My Story

posted in: Wheatberry Design | 0

Excuse me while I tell my story, as much for myself as I transition into a new phase of the creative life as for anyone who may be curious to know my motivations and seek resonance with their own.

This is a story of how I got from here:

www.erincsmith.nearbyart.com

To here:

Identifying as a creative person is a confusing and somewhat existential thing. I had a wild imagination as a kid, drawing and writing, playing make-believe, and making up endless stories in my head. Pretty early on, I decided I was going to be an artist when I grew up. And I did. . . kind of. I have a BFA in Studio Art and English (specifically, I decided at approximately the age of 7 that I was going to be an author and illustrator; later that morphed generally into artist and writer); and an MFA in Studio Art with a focus on printmaking. I love book arts and poetry, and they form the basis of my creative work, whether or not the work actually takes book or poetic form.

For those of you unfamiliar with the fine art side of my work, I sum it up with this statement:

My imagery derives from my fascination with the stories innate in the human-made. Through close observation of the quotidian, I coax the poetic quality of otherwise overlooked aspects of life to the surface. My work hinges on metonymy: using the small and intimate to extrapolate from it weightier, more sublime narratives.

I think big, but I work small and detailed. I am awed and terrified by the simultaneous beauty and destructive power of humanity and of the earth. I think a lot about the precariousness of our current situation as human beings living in the 21st century, and I am compelled to boil this all down to the small corner of the world that I can grasp, the unravelled threads in my surroundings that I can collect and attempt to tie into the rest of the picture.

Herein lies my foundation. I realized through my explorations in graduate school, however, that though I purported to be seeking connection through my work, I could only see self-isolation and a certain exclusivity dogging me through a career as a working artist. I knew I needed to be creative in order to feel fulfilled, but even more than that, I needed to move beyond metaphorical and poetic connectivity and plug into an actual community – a community as ardent as I am about sustaining and appreciating life of all forms on this planet.

I found that community in Portland. There are many vibrant people here who care deeply about leading a life that is true to whatever course they feel holds integrity and resonates with their passions. They work hard to do it but they also know they can only do it with the support of others. Immediately, I was inspired to plug in and do my part to support some of the collective goals I could feel implicitly connecting the people I met – goals to do with community resilience, sustainability, intentional living, and generally making space for possibilities beyond the status quo.

All my explorations in grad school helped me hone my artist’s statement to understand where my creative drive came from, but it also taught me that this drive pushes me beyond what art can provide in my life. Much as my thinking is embedded in metaphor, I am also a hands-on and practical person. I need to see change and impact. I want results. How could I use my skills to do something with more immediate and direct results than those of the fine-art world?

I found the answer, or at least part of it, in graphic design. As a printmaker and letterpress artist, the principles came naturally to me – much of printmaking being the precursor the modern-day graphic design and typography. And I could make things for people in whose missions and causes I believed in. Through visually impactful imagery, I could help further more physically substantial missions—growing food for people, teaching people centeredness and awareness through yoga, creating alternative energy sources.

A quick side note here to say that I do believe in the power of art to change the world. I don’t think of all universities, galleries, and museums as elitist and exclusive institutions (though they do factor into the accessibility, or lack thereof, of art). I have tremendous respect for those who decide to make a very hard-working career as a full-time artist. Myself, I cannot do it – the fine art world is my springboard but not my landing place. I’ve had to expand my concept of creativity in order to fit “art” into my life: to cooking, to athletics, to reading and writing, and to graphic design.

This all sounds like a beautiful resolution and a smooth arc landing me right where I need to be. In many ways, it is. In equally many ways, it is not. What it means to be a creative person is a continuous exploration (edit that: what it means to be a person is a continuous exploration). It is a blessing and a curse. I miss drawing. I miss spending whole days in my studio churning out work, or honing in on a single detail until my eyes hurt. I still make, every day, but there is a stream of my life I feel cut off from. I am not sure if it is just that my expectation of what I would do as an artist is so different from the final result, so that I always have the “what if” voice tugging me back to the studio; or if the need to draw and print and write poetry is really a core part of me that I must make space for, even if it is not my central focus. I tend to think the latter, and it is a daily struggle to fit it in.

I do think, though, as I move forward in forming a definition of “the creative life” for myself, that this space must be made. The art I produce in my studio may not be destined for a gallery or museum, it may not be seen by much of an audience or ever sold, it may not be the tangible result I seek, but it reminds me where I am coming from and makes all my other moves more intentional.

Sustainability, I am discovering, is about relationships. In order to create the moral, spiritual, intellectual, and environmental resilience that is absolutely fundamental to moving forward on this earth in any kind of lasting way, we need each other. We need each other to navigate all that is too large and harrowing to process (I could get specific here, but pick any number of recent events and I know you will know what I mean). Through my art, I can create a relationship to what I see around me, but it is only through connecting with others that I can do anything about it and feel its impact in however small a way.

My mission is not so large as trying to change the world. I would feel too small and defeated all the time if that were the intention I set for myself. Instead, it is to connect to others so that we can change the world – even if that world only extends as far as our community, Portland, or Maine. I’ll do my bit in the ways I know how, and I’m usually best at doing my bit when it involves creative thinking.

Another local creative recently said to me, “Who you are is subject to change, but what you are remains.” She said it in a fairly offhand manner, so the order of those pronouns could be debated, but the message remains. I am not the writer and illustrator I set out to be at the age of seven, but I remain someone who takes in my surroundings with all my senses and grapples with them through creative acts, striving always to put something of sustenance back into the world.

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