Time to Redefine What It Means to Be an Artist

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word artist lately. I’ve always had trouble with it because of all the people it leaves out. Historically, the word has been used to describe visual and performing artists only: painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, filmmakers, people who make things that other people describe by using words like dichotomy and compositional elements. It excludes writers, architects, physicists, philosophers, and the guy I knew in college who wrote mathematical theorems like poetry.

Growing up, I had a mailman named Joe. He drove one of the old postal trucks without doors. Every afternoon, he would pull into our driveway and put our mail in the mailbox and give me a kiss on the cheek. On Halloween, he left candy along with the mail. When I was a senior in high school waiting to hear back from colleges, he once called the house at 7:00am and said, “Hi, dear, I just got to the post office and I wanted to let you know that there’s an envelope from __________ University here. And it’s thick. I didn’t want you to have to go through the whole day without knowing.” When I was off at  __________ University, whenever my parents sent me a letter or a care package, there was always a handwritten note from Joe somewhere on the envelope or the box, wishing me well at school, letting me know that I was missed. I am told that on his last day of work before retiring, many years after I had moved away, his route was lined with people holding handmade signs for him.

He used his job as a way to bring meaning and a sense of connection into the lives of others. This is what an artist does.

Being an artist has everything to do with the way you move through the world, the lens through which you see things. If you pay attention to detail, to the connections between seemingly unrelated things, if you care about symbolism, if you search for a way to express meaning and beauty in your life through small or large actions, regardless of whether you do it by painting a still life or writing mathematical proofs or by delivering mail, you are an artist.

Welcome to the club.

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