and done to my friends, I had no concern about her doing anything of the kind to me. I knew myself, I was confident about the person I was becoming.

My guidance counselor lead me, as though leading a death row inmate to the gas chamber, all the way to the front door of Gantz’s office. And then, I was left alone. I knocked on the door. A sharp, impatient voice bellowed from inside, “It’s open!” I walked through and the self-closing door slammed shut behind me.

What I saw was a decrepit, old woman with a face as lined as a road map, and frosty white hair that lay limply on her shoulders. She was plump and sat like a toad in her wheelchair. She had only one leg. The woman behind the stories was a bit of a shock to see. She wasn’t anything my friends hadn’t already made note of, but much like a shock image or video of decapitation, descriptions pale in comparison to the grizzly nature of the actual imagery.

The actual memory of the conversation I had with her is shaky in my mind. But, what I do remember is how the conversation made me feel.

Having been prepped by my friends, I knew what tricks she’d try to pull. I can tell you with certainty that she tried each and every one. But, she failed to shut me down and make me second-guess myself. And, I could tell it was bothering her… which made it all the better. I didn’t go for the interview in order to win her over and have her grant me financial assistance for college – because, I really didn’t think I wanted to go to college. I went to the interview to stand up to this woman who was stomping on the spirits of my friends. As far as that mission went, I felt I had succeeded. I believe that she even had plans to offer me that financial assistance. Unlike the others, I was granted a second interview. But, I didn’t go.

What I didn’t realize at the time was this woman’s ability to place the seed of doubt at the back of the mind of impressionable kids. I didn’t like to think of myself that way, but I was far more impressionable than I was willing to admit. Initially, nothing seemed to happen. But, by the time I had graduated, the seed she had planted was growing and by the middle of July it would bloom.

Out of seemingly nowhere, I had decided it was futile to try to become a writer. It was just a dream, and it was time for me to wake up. So, there I was… graduated from High School, with no job and fewer people to hang around with. I was isolated, staying indoors and inside of my head the thoughts ran rampant. And, I began to panic because my direction was lost.

Skip ahead, beyond a very troubled six months, and I had come to what I believed to be my own conclusions. I was going to go to college. Why? Because that’s what I was supposed to do and I needed direction. I was going to be a teacher. Why? Because someone told me I’d be a good one, and writing couldn’t be an option. It just wasn’t viable. It just wouldn’t pay the bills.

If I was a bit impressionable in Senior year, I was very impressionable the year after graduation. Stress and depression have ways of convincing you to abandon the things you hold dear and believe in things that you’d have never believed before.

Ms. Gantz had planted a seed that I had then watered and nurtured to fruition. As the time came close for me to sign up for college, I could feel a certain extra weight in my steps. I was working at a restaurant as a busser, tiring myself out physically and mentally with the labor and monotony. I suppose that, in one way, I was contented to know where I was going, to have a direction. But, there was something wrong. I couldn’t put it into words for a long time. It felt almost taboo, almost forbidden.

Then, one day I came down with a bug and had to stay home from work. I was laying down, my eyes half shut, perusing my email, when… I received a new email in my inbox. It was from a forum I had joined nearly a year earlier, while I was still in school. A writing forum. They were running their annual short story contest and anyone could write a story and win. Although I felt royally shitty and ached to the bone, something grabbed me in that email. I felt I had to enter the contest, I had to write the best story I could and send it in.

So, that’s exactly what I did.

Now, if this were your traditional fairy tale, my well-crafted story would have outshined all the rest and shown that I was the greatest writer of them all. But, that didn’t happen. I lost the contest. I wasn’t even in the top five. But, I didn’t care. By the time I had finished my story, the contest no longer mattered. Because, after all the days of working all night at the restaurant and then all the next day working on my story, I knew something very important. I needed to write. It was as though I had somehow forgotten something SO important. I am meant to be a writer, a storyteller.

Anyone who’s found the thing they’re meant to do will tell you that it seems to have always been inevitable, looking back. It is only in the moment that we do not know where we’re going, but in our memories we can see how it was always meant to be.

My Mom tells the story of when I was four years old. My Mom and Dad were sitting outside in their lawn chairs, drinking coffee. My Aunt was over, visiting with them. Meanwhile, I was delightfully playing with my little orange shovel. I liked to spin around in circles, holding the handle of the shovel away from my body and whiping it around and around, watching the blur of orange pass by my eyes.

On that particular day, it seemed I was in persistent want of attention, because I was spinning the shovel dangerously close to my parents. They told me to be careful and play a little farther away, but, of course, I wasn’t listening. I was busy watching the flashes of orange and trying not to fall down from being dizzy. I kept spinning and spinning until finally the shovel hit something solid, my Dad’s coffee cup. The steaming hot liquid sloshed onto his legs. He shot up to his feet at once, yelped out loudly in pain, and ran into the house. I, meanwhile, had dropped my shovel and disappeared behind the dumpster, hiding in fear.

I had no real reason to fear my father. He wasn’t going to hit me or scream at me, but he had yelped and I didn’t like his yelpage. My ears were sensitive to yelpage.

The way my Mom tells the story, I eventually came out from behind the dumpster. I ran over to my Mom and my Aunt and they comforted me, telling me it was alright because it was an accident.

At that point, a normal kid might feel guilt or remorse or pick up his shovel and go play somewhere else. Instead, I reenacted the whole series of events – from me swinging the shovel, to the coffee spilling over and my Dad jumping up and down yelping, and me running behind the dumpster. And, I noticed something strange. This little reenactment had the adults in stitches. They thought it was hilarious. So, of course, I did it again. And again. And again.

It became the norm after a while. Something funny would happen at school, so I would come home and relay it with embellishment. My parents would laugh and I would feel good about myself.

That might seem silly but to me it is just one of those memories of how I was always a storyteller, even when I didn’t know what that meant at the time.

When my Mom would be sad, I would tell her a funny story from school. Or a series of them. I can remember making things up at times  just so I could make her laugh and distract her from whatever was causing her to cry.

When my Dad would get drunk and be belligerent toward me and my Mom, I’d disarm him by telling stories and making him laugh or making him feel something, even while his mind was numbed by liquor.

When my Aunt died, the same Aunt from the story above, and we were grieving, I re-told and reenacted funny and endearing stories about her, again and again, for family and friends.

My stories did not make it to paper, the need to write things down is relatively new. But, I most certainly have always been a storyteller and, as I look back, it seems to me there was no way I could have become anything else.

After months of being without direction, I found it again when my therapist reminded me, “You do know, Cody, don’t you – that you don’t HAVE to go to college? That you don’t have to be a teacher?”

I suppose that somewhere inside of me, I did know that. But, it was buried deep. I didn’t really want to be a teacher. I didn’t want to go to college, not then. Once the decision was placed in front of me for me to make without the pressure of what I was SUPPOSED to do, it was simple. I wanted to be a writer, and that was it.

Walking back from that appointment, I felt lighter than I had felt in months. I went home and the first thing I did was run upstairs, open my laptop, and I began to write.

Nearly three years after graduation, I’m proud to say that I have found myself back where I started, but perhaps a little wiser for having lost myself. It took floundering around and other people leading me astray for me to truly understand who I was and what path I was meant to follow. I’m proud of where I’ve ended up, even if the journey was not friendly. And, I am also proud to say that Vincent is still drawing, and Ben is back singing on the theater stage.

Writing, and drawing, and theater – these may be just hobbies for some people… and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to write, please write. If you can draw, I’d love to see it. And, there’s never too many people to grace the stage. But, don’t make the mistake of assuming others who share your passions are only hobbyists like you.

For some, their art form is as essential as food and breath. And by that I don’t mean they will die without it. But, what happens when you go long enough without food? The world becomes dimmer, smaller, darker. What happens when you try to hold your breath? Your brain yells and screams at you to let it go. And, when you don’t, the world again becomes dimmer, and smaller, and darker.

Choosing the life of an artist over a hobbyist is an easy choice to make, but it is not an easy choice to live with. It may not be every day, but it might be once a week, or once a month, that something will jump into your life that tries to make you change. New people, overdue bills, family influence, your own self-criticism.

Ms. Gantz wasn’t wrong to warn people about costs, but she was wrong to think that costs are reason to not pursue your dreams.

Bringing dreams to reality is possible for everyone, but it takes an enormous amount of power. And, that power will not come out of thin air. It is created by an invisible machine, a dream making machine we all have within us. This machine can pump out anything we want, so long as it is what we truly, truly want. But, there is a cost. Because, this machine does not run by itself. It has to be powered by something, and in this case, the exact something that powers the dream machine is sacrifice.

Every reason that someone could give to not pursue your dreams hinges on the fear of sacrifice.

“You won’t get paid much!”

“That won’t produce a living wage!”

“Oh, you’ll starve!”

“You won’t have time to do anything else!”

“You’ll be away from your family!”

“It takes too much effort!”

All of these seemingly helpful warnings are really just the selfish fears of others in disguise.

“You won’t get paid much!” Really means, “At least I hope not! Because, I ain’t getting shit and I’m not doing what I love. I don’t want you to be better off than me!”

“That won’t produce a living wage!” Really means, “I screwed myself financially before I was 30 years old, please don’t have fun while I have to play catch up!”

“Oh, you’ll starve!” Really means, “I don’t have the balls to rough it like you do, and I am unwilling to give some of my abundance to someone willing to live with less!”

“You won’t have the time for anything else!” Really means, “You won’t have time to listen to me complain about my life!”

“You’ll be away from your family!” Really means, “I am unwilling to miss you in exchange for you accomplishing your dreams.”

“It takes too much effort!” Really means, “I don’t have the discipline or ambition that you do, so I want to drag you down to my level!”

Sacrifice is what makes dreams come true. As long as you know that, you are set. Not everyone can or will make the sacrifices necessary, but they should never, ever tell the rest that they can’t do something because they won’t.

In the history of humanity, you’ve got to believe there were tons and tons of amazing artists and storytellers. Perhaps they showed a propensity for it at a young age, or maybe in their old age they had lived long enough and hard enough to excite a crowd with stories and images from their youth. Yet, most of them did not go on to be artists or storytellers. Not professionally, at least.

I suppose there have been enough justifiable reasons over the years, but you never can shake the feeling that maybe if the world was a little more kind and considerate to artists, we’d have heard dazzling stories and seen mind-bending imagery beyond what we, in our current day and age, could possibly comprehend.

And, that’s what makes me angry. That’s what makes me stand up and yell at norm-setters and go on wild twitter tirades that no one ever seems to pay attention to.

It’s not that there haven’t been good reasons to quit on artistic dreams. The economy has been a source of the problem for a long time. Big house, big family, but not enough money. So, young Jimmy-Joe Monet has to give up his dream of being an artist and one day having his work featured at the Louvre in Paris for a job hauling crates on the docks. Because, after all, the money is much better and it’s a reliable income, far more than can be said for the wages of an artist. It’s not like Jimmy-Joe would get his work into the worlds most prestigious art museum anyway, right?

Wrong. You have no idea who will end up being honored as one of the greatest artists of all time. Do you think people from the 19th century had any freaking idea that Vincent van Gogh was going to be given that honor? No. Instead, they bullied and put down a mentally unstable, possibly bipolar genius until he finally took his own life. He died a poor man who was never, ever recognized in his lifetime. But, you know what? Van Gogh was still more fortunate than Jimmy-Joe Monet, our made up aspiring artist, because at least he managed to paint. His artwork is treasured to this day.

Our friend? He’s just working down at the docks, still barely getting by even though he’s living a shitty life. To clarify, a shitty life is not one spent hauling crates at the docks or teaching or working as a busser in a restaurant. Not if that’s what you want to do. A shitty life is spending your life doing anything but what you love.

My stance is that life is far too short, far too impermanent, far too pointless, far too capricious, and far too beautiful to spend it doing anything but that.

Mozart died when he was 35, far too young. But he had spent nearly all his life being the artist he wanted to be, living the life he wanted to live. Naturally, you say, “But, Mozart was a genius! Not everyone is.” To which I naturally give you a swift kick in the ass. You are wrong. If you don’t think you’re a genius – or worse, you think you’re an idiot… you’ve simply not found your area of expertise. Mozart was lucky, he found it right away. Sometimes it is harder, but don’t put yourself down in the process.

It may seem morbid, but the way I look at things is that no one is going to escape death. One day, each of us is going to close our eyes for the final time and in that last millisecond of our existence, myth says that our lives will flash before our eyes. What if the myth is true? Don’t you want that last explosive moment to mean something to you? To be important, even if only in your eyes?

I want that life flashing before me to be full of creative discovery and living each day the way I wanted to live. Not day after day of wiping dried puke off of restaurant tables. I worked as a busser in a restaurant once. And, I’m telling you the truth when I say I was one of the hardest workers they had. I lugged heavy, dish-filled basins to and fro, sometimes rushing and occasionally sloshing water and sour wine onto the floor, or somebodies back.

Hours and hours a day, spraying and scrubbing tables, gathering menus, listening to bickering and gossiping and screaming of young babies out beyond their bedtimes, the same generic pop music blaring over it all constantly.

Bussed the table – thank you – you’re welcome. Bussed the table – thank you – you’re welcome.

On and on.

I’d come home at times and dream of spraying tables and washing them with wet rags. Even months after I left the job, I’d dream of being on break at the wrong time or dropping dishes on defenseless little toddlers. Let me tell you, from my second day on the job I knew that my time there was limited. The last thing I want to see when I die is a wet rag swiping across a table stained with chocolate sauce.

But, for others, it was what they had always wanted to do. Some of my coworkers LOVED it there. It is not the job, but the person working the job that makes it worthwhile.

The question is, does the life of an artist feel that way for you? Does the idea of painting or writing or dancing, doing whatever it is you do to express yourself – does the idea of doing those things every day of your life fill you with peace and contentedness? Or, does it feel heavy and hard and like too much commitment?

Are you able to do your art without concern of how you will be paid? Or, even better, do you do your art even when you know you will be the only one to ever see it? Because, artists need to earn money like everyone else – but doing art for money alone is what contaminates its purity and originality.

Can you stay away from your art form? This is the greatest question to ask. Can you make yourself not do what you love? And, if so, for how long? What happens? Do you find your way back to it? How?

Try as she did, Ms. Gantz could only deter me and my friends for so long. Because, we were all true artists. I didn’t write for REASONS, I wrote because it is what I do. Vincent didn’t draw because of this, that, and the other thing. Ben didn’t start singing on stage because there was some moral necessity or some authoritative commandment that he must do so.

Each of us tried to abandon our art forms and it seemed that the universe conspired to bring us back to them. What happens to Vincent when he feels something strongly and he doesn’t have his sketchpad? What happens when Ben can’t grace the stage, acting and singing for the crowd? What happens when I decide I can’t be a writer and that I have to stop dreaming?

What happens is that Vincent will find a piece of scrap paper and anything he can find to write with. Ben will break out into song over lunch or by himself in the shower or in front of his family. And, I will construct stories in my mind and come up with ideas for new ones based on the words I hear, the things I see, the moments I experience – I can’t even help it.

A hobbyist wants to be an artist. They want to create and they want to get the praise that great artists are given, but they don’t want to devote the time or the energy. They don’t want to make the sacrifices or live the life.

An artist can’t help being what they are and, for their own sake, they should never try to be anything else.

Make the choice, live the life. Make the sacrifices, financial and personal. And, listen, I’m not telling you this as a billionaire aristocrat who has had anything they’ve wanted since the day they were born. I’m telling you this as a poor man who grew up a poor boy, who wears pants with holes and patches because he can’t afford any others, and skips meals to make sure the week’s worth of food lasts the whole week because there is no money to buy anything else.

If you are an artist, you will know by the end of this article. Don’t suppress it, don’t try to be anything else. For every hard day you could live scrounging as an artist, there could have been years and years of living a lie about who you are. Which do you think is worse, in the end?

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