One of my classmates made a drawing of a T-Rex skeleton that covered the entire hall. He couldn’t even work on it in his apartment because the paper roll he used was so large. It was made with thick, dark marks, the kind of marks so confident that you could see every imperfection of the charcoal stick he used. There was no ‘oops’ blending there. Just gorgeous monochromatic dinosaur bones. My classmate shrugged humbly at the endless praise he received. To us it was a masterpiece, to Mike it was just another drawing.
In this drawing class we were required to keep a daily sketchbook lead by prompts from the teacher. One of the prompts was to do a self portrait in a mirror. I’ll admit I was smug about turning in mine. I felt I was finally getting a grip on drawing and was especially proud of the way I rendered my braided hair. But when we turned in our portraits I felt a twinge of jealously. Mikes portrait, of course, was perfect. He was barely out of his teens and this guy was making incredibly detailed work at the technical level of realistic artists I’d seen in galleries and museums.
Mike was his usual quiet self deflecting compliments and when we returned to our seats to work I leaned across the giant pock-marked table and asked him that question:
“Are you declaring your major in drawing or painting?’
He tapped his pencil on the table "Oh I'm not majoring in studio arts. My majors are in science and math."
I sat back down "So are you minoring in art? Or do you already have a gallery or something?"
"No." he mumbled, "I'm not really into the whole art thing. I just needed the class credit."
You know that pain in your heart you get when your crush asks someone else out? That's the pain I felt when Mike spoke. I felt like the universe picked him instead of me and I was just the third-wheel friend who had to pretend I was never interested in the first place. How could someone SO talented with about 20 years of drawing experience magically gifted to him not be 'into the art thing'? And where was MY natural talent when I wanted to be an artist more than anything in the world?
I hear this question a lot, and I see it play out all the time. It makes sense that if someone is good at something, they almost have a moral obligation to do it... right? I also love this question because it reveals the most rewarding purpose of art and why we go to all the trouble. Creating things is not about impressing people, about winning, about passing a test or reaching a milestone. That can all be a part of the process, but creating is actually about the artist. Mike's notebook sketch served a purpose for him, although he did just need the class credit. But he also enjoyed drawing and said it was a nice break from his engineering homework. The giant T-Rex gave his mind a reprieve from all the other things that were going on in his life and was his permission to 'check out' from time to time. I realized that art serves a different purpose for every artist, and they are all legitimate reasons to create.
Now, I'll always be a little bitter that Mike didn't pursue a career in art. But he clarified for me what is really important for artists to know- you have to do it because it is meaningful to you, and not because you're being forced or obligated to do it. 'Natural talent' can't determine the legitimacy of art. The best creations are the ones that are desperately needed, not by the viewers, but by the artist.
I like to think that somewhere out there Mike is doodling in his notebook during his lunch break. He probably just cracked a complicated equation that has stumped other scientists for years. And then for his break he is drawing a stunning portrait of a dinosaur that he'll casually close into his notebook. And no one will ever see it or give him an award. And that's exactly how he likes it.