This is a call out to all the crackerjack arts administrators out there, working behind the scenes to make it happen.
Same goes for you—loyal arts patrons, showing up for every show in town, coming through for your local arts community.
I know you. I’m one of you. We belong to the same tribe.
We love ‘the arts.’ It’s part of our identity.
But when people ask us, “Are you an artist?” we hesitate. We stall. We respond with lots of caveats. “Well yes, I’m in the arts but I do the behind-the-scenes stuff, the unsexy stuff. I appreciate art. I don’t make art.”
We’ve relinquished any claim to being an artist. That mantle belongs to others—to “The Talent.”
So does that make us “The Help”?
If any of this hits home, then you could be an unsuspecting member of the “shadow artist” club.
“Shadow artist” is a term coined by Julia Cameron who’s best known for writing the 1992 bestselling book The Artist’s Way – a creativity recovery guide loosely inspired by the Twelve Steps. Shadow artists, as Cameron describes them are people:
“…who are extremely gifted [and] will put themselves in the proximity of other people who are officially more gifted. And I want to be clear that they are only officially more gifted. Very often a shadow artist is the person who does the work at the office… or someone who maybe dates a person or marries a person who is pursuing the desired art form.”
Years ago, I took a class on The Artist’s Way with Cameron in New York City. Using a mix of hands-on exercises like weekly ‘artists dates’, combined with old-fashioned encouragement, Cameron is all about helping people recover their missing-in-action creative selves. She argues that we’re all born to create—it’s our birthright as humans. But often our creative yearnings get thwarted, whether by concerned parents (How are you going to make a living as poet?) or insensitive teachers (You call that poetry?) or by our own self-judgment (My poetry sucks).
In the face of these obstacles, shadow artists may end up pursuing related shadow careers—something that’s close to our original artistic enthusiasms but isn’t quite the thing itself. We might even forget what our ‘thing’ is or was. I’m looking at you Mr./Ms. Arts Administrator. I’m looking at myself.
I’ve been working in and around the arts for years and I’m no stranger to situations where my job is to help midwife other people’s creative output. I’ve also worn the hat of a curator—someone who selects and showcases other people’s art but isn’t actually producing the art. Across the years I’ve joined the boards of arts organizations, volunteer service I’ve loved, but which arguably fits a shadow artist profile.
Now I can stake a claim that there are creative elements to being a shadow artist—that concocting a kick-ass budget or writing a winning grant proposal are all necessary, worthy, if not creative acts. But at the end of the day, I believe that vulnerability is the litmus test for artistic work.
For example, when I was the executive director of a popular local film festival, my vulnerability quotient was pretty low because my choices didn’t carry the weight of much personal risk. Sure, I was ‘vulnerable’ to people disliking my film selections. But if they didn’t like one film, chances are they’d like another. And regardless of my choices, there’d still be another film festival the following year.
It’s vulnerable to put your film, painting, novel, poem, choreography (you fill in the blank) out into the world. And vulnerability is what shadow artists are so good at avoiding. It’s safer in the shadows. Being the orbiting planet to someone else’s creative sun may not necessarily be the stuff of a fulfilling career, but it’s a get-out-of-jail free card when it comes to confronting emotional and creative exposure.
Before I go any further down this shadowy path, I want to emphasize that the shadows aren’t all about gloom and self-effacing doom. In my experience, they can be incubators for cultivating humility, empathy, and a developing a knack for noticing things other people miss – attributes that can ultimately make us better artists, not to mention more pleasant to be around because we understand that it’s not all about us.
But setting up a permanent camp in the shadows can breed low-grade numbness, if not outright despair. Author and marketing savant Seth Godin describes this in his book The Icarus Deception as “the pain of the cog…of someone who knows that his gifts are being wasted.”
I’m familiar the smart of that pain. Here’s a memory: I was newly out of college and in one of my first ‘real’ jobs. I’d spent months organizing a convening of artists and other curatorial creatives. But when the convening was finally underway, I was asked to stay behind at the office and mind the administrative fort. Whatever I might’ve contributed or learned as a fly on the wall wasn’t a priority.
To take that first step out of the shadows, we need to feel that we have value – that we’re worthy of creating and have something to contribute to the banquet. As the writer Jhumpa Lahiri asserts, it “means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’”
So with a New Year already underway, I’ve decided that now is as good a time as any to have an honest fireside chat with my shadow artist self. You can do the same should any of this resonate with you. How can we get on stage – actual or metaphorical – with our creative contributions this year – whether this means making art with a capital “A” or simply speaking up in meetings?
Here are few Cameron-inspired ideas to help with those first baby steps:
Try doing the things you routinely find yourself encouraging the ‘official’ artists in your life to do. Sign up for that acting class. Clear out that cluttery corner and put an easel there. Use it. Show up for yourself. Take your artist self seriously.
Play more. As Cameron puts it, “Creativity is play, but for shadow artists, learning to allow themselves to play is hard work.” Try this on: I think it would be really cool/fun/interesting to try/do ______. Fill in the blank. And then go do that thing.
Be bad. Give your hibernatory artist self the chance to be a beginner again—and know that beginners make mistakes. Make bad art so that later on you can make better art.
And here’s another tip—something I learned this past year…
You don’t need to be a master to take a master class. If your thing is dance, writing, singing, whatever—find the master teachers in your community and study with those people. Take their classes. Go on their retreats. Even if you think you’re going to be the worst one in the room, kick your inner critic to the curb and show up anyway. You’ll learn something. And no one is going to judge you as harshly as you’re already judging yourself.
And then finally, the next time someone asks you if you’re an artist, try simply saying a resoundingly clear “Yes.”
Nancy Rosenbaum is a public radio producer at American Public Media. A transplant to the Twin Cities, she began her career in documentary television production in New York City and later spent many years working for education and youth development organizations as a counselor, researcher, program director, and consultant.