Selling Doesn’t Make You an Artist

When I saw the Sephora bag being packed in the store, I thought, “this could be a journal.” (This is what happened when I got too eager and didn’t plan enough.) Accidentally, I spoke that out loud. The sales associate lit up. “How would you do that?” she asked. I folded the bag to show her.

hand-paited bollard

Photograph © Quinn McDonald, 2018

“That would be so cute!” she gushed. “And you could sell them on Etsy and make a lot of money and be a real artist!” There was so much in that comment to understand and come to grips with. In real life, I smiled, took my purchase and left the store.

In my head, I began to wonder how we got from being an artist, to being defined as an artist if we sell our work. Make a living. Get rich. That’s the American business model–develop an idea, monetize it, get rich. Success!

Years ago, I wrote a book called Raw Art Journaling. It was for people who wanted to do art for themselves. To heal. To making meaning in life, instead of chasing meaning. I believed every word of it then, and still do. Art is a way to express yourself creatively, and it has nothing to do with selling and making money.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great if you are a working artist and successful. For years, I did support myself with my art. I found it hard work and the joy of art left me. So I left the field of money-making artist. And I became a meaning-making artist.  It is not mutually exclusive–making art and making money. But for me, I chose the making art–making meaning path. I’m happy with it.

Much of my art is weird. Much of my life is weird. It becomes clearer to me, makes more sense, when I make art out of it.

I can start a piece and not have to choose what frame I’ll use first.

I can decide to use a paper that is not archival, simply because I like it.

I can experiment without wondering how much I can charge for it.

I can make mistakes and take a long time to decide how to change the work without worrying about time management.  In fact, I can make mistakes and decide to leave it just the way it is because I understand more about it now.

Art and money are not necessarily linked. I do other work to take care of my family. Work I love, but different from art. Being an artist is exploring the dark, interesting, funny, odd, hard, difficult parts of your life and seeing what you can discover about it. For me, that’s valuable.

When people ask me if I’m an artist, I generally say, “I do creative expression.” Sometimes I’m asked if I make money, and all I say is, “I decided not to sell my work any more.” It’s all I need to explain about my deeply important art.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps people cope with the creativity they don’t know they have.

4 thoughts on “Selling Doesn’t Make You an Artist

  1. How sad that some can only value art as a commodity to sell! I think what you’re doing now is the most truthful, ‘real’ art…

  2. … as well as with the creativity they know they have! (sorry, just completing the description of what you do that comes after your name at the bottom.
    Re this post – yup, yup and yup.
    Sometimes in life, what you create aligns comfortably with earning money and when that happens, great. But it turns out it’s kind of a random thing. So staying faithful to our personal process is important. And not always particularly clear.

    • When your art lines up with making money and the creator enjoys the work–all of it–that is perfect! But yes, it DOES turn out to be a random thing, as I noticed. To do well at art shows, you have to watch trends, create something that links to those trends, and be ready to do something different. It just didn’t work for me. And right now, I am enjoying not selling.

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