How I Began to Think of Myself as an Artist

Waubonsie Artist in Residence

I’m on my way to my first Artist in Residency, and I can’t help but feel that this is a pivotal moment in my life.  This is a bonafide photography gig.  People, a lot of people now, are seeing me as a real artist and are surprised to hear that I make a living as a veterinarian.  This could be the moment that the balance starts to shift from a veterinarian, who is also a photographer to a photographer, who is also a veterinarian…or used to be a veterinarian?  (No, I’m not ready to think about giving that up yet!).  At the same time, I feel like a person can never really know what’s pivotal without the benefit of hindsight ( except for life’s classic major events; birth, death, marriage, etc.).  Oprah Winfrey said, ” I am where I am today as a result of all of the decisions I’ve made up until this moment.” In that light, decision paralysis comes quickly, so I guess pivotal is a matter of degrees.  But I digress.

How I got here  

A friend encouraged me to look into Artist in Residency (AIR) programs after her husband, a composer and percussionist, completed his first residency in Key West, Florida.  I’d looked into AIR opportunities briefly once before. The US Forest Service has its Voices of the Wilderness program and some of the National Parks have Artists in Residence programs.  Although they seem like a perfect opportunity on the surface, most of these provide a campsite or a camper’s cabin for housing.

I am not prepared to live like that for a month.  So I did a little more research.  I found a handful of residencies within driving distance that had indoor plumbing and electricity.  It was mid-summer.  The majority of AIR programs open for submissions in January.  Except for the Waubonsie State Park program in Iowa, whose application period is mid-August to mid-September.  The program is only in its second year.  I could have a chance.

I was on break at work when I clicked on the “Submit Application” button.  It brought me to a five-page Google document.  Each page must be filled out before accessing the next, and the whole thing needs to be completed before I can save it.  I’d have preferred to have read it over, mulled it over, and then decided to proceed or not.  In hindsight, this format is among the things that prompted me to submit the application.

It started simple enough – name, preferred dates, artist statement, and what I intend to do during the residency.  The public engagement part gave me pause. I can lead a photo walk/hike.  I’ve been tagging along on those for years now.  So I pitched a “teaching people to see with new eyes” photo walk.  Then it got real.  “Why is this Residency important at this point in your career?”  My career. Wow.  “Professional History: Education”  There were a lot of fields I left blank here after I wrote “Self-taught” on the top line.  At this point, I thought, “I am so not qualified for this.” But, I’ve come this far, I might as well complete the application.  “Publications/Exhibits.”  I’ve exhibited fairly widely in the Chicago suburbs, so I felt confident about this.  “Grants and Awards,” “Experience engaging the public in relation to your art practice,” and finally, “Two professional references.” 

I’d heard the statistic on a TED talk that men apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications.  I thought to myself, “Today, I’m going to behave like a man.”  I contacted two fellow photographers that I admire, told them I didn’t think they’d be called, but just in case, here’s what I was up to.  And clicked, “submit.”

The day of the scheduled announcement of the 2019-2020 chosen artists came and went.  The next week, I emailed inquiring about the status of the decision. “Are you around this afternoon for a phone call?” was the response.  Well, they probably don’t call the rejected applicants.  On September 25, 2019, I accepted the Residency position for two weeks in November.  I was asked not to share the news publicly until the formal announcement was made.  It turned out that I had to sit on this exciting news until November 13 when the press release was issued, and I appeared on the Golden Hills RC&D website as one of the 2019-2020 Artists in Residence.Announcement of Artist in residence

So here I am in this beautiful state park among bluffs and ravines, in a hardwood forest flush with oaks and acorns, chattering red-headed woodpeckers and calling owls.  I’m exploring in solitude, sharing my passion for nature with the dedicated park staff, and connecting the public to the beauty and value of this park.  I’m learning about the geology of this glacier-carved landscape and the force of the Missouri River that still shapes the land against the will of the people.  I am thriving.  I am an artist.

5 Replies to “How I Began to Think of Myself as an Artist”

  1. Your life, every ones, is the result of all the decisions you’ve made. In a few years you can look back and see if this was a pivotal moment or not. But what a fun journey you are on!!

  2. I loved you opening up and sharing so many feelings. You are having a wonderful adventure and I often wonder how you are dealing with everything. Turns out..just like the Sheila I’ve enjoyed already getting to know better.

    1. Sometimes it’s hard to put myself out there like that, but it’s part of the process and the more I do it, the more good it seems to bring. Thanks for reading! And following along in my journey.

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