professionalism in tapestry

That moment when you know you know what you know

Ever had that moment when you knew you nailed it? When you had the skill, understood what was happening, anticipated results, made it work?

What does it mean to say you're a professional anyway? I don't know if the answer is the same in every profession. Probably not.

When I was an occupational therapist I pretty much knew that if I could manage to keep a head injured combative man from punching me, transfer a 150 pound quadriplegic by myself, and not break down in tears when I had to clock out and still had two hours of paperwork to do at the rehab hospital all in the same day, I was a professional... or at least had done it long enough to avoid the tears part.

Later in my career when I got smarter and left rehab, I did things like help moms learn to facilitate movement in their low-tone babies, teach calming techniques to grandmothers of drug-exposed infants who screamed all day long (those women are going to heaven, no questions asked), and get an autistic kid to follow a one-step command with a smile (!!!). Professional.

But what does it mean when you work in your studio which is in your house and you wear your home pants* most of the time and some days you feel that if you don't at least get to the grocery store so you can chat up the employees (always pick your checker carefully on those days) you might go a little crazy. I think being a professional artist has many definitions. I saw it just a moment ago when I went out to the garage dye studio to give the yarn on the stove a poke and knew just by the feel of it that it would come to temperature in about 40 minutes, that the dye was taking up evenly, and that it was going to be a perfect hand-dye.
I get the same feeling at the loom fairly often. It is just something in your gut that knows that that curve isn't going to look right unless you add one more sequence or take the corner off that step or change that color in the weft bundle for one bit of hot pink. The fingers that know I've missed a warp thread and have started to take the pick out lest I cause a float before my brain recognizes what I'm doing.

Is that just the definition of practice? Or is there some way to actually quantify what a professional in the field of art is?

I'm not really sure that I should be calling myself a professional here... after all, we haven't decided on a definition and didn't your conservative Christian elementary school teach you not to toot your own horn like mind did? But I feel pretty good about using the word today. Even if I am wearing my home pants.*
*home pants. What you call the yoga pants that are really just a half step up from pajamas because it isn't right to wear pajamas all the time.

The question of validation revisited...

Last week I posted the text from a small article I wrote for the latest edition of the American Tapestry Alliance's newsletter, Tapestry Topics. You can read that HERE.

I am interested in furthering discussion in the tapestry artist community about professionalism and how we can increase our presence in the art world as artists. (And though I mention the art vs. craft debate in the article, in the many months since I wrote it, I have come to strongly suspect that that particular discussion is mostly just a waste of time and we should be talking about why tapestry and fiber art in general is not frequently recognized as an art form in the art world today.) So perhaps the real problem for me is not so much that I don't have a degree in art, but that my chosen artistic field is not one that is regularly recognized AS art. We as tapestry artists are good at recognizing each other and showing tapestry work, but how many  shows or galleries do you go to where you see tapestry showcased along with other mediums?

I believe there are many people involved in ATA who are interested in these questions and would love to see tapestry perceived by the art public as an art form. There are a few people who have worked lately on getting the ATA forums going again and perhaps that can be one means of communication among tapestry artists.

So if you are a fiber artist, what is your experience in the art world? And if it hasn't been a positive experience, what can be done to change it?

And if these questions are intriguing to you, consider a book I just finished reading called The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: the Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson. The book starts with the example of a Damien Hirst piece titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living which, according to Thompson, is a contemporary work of art consisting of a shark caught in 1991 in Australia, prepared and mounted in England by technicians under Hirst's direction, presented in a giant glass vitrine which weighed two tons (not easy to get home).  The selling price was twelve million dollars. From there the book explores the world of art auction houses (primarily Christies and Sothebys), dealers, and art fairs. This is a world in which tapestry plays very little part.  The question is, why?

A question of validation

This is the article I wrote for the American Tapestry Alliance's Fall 2011 Tapestry Topics which came out last week.  The newsletter is currently for members only, a practice which I fear does not further the knowledge of tapestry in the wider world, so I am making what I wrote available here.  If you are a member of ATA, make sure you read the whole issue.  If you are not a member but are interested in the subject of professionalism as it is related to fiber art, perhaps asking ATA for access to the newsletter will help us make it more widely available.

A question of validation
Rebecca Mezoff

            What makes you an artist?  Discussion of professionalism and what constitutes art vs. craft is something that I think is rare in the field of tapestry and in some places is even discouraged.  I believe this kind of dialogue is important among makers of tapestry if tapestry is going to be regarded as an art form in its own right. The field of art is a large monster that often feels intimidating to me and this leads me to questions of my own worth as an artist and musings about my own cobbled-together art education.
            I am a tapestry artist who is attempting to make a significant portion of my income through art, but I am lacking a BFA, an MFA, or another pile of letters relating directly to making tapestry.  When I went to college, I was interested in art, but the messages I received growing up and from the world in general were that art wasn’t a stable or acceptable professional career choice, so something else would have to do.  I could make art as a hobby.  Years later and somewhat disenchanted with the medical career I found myself in, I started weaving tapestry.  I love it.  I should do this.  But I don’t have an art degree.  I have a masters degree in a medical profession (occupational therapy) which used to be craft-based, but now is solidly medical.  In this country (USA) anyway, many of the messages we receive growing up indicate that to be a professional anything and to be “successful” you have to have a degree.  So not having a BFA or an MFA psychologically hinders me at times when I am thinking about “being an artist”.  When I finish a new tapestry or sell a couple in the gallery, I don’t feel that an art degree is needed.  When I am in the midst of a dry spell and inspiration is far away, I am working too much as an OT, and nothing is selling, then I question myself and look for validation… and inevitably start considering art school. Perhaps this is also a longing, as I am getting closer to the end of my 30s, for more knowledge and a new means of inspiration.

Emergence II by Rebecca Mezoff

            In order to practice as an occupational therapist I am required to have at least a masters degree, pass various national and state exams, complete large amounts of continuing education every year, and maintain several licenses.  In order to call myself an artist, I only have to make art.  Is this true? Certainly not everyone who has an MFA is really an artist.  Maybe it really does come down to the “What is art?” question and a real inability to answer that in any concise way.  Perhaps that is as it should be.  Art is what it needs to be for each of us.  Some of us are in the “I just want to make pretty things” camp and some of us are in the “I want to change the world” camp (and sometimes those two camps are one and the same—and is that the difference between craft and art?).

Emergence III by Rebecca Mezoff

Emergence IV by Rebecca Mezoff
            I believe that as tapestry artists there are intellectually significant questions that need to be asked and I don’t see many people asking them.  How can we start these dialogues?  I think our need for validation is part of the human condition.  In general we all need support and positive regard.  However I do find that the issue of professionalism in regard to tapestry art specifically is something fiber artists don’t talk about much.  In the absence of these kinds of discussions, the need for validation is even stronger.
            In the end, validation has to come from inside myself.  I hope that if in my work I search for what is essential and valuable for me, the work will reflect some inner truth which will hold value.  The act of making that thing that is valuable for me, I hope, is the only validation I really need.  If this is not true first, then art school will not make any difference at all.