What defines an artist? Is it the production of a creative work? Is it the result of training in the craft? These questions were on my mind over a holiday break as I toured the American Visionary Art Museum at Baltimore, Maryland’s Inner Harbor.
All of the works displayed in the museum are from self-taught artists, including Wayne Kusy, who built a replica of the Lusitania from 193,000 toothpicks and five pounds of glue (a video of him and his work is here). Here’s the museum’s take on its mission:
All of us at AVAM enjoy and respect the learning that comes from academic study or through apprenticeship to a trained artist. We dedicate AVAM exclusively, however, as a place devoted to the other path of mastery – the intuitive path of learning to listen to the small, soft voice within.
I am a self-taught creative writer, who never took a single creative writing course in my life. I simply read and wrote, both in stolen moments from my professional career and family. This summer I’m beginning an MFA in Writing, so at the age of 43 I’m just beginning to follow the formal training path.
On my road-trip across the United States interviewing creatives of all stripes, I met lots of artists who were self-taught, and many who had extensive formal training.
Cape May, New Jersey, painter Victor Grasso went to work painting murals for Atlantic City casinos at the age of 18 and never looked back. His original paintings are now in high demand, but he has never taken a painting class. He has, however, on his own studied the great works and artists. He goes to galleries and stares closely at paintings, getting yelled at by security guards, but as he puts it, “I have to see how these people put the paint down.”
Orchestral composer James Aikman of Ann Arbor, Michigan, learned under master musicians from a young age. “I had an amazing upbringing in terms of being exposed to classical music,” he told me. He later researched his mentors back through their mentors, and realized his artistic lineage dates back to Liszt, then Beethoven, then Bach. “I hope to add my own stamp to the repertoire,” he said. He’s well on his way, as his original compositions have been performed globally by leading orchestras.
What do these two artists have in common, other than artistic and commercial success? It turns out they both were raised in artistic households.
Aikman’s mother was a master pianist who would play sonatas for her son before he went off to bed. Grasso’s mother was a painter, his grandfather a carver and sculptor, and his great-grandfather a painter. For each of them, the idea of creating artistic works was second nature to them.
Are you a self-taught creative or the product of formal training? What are your thoughts on these two paths to creativity?