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Art and Family

By Humboldt Magnussen

I recently got a text from my little sister asking, “How did your thingy go?” The “thingy” she is referring to is my Masters of Fine Arts Thesis exhibition that concluded a week ago. But by calling it a “thingy” it made it sound like just another day, not something I worked towards for two years. Family is strange and often the interactions I have with family about art make me want to laugh and roll my eyes at the same time. What are you supposed to do at Christmas dinner when someone asks you what you do, and then, when you say that you are an artist, they ask what kind of art do you make? I have struggled with this for years, until I realized that my passion for art was falling on deaf ears, especially when it came to performance art. It’s funny to me in retrospect, but also a little bit sad that my family life and art life feels so separate. Of course this is not the case for everyone, but I’m sure every artist has gotten the blank stare from someone after trying to explain their work. I have learned to have photos ready on my phone to show to people when they ask because otherwise things get really awkward trying to get into a deep conversation about your work when your work is visual.
Family is interesting because they often want what is best for you (and think that they know what that is). Of course often their concern is based in love and kindness but how this concern and kindness comes out can be a bit deflating. Like when they ask you how you are going to make any money? Or give you advice on what type of art to make. How many of us haven’t heard something like you should paint flowers and horses, or a horse riding a flower. These concerns can make you feel like your family thinks you are not on top of taking care of yourself financially and you don’t know your own art direction or what you want to make next.
Of course, the reverse never happens. I have never told my engineer sister or nurse mom how to go about their jobs and I’ve never asked them about their finances. But for me, the conversation seems to come up every time I have a show.
My least favorite question is “How much work did you sell?” Of course money is a measure of value that people understand, but it isn’t always a good gauge of success when you are not making art to sell (even if you do make work to sell, not selling work doesn’t necessarily mean your art is less successful).
At times I have had to work a day job in order to support my art career, knowing that making art wouldn’t necessarily make me a lot of money, which is a difficult thing to explain to your mom who wants you to give up art and become an ambulance driver. It has taken years and years for my mom to be fully supportive of my career decision to drop out of business school and go into art. I have had to endure being told that I am not “living up to my potential” but this just made me realize that people are always going to have different measures of success, and choosing a career in the arts might be where your greatest potential exist, even if its difficult to convince everyone else of that. Ultimately sometimes it feels like artistic labour isn’t valued as highly as the labour involved in other fields. But its worth it, even if art isn’t the job my parents dreamed I would have.