Call me by my title: Am I an Artist?

Somewhere along the line I stopped referring to myself as an artist. I felt uncomfortable with people calling my studio space an “artist studio.” I referred to myself as a maker, which is a term I stole from my woodworker boyfriend.


It’s not that I never was an artist, or was always uncomfortable with the term. In high school and early college I mostly was an oil painter and identified a lot with being a fine artist. I painted not only life studies but also spilled my feelings about a trauma I had experienced at 17 out onto canvas. For months I felt like I just dripped oil paintings out of my body, bleeding out and coping with paint. These paintings are what got me into the best design school in the USA, and I moved to New York at 18 to “be an artist.”

In New York, going to Parsons, I discovered an ethereal light around those who identified as “fine artists” and not just designers. I struggled to declare a major after my first two semesters, swaying back and forth between fine art and illustration. Fine artists were thoughtful, curious, and experimental people, and I felt if I couldn’t push the boundary of art itself I would never be a successful “fine artist.” See? even here I keep writing “fine artist” in quotations because the definition of it is so swiftly changing. Chameleon like, shifting definition from person to person. I don’t even feel comfortable defining artistry and I went to school for it.

I chose to major in illustration. I loved my time as an illustration major and at the time I absolutely reveled in being called an illustrator. I loved being associated with children’s books and comics, two of my favorite things. However, college was difficult on my mental health. I scraped my way out of my depressive mood swings by picking up a job at Purl Soho, a knitting and fabric store in Soho. I had become convinced in my depression that my illustration skills weren’t good enough, and if I wasn’t even the best illustrator in my graduating class, I would never be able to support myself as a freelancer. Spoiler alert: I graduated in 2015, and just now in 2019 I’m starting to rekindle my love of illustration again. Once you take the pressure off to be a Professional IllustratorTM you can actually take the time to make good stuff.


As I was graduating in 2015 I had a bit of a rebellious moment: Oh, did I just get this expensive BFA in Illustration? That’s funny, because i’m a SEAMSTRESS NOW. I sparked joy by distracting myself from the pressure of using my degree by sewing garments and quilts. It’s still my preferred hobby.


Here’s where we really start struggling with labels. There’s no really good term to call yourself when you make garments for yourself. Seamstress connotes that you alter other people’s clothing, and fashion designer has a glamorous aftertaste. I was making clothes from patterns, posting them on the internet, and bonding with other people doing the same. The sewing community coined the term “sewists” which works pretty well but it’s not widely known and autocorrects often to sexists, which is annoying as balls.

After moving back to Rochester and sewing on the side, I flopped around with labels and professions. After everyone told me I was a fashion designer I decided to try being a fashion designer, and I hated it. I had a children’s accessory line which I also hated. I flopped all over the city like a confused salmon, just trying to make things and hope people liked them.

About a year ago I started making banners out of canvas and felt and I really enjoyed it. I changed my business name and started peddling my wares at local craft shows. At the time I was making these banners out of the studio apartment my boyfriend and I shared and it clearly was not working. I decided to pursue a studio space where I could make these banners and also continue to sew garments. Luckily for me, a spot just my size opened up at the Yards in December of 2018.


I love the Yards a lot, but it’s starting to give me a complex about the title of “artist.” We have monthly resident meetings where we meet and discuss the space and upcoming events, but we also recap what we’ve been working on and our successes of the month. At first I was like “Ah yes, you are all fine artists and I, a plebeian, make products for the masses to consume.” but slowly I’ve started to rethink my position on this. The title of “artist” isn’t as black and white as I used to think it was. You can be an artist and make things to sell. You can be an illustrator and not be working in the business. You can be a lot of things, I think. All at the same time.

Learn more about Mary and visit her website!