Do I still have an art practice?

Every now and then I get extremely hesitant of calling myself an artist. I remind myself that yes, I did indeed go to school to study fine art but that shouldn’t be what qualifies me to be an artist. Every. single. person. can. be. an. artist. You write? You sketch? You paint? You film? You’re an artist. You don’t need to go to fancy schmancy art school. You don’t need to have a CV of endless exhibitions unless that’s something you want to strive for.

colour 35 mm film photograph of 2 frames - on the left a detail of a rice hat, following by a black bar indicating the space between frames.  on the right, a detail of pink flowers
Viet Nam, 2016.

I make art in painting, photography and film. Each time I create it looks a little different. Sometimes it’s creating something just for me in my journal and sometimes it’s creating something I want to share with others. Lately however, I feel like I’ve been putting my art practice on the back burner for too long. Can I still call myself an artist if I haven’t made any new work in the last 3 years? YES! Because when friends ask me the same thing I say without question to them, “OF COURSE you’re an artist!!!!” So why can’t I do that for myself?

My most recent work was my film Chúng Tôi Nhẩy Đầm ở Nhà (We Dance At Home) from 2017. It was a commissioned work between Vtape and Reel Asian International Film Festival for their “Been Here So Long” program. This opportunity came at the perfect time as I expressed to my friends that I wanted to revisit my home videos and the music of Paris by Night. I was just beginning to explore the history of the Vietnamese community in my hometown and wanted to learn more about my parents’ experiences of resettlement. This film has been screened at other festivals across North America and to my honest surprise, won awards. It’s a story that feels so personal and niche so it always surprises me and fills me with gratitude when others share that this work resonated with them. I’m really proud of that. The “Been Here So Long” program has opened a new world of filmmaking to me which was something I hadn’t quite considered myself ever doing.

However since 2017, I’ve purposefully neglected my art practice because I felt that I needed to put my graduate studies as my number one priority. This was both good and bad. Had I allowed myself to maintain a creative outlet perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so… burnt out, devastated or completely defeated throughout those two years. Perhaps my anger and frustration could have been channeled into a new, lighter, healthier energy but instead I channeled it into a fire I thought I needed to keep me sane in order to keep going with school.

As I challenged dominant narratives of history and photography in my studies and research, I’ve been thinking very seriously about ethics, art and archives. I’ve been questioning my responsibilities as an artist and now archivist. Knowing what I know now, I would have approached my film and past artworks differently. I guess that’s catch 22 though. Every time I revisit a film/video, I find new ways I could always remove or add to it. It’s like a living file that I have to revisit anyways to export it as this or that file format to fit whatever film festival standard. At some point, I just have to walk away from tinkering around with the content and leave it as is. That’s the hard part – especially if you’re self-critical and self-reflective like me- knowing when to call a work complete.

When I was approaching graduation, a lot of people were asking me what I wanted to do. I said, “I’m gonna fuck off somewhere and just make art.” I wanted to return to my art practice and return to her – creative Julia having fun in the studio testing ideas to make both bad and good art. I had about a month when I moved back from California where I allowed myself to do nothing. I started to paint again on some store bought canvases and made air dry clay earrings. I didn’t have an exact plan but that moment of just creating was nourishing in the moment. I thought I could give myself more time to recover from the trauma of school- yes, trauma that still affects me to this day. But I was running out of time and needed to find a job ASAP. Before I knew it, the anxiety of returning to work, losing a sense of identity (no longer being a student), commuting, adjusting to living back in Canada, figuring out a long distance relationship, losing the community I built while abroad and so many other factors, I was having a difficult time finding a balance. I could barely carve out time to just relax let alone to paint or create again.

Even though I was so stressed, I still had all of these creative ideas. Some of these include two different animated shorts, a small oil painting series, and a pageant video idea that hasn’t been revisited in two years. All of these ideas were fucking haunting and taunting me. Whenever they popped up in my head I wanted to work on them immediately but, I was at work. And then the weekend rolls on, I just want to be a potato too exhausted from the week and running errands. When I have the free time, I didn’t feel creative or felt that I had any ideas. How rude.

When I see my peers in the art community – or what I perceive to see because this is all on social media – create new bodies of work constantly and quickly, a little nagging voice in my head goes, “Damn Julia, what the hell? Everyone has to work but they’re still making art, they’re still writing, their work is in private collections! Girl, what are YOU doing?!”

At first, my reaction to this voice was to self-loathe. I’ve since gotten better at responding to it. I will give credit to this nagging voice because sometimes it kicks my ass in the best possible way. I’ll revisit those ideas and brainstorm key words or sketch out a storyboard. I fight back at the voice where I’m like, “I know my art practice and my capacity. I’m not pumping out new work but that doesn’t mean I’m not an artist! I’m human, I’m not a machine!”

I’m still trying to understand what my own personal goals are for my art practice instead of goals that have been imposed on me. For example, you need to get gallery representation, you need to have multiple shows, you need to be relevant etc. that’s been the status quo of how to be taken seriously as an artist. I understand why it exists but it’s frustrating and tiring especially when you consider what groups have constantly been given the upper hand because of nepotism, class differences, racism, pay gaps etc. and why and how this status quo is desired and maintained.

I will share that when my work has been included in a group show or screened at a film festival (these traditional milestones or markers of “success”) when I tell my parents, I notice they gain a better understanding of my art practice and what I do. When I can go, “Look! This is my artist paycheque!” then they start to view it less as a hobby. Daughter of Vietnamese refugee problems, am I right? Anyway, more on that another day…

I don’t really have a solution to this status quo other than to try to push back and again, think deeply and intentionally about what I want to achieve with my art practice and what kind of spaces or communities I want to participate in. I know one thing for sure: I want to share and see stories that you don’t get to see often. Some of my goals for my practice include wanting to challenge myself with animation, one day have a solo exhibition that’s truly accessible to others outside of the art community and I want to create really large paintings that go from floor to ceiling. It’s a little all over the place but I feel I can get away with it because hey, I call myself an interdisciplinary artist for a reason. I have all these ideas swirling around me and it’s exciting! While I’m very much a planner, type a virgo, I’m not trying to put extra pressure by telling myself I need to get these done by this date or that date, you know? So that’s been very freeing.

Quarantine has also allowed me to explore different avenues of being creative again. It’s like getting my toes wet to dive back into my art practice. I’ve been watercolouring more frequently, journaling, taking photographs and filming again. I know I questioned whether or not youtube videos would make people take me less seriously as an “artist” but I honestly know that’s bullshit. Some people look down on or make fun of when people call themselves a “creator” or “creative” but that doesn’t make them any less of an artist, right? All that does is maintain this gatekeeping and snooty attitude that already exists in the art world.

To be honest, I have to check myself constantly when I start to feel this snooty attitude – its because I feel my art practice is challenged or that I feel threatened. As a woman and person of colour, I’ve been constantly conditioned and told to believe that there’s only room for so many of us. Whether that be in academia, art, leadership spaces etc.. It is so stupid. All that does, is pit us against each other. There’s room for all of us as artists, creatives or whatever you want to call yourself! Okay? Don’t forget that. (talking to you future Julia when these feelings pop up again because society is really good at trying to make you compete with others but you’ll get better at shutting this out. Remind yourself of shine theory by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, lifting others up and not letting envy or insecurity get the better of you).

If you don’t like someone’s art practice, that is a-ok if it’s not for you. I’m not saying you have to like everyone’s creative project. If it’s like a series of photos, paintings, resin earrings or whatever and you don’t like it, maybe it’s not meant to be for you. It could be for a different audience. You can also unfollow anything you don’t like seeing.* Easy, peasy. You can absolutely be critical of it and challenge it. Especially if it’s like oh, I don’t know… another white male photographer displaying problematic photos of people of colour from his travels & Othering them or you know, anything that’s straight up racist or causes harm to a community/ perpetuates violence -then we have a problem here. (More on the responsibilities of artists/just being decent human beings later…) Just please no more gatekeeping when people want to call themselves an artist/creator/creative etc. Okay? Cool.

Thanks for reading, this was a long post!
Until next time,

Julia

*I was gonna say that you can curate your own social media feed and that yeah you can call yourself a curator because why the hell not but thought that might ruffle too many feathers. I’ll share my spicy spicy thoughts on art one day since I kept it pretty mild here lol

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