Friday, March 30, 2012

On being a painter.

I was at a doctor's office the other day for a meet-and-greet appointment - a new family doctor here in Calgary. He seemed a very nice man, patient, apologetic for running late, yet not rushing us through our appointment to catch up. He asks the requisite questions: family history, medical concerns, etcetera - and then we come to profession.

"I'm an artist," I say, "A painter."

"Ah," he says. "Ah. What sort of paints do you use?"

"Oil paints," I reply.

"Yes, but what sort?"

I think fast. What sort of paints? Is he concerned about workplace safety, or chemicals in my system, toxic leads and heavy metals in my breast milk for my nursing toddler? Is he asking me if I work with industrial grade or artist grade paints? Is he leading to questions about my awareness of the hazards of using oils and spirits, or wondering if I've done WHMIS training?

Then I get it. Oh.

"What brands, you mean?" I ask.

He nods and leans in.

"Well," I say, and rattle off a couple of paint brands.

Pregnant pause.

He looks at me, eyebrows slightly raised, expectant. Waiting.

Here we go, I think. I give in. I sigh. I ask what he is waiting for me to ask - "Are you a painter, too, then? These are painterly questions." Drily. Resignedly. In a voice that perhaps should indicate my lack of enthusiasm. He can't possibly know, but I have asked this question and had this conversation many, many times before.

"Yes!" he exclaims, and pulls out his phone to show me a picture of a brightly coloured painting of boats. A copy of a Monet. "It's big!" he says, proudly.

"Lovely," I reply - what else can I say? - waiting to move on, back to the reason we are there in his office.

"You'll have to bring in a picture of your paintings next time you're in," he declares.

I briefly consider handing him a business card, or providing my website address. Dismiss it, realizing he's not really that interested. "Yes," I say, in my most non-committal voice.

I think about the years I spent studying at university to earn my Fine Arts degree, and the day that I ditched the office job, shortly after graduation, to make a go of a full-time art career. I think about the 14 years I have spent working as a successful professional artist, developing relationships with national and international galleries, teaching classes on painting and drawing. I think about how the average income of a Canadian professional artist is $15,000 - well below the poverty line - and how I have been able to surpass that substantially and make a decent living at my work.

I am a painter. I feel I've earned the right to call myself that. I've worked hard for it. It's my profession. I've put in the hard hours, I've relied on that skill alone to keep me afloat.

I wonder what the response would have been if I had said to him, "Oh, I'm a doctor too! Here, look, I've got a picture of the sliver I pulled out last week!"

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