Who Gets to be Called an Artist?

Posted inCreative Voices

There are a lot of ways I’ve described what I do in terms of writing — writer, blogger, memoirist, essayist — but one thing I’ve never called myself is an artist.

Keith Yamashita, Deb Bubb, Josh Roman @ CreativeMornings/NY

Artists have vision. Artists see colors. (My stepkid hears them, like music.) Artists know which brand of fine-tipped markers to buy and don’t lose all the caps. Artists can look at four “identical” gray paint swatches and tell you that this one is more green and this one is more pink. Artists don’t hesitate when asked whether their photos should be printed glossy or matte. Artists have great handwriting. Artists draw dogs that don’t look like cats. Artists don’t have to talk to be the most interesting people in the room.

I have always struggled with the difference between art and creativity, between art and artistry and artists.

Me: Not an artist.

Or am I?

Are you?

Maybe we are. And maybe it matters to some of us that we say that we are and believe it. That’s why I went to hear what they had to say at an event called “We Are All Artists.”

Each month, I look forward to my local CreativeMornings New York event, a global community and speaker event series started by my friend Tina Roth Eisenberg. Whatever the theme or topic, it’s is the most wonderful way to start one Friday morning each month if I’m able, either in-person or online. Also, it’s free.

September’s We Are All Artists was more of a virtual workshop than a speaker’s event. It also offered a big promise:

Are you seeking a life filled with more joy? More human connection? A way to move through traumas (big and small) and reclaim your innate capacity to heal and grow? In a world that can feel so heavy, let’s imagine a future with room for all of us in it.

Plan on spending a cathartic morning with us—as human flourishing artists, Deb Bubb and Keith Yamashita take us on a journey to refind and recenter ourselves. They are teaming up to bring us the latest inspiration, tools, brain and body science on how to build a creative life

I wasn’t sure I was the intended audience, but I have never been disappointed by a CreativeMornings speaker and these two are extraordinary. Plus, data! Science! I like data and science.

Besides, I was sure I’d get something out of it. Who couldn’t use more growth potential, more lightness, more catharsis, more inspiration for building a creative life? All that plus gorgeous musical interludes from cellist Joshua Roman.

Turns out that I—not a self-described artist by any means—found myself utterly rapt.

It was surprisingly emotional, deeply personal, and dare I say, therapeutic. There were tears—the speakers’ and my own.

But still, am I someone who really gets to call myself an artist? And like…not be laughed out of a room of real artists?


Then, a breakthrough of sorts.

The speakers asked us to download a gorgeous printable toolkit/workbook that included a series of thoughtful worksheets, prompts and inspiring images, some of which you see in this post.

The first exercise they asked us to turn to was this Mad Lib style page. Fun!

But when I read the headline, my instinct was to run away. Turn off the video. Slowly back into a convenient nearby hedge, Homer Simpson style.

Worksheet from the three exercises, CreativeMornings/NY

“An Artist’s Journey.”

Wait. How can you be on an artist’s journey if you’re not even sure you get to call yourself an artist?

What is this writer doing in a workshop for artists anyway?

Will I will be the one person who’s thinking, “sorry, not an artist but seems like a cool worksheet, guys” while everyone else is busy reclaiming their innate capacity to heal and grow?

Liz is the imposter. Sus. Sus.



Maybe try the exercise first, Liz, before you give up?

We are all artists. And what I mean by that is that we were all born with something innate and deep and profound. We’re awake and alive to the world and more than that, we’re open to the hope of what can be.

Keith Yamashita

I leaned back against my pillow in my bed with my laptop pressed to my knees, closing my eyes and channeling my responses to the blanks on the page.

I wrote:

One of the first times I remember feeling creative, I was four.

I was lying on the wooden radiator cover in the kitchen with my mother, and I was dictating poems for her to write in a black-and-white marbled composition journal labeled POETRY for me.

I remember it making me feel like my words mattered, because they were worthy of a book with the title POETRY.

I remember my mom reacted by jotting down every word I said, verbatim, never changing the grammar or the punctuation, which made me feel like I had something worth saying just the way I was saying it.


Memory unlocked.

I have actually written about that journal once before, back in my early months of blogging at Mom-101. It was wholly self-deprecating, as I explained that my readers seemed to “like me best when I suck and write horribly embarrassing things about myself.”

(Which, fair. It’s fun to read about fails and missteps when we can laugh at them together.)

In my post, I reprinted this poem from the POETRY composition book; it remains a family favorite to this date:

Circle perkel on the bed.
Circle perkel do what you’re said.
Circle perkel there’s your friend.
Circle perkel don’t hit him on the head
Circle perkel you’re on the bed again
Circle perkel he’s hitting the pan.

“Oh, what’s that I hear?” I joked after sharing it with my readers. “Why, that’s the sound of Harper-Collins bitch-slapping Random House over the publishing rights.”

So how fascinating that, all these years later, when I was asked to describe a time I remember feeling creative, this same poem is what came to mind.

It was the perfect prompt.

If you had asked me about a time I had written poetry I would have recalled some teenage angst-filled monstrosity about rain clouds and boys who didn’t love me back.

If you had asked me about a time I made art I was proud of, I could only conjure up a preschool painting on a square of gingham, mainly because I spelled the word “family” correctly.

If you had asked me about a time I felt like an artist, I wouldn’t have answered at all.

The worksheet ended with the sentence: I think the person who would be least surprised to hear me use the word “artist” to describe myself is ______________, because they see ______________ in me.

I wrote:

I think the person who would be least surprised to hear me use the word “artist” to describe myself is my mother, because they see that four-year-old poet in me.

So maybe…I am an artist? To someone?

Is an artist, like art itself, in the eye of the beholder?

If you’re thinking about these things too, don’t ask yourself about a time you felt like an artist. Ask yourself about a time you felt creative — then watch the doors of your mind spring wide open.

Feeling creative isn’t the same as being accomplished or recognized for our creativity.

Feeling creative doesn’t have to come with a title like artistic director, composer, ceramicist, illustrator, cartoonist, choreographer, cinematographer, floral designer, amateur painter, novelist.

We all get to feel creative whenever we want, and there’s no Gatekeeper of Creativity out there to tell us otherwise.

That’s why I think acknowledging that we feel creative at times is such a beautiful place to start. And that’s not necessarily easy. But it’s a solid first step on a path toward creating things that are beautiful or meaningful, making things that matter if only to us.

Eventually, we will take more steps, go further down that creative path, and come to believe we are artists…

or not.

I don’t know that I entirely will, but I’m okay with that.

The thing I took away most of all from 90 minutes with these wonderful nurturers of artistry and ideas, vulnerability and human truths, is not necessarily something they put on a slide. (Although I do love the slides!)

What I took away is that we need to show up in uncomfortable places if we expect to grow.

Like me, a not-artist, giving my morning to an event entitled “We Are All Artists.”

When you have a quiet 90 minutes to yourself, the video of the CreativeMornings/NY livestream is worth a watch. Download the workbook here while it’s available. And check out CreativeMornings! It’s a really special thing.

Liz Gumbinner is a Brooklyn-based writer, award-winning ad agency creative director, and OG mom blogger who was called “funny some of the time” by an enthusiastic anonymous commenter. This was originally posted on her Substack “I’m Walking Here!,” where she covers culture, media, politics, and parenting.

Banner photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash. Photos in post courtesy the author and CreativeMornings/NY.