What do you “own?”

(April 2017)
Two days ago I was sitting at dinner with a group of ministers and conservationists. The conversations around the table ranged from cultural anthropology to our favorite bands, but as the evening drew to a close, one of the ministers at the far end of the table, Stephen, was curious about my current human trafficking art project.  We chatted briefly across the crowd and I passed him my card.  Studying it he said, “So, are you an artist?”

I froze, the litany starting in my head.  What do you say here?  Are you an artist? Really?  Ever made money with your work? How will it be perceived by the group if I say yes?  Oh brother, what do I say?

“Umm,” I began, “well…” a friend of mine down the table shot me a glance like, “Why can you not answer that?” Stephen asked me another question and I made some quip about not being sure what I wanted to admit to.  The table laughed and we broke for the evening.

Standing by my car afterward, chatting about musicians, my friend told his date that I was a badass flute player.  “Now that I will own!” I laughed, rolling my eyes about my earlier performance.  “Yeah, what was that about?” he said, “Why couldn’t you ‘admit’ to being an artist?”

It’s deeper than that.  Less about what we are and more about what we think we have to prove.  The constraints of hyper-critical self-judgement are strong, especially when we’ve had certain expectations drilled into us.  No one aspires to make the laugh reel on American Idol but plenty of under qualified contestants continue to attend those auditions. There’s a difference between a gift and a dream but it doesn’t mean you always need both in equal amounts to succeed.

Reading this post a year later, the Artifacts of Human Trafficking exhibition is now a reality, currently on the second stop of a four-city tour. I’m amazed and humbled.  All the news briefs mention my name followed by the title “artist.” No one questions my status so, why should I?

Okay, Stephen, I’m finally ready to answer your question.

 “Yes, I am an artist.”