I have read many definitions of what an artist is and they are not satisfactory to me. The definitions of “artist” in a dictionary are too limiting, suggesting one has to make the art one’s profession in order to be considered an artist or be one who is highly skilled in a particular area. I prefer to think of an artist as one who is compelled or drawn to create. And guess what? That means you!
For the second year in a row I was lucky enough to attend my second Turnaround Arts Retreat. It is a gathering of schools from around the country involved in this White House initiative designed to turn schools around by infusing them with the arts. While some of the people attending are art teachers who are more likely than most adults to call themselves artists without hesitation, many of the attendees are principals and general education teachers who often can be overheard saying in one context or another, “I am not an artist.”
In order for us as educators to most successfully use the arts as powerful ways to strengthen teaching and learning in our schools, we must be able to own the artist in each of ourselves. I know I have trouble doing it myself because I was raised with that dictionary definition of the word. However, it is essential for us to have a different understanding of the word artist if we are to convince our students that they are artists with something to say and that the various art forms are legitimate ways of communicating that message whether that message be something deep and true about themselves or be about content they are learning in school.
So how do we own our artist identity so we can help our students own theirs? I believe it starts with the definition we use. If we define an artist as one who is compelled or drawn to create, given that human beings are essentially creative beings, that definition includes everyone. How you are most inclined to express your creativity might be different from other people, but I bet if you look long and hard at your life, you will see a compulsion or inclination to create somewhere.
Do you love to cook? Do you love to shop and put together outfits? Are you someone who is always rearranging your classroom or your furniture at home? Are you a doodler? Are you incapable of sending home a letter or creating a bulletin without including some graphic somewhere? When you hear music do you just have to move, even if it is just to tap your toe?
When you hear a song you know, do you find yourself singing along? When a group gathers, are you the one telling the funny stories or the one gathering the group? Or do you just notice others doing these things and wish you did them? That very wish proves there is an artist crying out to be nurtured and freed to explore. And even though you may be more comfortable expressing your artistry in a particular area, we can all express ourselves through any art form if we give ourselves permission.
Today, I sat in a drum circle and watched as people felt compelled to play along – even if just to clap. When someone started a chant, everyone just joined in without receiving any instruction to do so. Why? Because we are compelled to create. It’s who we are. And we need to give our students the same opportunity to create. We need to help them nurture and accept their inner artist. Today, as I felt compelled to sing along, to dance, to shake my egg shakers, to find another way to express my ideas, I thought, “Yes, I am an artist.” And so are you!