On Raising an Artist

Before reading any further, please note that all art in this post is the work of my daughter, Sidney Quinn.

 This is Sidney, after having spent an afternoon making origami claws.

This is Sidney, after having spent an afternoon making origami claws.

Today, I find myself thinking about my daughter. She is 12. In her short life, she has penciled, painted, sculpted, beaded, origamied, and written stories—almost to an obsessional level. I know she can draw, and I know she has natural talent, but I didn’t realize I was truly raising an artist until she turned to me during the Strawberry Fields scene in Across The Universe and said,” Mom, what do the strawberries represent?”

Of course, I should have seen it much sooner. You’d never catch her dead with a coloring book, even as a small child. Color someone else’s drawings?? Not my kid. Or maybe when she was six, and at a friend’s paint-your-own-pottery birthday party, she picked up a blank figurine like it was a dead rat and declared, “this is NOT real clay”.

On second thought, perhaps I’m raising an art snob.

 All images here courtesy of Sidney Quinn.

All images here courtesy of Sidney Quinn.

When I was growing up, my mother would say to me, “It doesn’t matter if you want to be an artist or not. You just are. You have no choice.” I hated those words at the time. It sounded like obligation, and even as a kid I hated that concept. I didn’t like being told what to do or who to be. But as an adult (and mother myself), I better understand these words. If Sidney wants to torch her sketchbooks tomorrow and begin her life as a flag football player, I will support her every stumble. But neither her nature nor her nurture can ever be removed from her blood—she is an artist. She has no choice. (Sorry hun.)

There are things I know to do, and things I struggle with when it comes to raising an artist. Let’s discuss.

 This is a small sampling of her growing sketchbook collection. There are many, many, MANY others. Every single page is covered in pencil and marker.

This is a small sampling of her growing sketchbook collection. There are many, many, MANY others. Every single page is covered in pencil and marker.

Though I have nothing but respect for the artist who creates masterpieces on modest cardboard, or uses recycled materials, I am the kind of artist who is made giddy by oodles of glorious bright and shiny art supplies, and so is my kid. What is better than going to the art store and coming home with bags of new brushes, pencils, pristine erasers, blades, canvases, whathaveyou? For me, it can’t be beat, and I see the lightbulbs in Sidney’s eyes every time we are at the art store. And so I load her up (finances permitting) as often as possible, with the best supplies available, to keep her creativity and inspiration in full swing.

 Her bag of markers. She carries this like a purse - anywhere and everywhere she goes.

Her bag of markers. She carries this like a purse - anywhere and everywhere she goes.

I talk to Sidney about my theories of life. I want her to look beyond what she sees. I want her to think about why people do what they do. I want her to understand that she doesn’t have to agree with the masses. I want her to question everything - even me. I want her to dismiss the idea of beauty, not only because it is subjective and sets us all up for failure every time the standard for beauty changes, but because beauty is dull. It is boring and overdone. If every artist is striving to create the same “beautiful” thing, no one is creating anything truly interesting. I talk to her about adult ideas, things most people would think are beyond the grasp of a 12 year-old. I’ve never believed in treating her like a child. Because I am not raising a child—I am raising an adult. And I want her to be the most diverse and independent and fascinating goddamn adult possible.

I try to introduce Sidney to every medium I have access to. Every medium trains your brain to see the same subject in a completely different way. I am a better painter after I’ve sculpted. A better scratchboard artist after working digitally. It’s truly shocking to work in your chosen medium, and watch yourself improve because your brain has tapped into the knowledge of another. I could never create the work I do in scratchboard if it weren’t for a dozen other mediums I’ve worked in over the years. But it’s hard to convince a kid. She likes markers, so why should she do anything at all with that lump of clay I just plopped in her hand? Some things are a work in progress…

 All images here courtesy of Sidney Quinn.

All images here courtesy of Sidney Quinn.

If there is one thing I am eternally grateful for in my journey as an artist, it is (drumroll….) my day job. Yep. I feel as though I’ve tapped into a universal honesty that most artists ignore. You’re never going to pay all your bills with your art. Yes, yes, of course there are exceptions. Of course there are artists out there who do nothing but toil away in their studios and make oodles of dough (I don’t personally know any, but I think a friend of my neighbor’s cousin knows one). But let’s be honest, it’s just not a likely outcome. When I was growing up, I was mislead to think that because I was a good artist, I was going to “make it”. I was going to be rich and successful. This was the single-most damaging thing I’ve ever heard in regards to my creative life. It goes without saying that talent plays a lesser role to hark work, learning and just plain luck. A few years ago I had a hard conversation with myself. I could live my life chasing the intoxicating art dream...or I could pay my bills every month, and have money left over to buy those oodles of glorious bright and shiny art supplies that so inspire me.

But having a day job does not mean waiting tables or working at The Gap (unless you’re into that). I love photography. And so I’ve spent the last couple years of my life building a successful real estate photography business. I love what I do every day. I’ve never been happier. Is real estate photography the DREAM? No, of course not. But I enjoy doing it, and because I’ve put effort into creating a day job I love, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life as a broke, starving, tormented artist. And I'm going to be happy. This is a lesson I talk about every day with my daughter. She sees me trot off with my photo equipment, she sees me working on the shoots from my home office, and then she sees me creating my scratchboards and building my portfolio. We talk frequently about the need for balance in all areas of life, and for an artist, this is the most important balance of all. She wants to be a special education teacher when she grows up. And an artist too, she says. But she says “artist” like it’s an afterthought. An extra. A bonus. And I couldn’t be happier about that. That’s what art should be. If art isn’t your job, it will always be fun. If art isn’t your job, it will never let you down, or fail, or cause you frustration. May art never carry the burden of success. May art always be a bonus. May art always be fun.

 All images here courtesy of Sidney Quinn.

All images here courtesy of Sidney Quinn.

While looking upon my little artist, I see a flicker of my own biggest shortcoming. She is insecure about her work. She hides her sketchbooks. She is embarrassed by them. If there is an expectation placed on one of her drawing, she'll freeze up and not finish it. How can I change this behavior in her when it is so clearly a reflection of my own? I’ve been painting (or drawing, or scratchboarding) seriously since I was about 20 years old. Yet I only put my work out there about 2 years ago, when I was 34. That's when I first submitted my artwork to a book, a magazine, a grant. It took me 14 years to overcome that fear. So much wasted time, I can only shake my head. This summer, I sat in the judging panel for the Creative Pinellas Emerging Artist Grant, 36 years old, feeling like the oldest “emerging artist” in the room (though hopefully not looking like it—thanks Botox!). I just kept thinking to myself, aren’t you supposed to be ”emerging” in your twenties? Am I too old to pursue this grant? Are they gonna look at me and think, you’re 36 and you’re just now getting out there?? What a loser! 

Luckily, the jurors saw more in me than I did, and they awarded me this grant after all.

I had a big talk with my daughter recently about all of this. The talk came after a family dinner when she refused to show anyone her new sketches. With only the slightest amount of parental pressure, she became agitated and tearful. It was sad to see. The idea of showing someone her work—even just a family member—filled her with such anxiety that she nearly cried in the middle of a restaurant. I let it lie for the moment, but that night we sat on our back porch, roasted some marshmallows, and I said to her, “Hey Sid, you know how I got this grant, and have this show coming up, and I was in that magazine and those books a while back?” 

Her eyes lit up and she nodded. (For a kid, she is uncharacteristically proud of her parents.)

“Do you know why all of these good things are happening for me lately?” I asked. 

“Why?”

“Because I showed somebody my work.”

 All images here courtesy of Sidney Quinn.

All images here courtesy of Sidney Quinn.

Perhaps Sidney will learn from my shortcomings and struggles. Perhaps she’ll create her very own. I look forward to seeing what kind of artist she becomes, all the goods and bads of it. She is a genuinely good little artist, and I think I say that objectively. If this is what she is creating at 12, I can’t wait to see what the coming years will bring. And it seems our little talk on the back porch, under the stars and among gooey sweets, was a small success - If you ask nicely, without any hint of expectation or eagerness, she may just show you her newest sketches. She even gave me permission to use photos of her work in this post. Full steam ahead, kiddo, full steam ahead.