The Trouble With Being Artistically “Gifted”

Kelly and their Grandmother Lola Jean c. 1987, Bespoke Hogaboom

I was voted Most Artistic in the class, every school year we had that sort of thing. I won awards for writing and for painting, illustration and sculpture throughout these tender years; and I loved being seen in this way. One of my early memories of first prize was earned for my poster featuring onion-domed cathedrals, made in honor of our school’s Russian “twin city”.  I still remember the pride I felt having my name announced, and getting called in front of the whole school to receive an award.

I earned A’s in all subjects – but art was my favorite subject far and away. In art class I constructed projects that, instead of the cookie-cutter replicas that school tends to encourage, were different than the other kids’ versions. In fifth grade I made a spherical polyhedron globe project into a giraffe – spots and all – for instance. I don’t even know why or how I did that, I just remember it ruffled some feathers.

School teaches art as assembly – but I knew art was a lot more than that.

And even though I yet again claimed “Most Artistic” my senior year of high school in 1995, by then these out-of-the-box pursuits were flagging. I was leaving these open-ended aspirations behind; I no longer sought creative avocations as often nor as passionately.

By then I’d been corralled into STEM – Science Technology Engineering Mathematics.

See, during my school career as I continued earning A’s in science, physics, technical writing, and math I was gently and not-so-gently steered that direction. And I was told – by family, school staff, and our culture at large – that those pursuits were the better ones.

The right pursuits. The salary- and status-garnering fields to pursue.

You know. “Real” work.

By the time I graduated at eighteen and headed off on a full-ride engineering scholarship I’d fully internalized two ideas that did not serve me – they didn’t serve me then, and don’t serve me now.

The first, was that artistic skill was innate.

I’d been taught that Art was talent. You either had it – or you didn’t. More embarrassing than being bad at Art (whatever that means), was being bad at art while being earnest about it all. Community artistic role models sneered at “lesser” artists, talked about the “right way” to Do Art (yes, they really did!) – and craved critical acclaim. They needed that external validation, required it, in order to feel like a “real” artist.

Looking back, I can’t think of a more Creativity-stunting worldview.

The second idea I’d internalized was that art wasn’t real work.

Real work was 9-to-5, included a benefit plan and a title – and maybe even a parking space. Real work was “smart” work, STEM, something with a specialized degree. Real work was the kind of work where you told other people how Important your job was.

Real work meant being a boss, being higher status than others.

Real work meant being that bore at the party.

You know, the one people think they have to listen to.

But I liked engineering work, and I ended up being a great engineer. As it turned out – and against some odds! – I kept my scholarship throughout my University education, I earned good grades, graduated into the field and started receiving promotions almost immediately. I quickly earned the honor of first non-male foreman at a company over eighty years old. I won an award at a tech conference – and got to give a presentation (a great memory)!

Most valuable to me, I had a stellar reputation with the operators with whom I worked.

I have wonderful memories of my tenure in engineering. I really do.

But as it turned out – and with the gift of hindsight – my foray into full-time STEM lasted only a little while. This career required between fifty to eighty of my best hours a week: inflexible, no exceptions. Trust me, I tried to work something out! My first boss – a wonderful family man, excellent engineer, and peerless supervisor – admitted that engineering work meant certain sacrifices. He shrugged while telling me matter-of-factly, “I didn’t get to see my kids enough while they were growing up.”

I started to realize, maybe this wasn’t going to work out.

As much as I loved engineering, ultimately the job asked too much of my best waking hours. It wasn’t that I didn’t like engineering – it was that these were the best hours of my life – and would be the best hours of my children’s lives, too. No statused title, no promise of promotion, was really worth more than my time.

The siren-song of a Creative life, of more time in the day for exploration and open-ended impulsiveness, pulled me back.

Back to my roots.

I came home to raise, and then unschool, our children. I never would have predicted unschooling would lead to my second career, my Love-of-my-Life career. But it did. Because it wasn’t possible to be “bored” at home with children (best damn work I ever did), and it wasn’t possible for my Creative vitality to die. If you spend time with children – nurtured, engaged, free children – you can’t get stagnant, because they’re the most exciting people on the planet!

My children were the spark and I was the powder keg!

My Creativity grew and grew and surged and splashed forth and now? It is boundless. There isn’t a day that passes that the ideas – and the projects – don’t keep mashing forth on a great, powerful tide.

And I’m so glad I let it happen.

Today I excel in a field that is both engineering and materials science – but also highly creative, definitely considered one of the Arts. Every day is something new, usually something unknown, and definitely something aesthetic.

My years in engineering, of course, weren’t a waste. They were productive; they helped my self-concept. They taught me that there’s nothing magic or special about academics, physics, and high-level math.

Just like in the artistic field.

Those years taught me then, what I still know now: That work? is work.

Today to call our family “creative” is an understatement. Like so many in the arts, we joyfully vacillate between the hard sciences and natural world sciences, and the world of music, fiction, film, writing – and Making. We sew; we write. We sing; we publish. We cook; we sculpt. We build worlds.

Our oldest child, now twenty, is an accomplished illustrator and graphic artist who is off to pursue his marine science career in the fall. With regards to his art he likes to tell me: “Don’t say I’m talented. Say I’m ‘skilled’.” 

And that’s me, today. I am not “gifted”. I am not “talented”. I am merely skilled. I am skilled because I’ve put the time in. If you put the time in, you’d probably be skilled too.

I’m not gifted. I’m skilled.

I’m Creative.

And so are you.