I lost a little breath, as if I were Ruby, the four year old who was just told she was not an artist. I sat there dumbly, unarmed with a proper response. This felt like such a wrong thing, for one four year old to tell another four year old what they could not be. I fumbled on.
"I think many artists scribble. Many famous artists work has a lot of scribbling in it." It was a pitiful response, failing on a number of fronts, not the least of which was defending little Ruby.
Eloise, piped up and said, "I'm an artist. I make lots of pictures."
"Yes, Eloise, you do. You are an artist," and then I added, feeling fraudulent, "I am an artist too."
The other girl looked up from her colored blocks, right at me and told it to me straight. "No you're not."
"How do you know?"
"Because my mom is a doctor and she goes to a real doctor place to see people."
She turned her back and walked away.
A day or two later, I recalled that over Thanksgiving break I met someone who introduced himself as an artist. Graham, the girls, and I were guests at a friend's "holiday leftovers" lunch. I found myself sitting next to a man about my age, maybe a bit older, with curly red hair, glasses, and a rumpled plaid shirt. When I asked him how he spent his time, he told me he was an artist.
On hearing the word artist, my presence of mind split into layers. Inside snippy commentary bombarded me: that's kind of pretentious to introduce himself as an artist, is he professional, does he make money at this, or have a grant, or is he kind of faking it, like he wants to be an artist, and he makes stuff in a studio, living off a trust fund or something. It was not a kind narrative.
Outside I asked, "So what do you make?"
He described making things out of found items. Out of old tires, a used up couch and his grandmother's cushion that he had saved because no one else in the family wanted it. Stepping into what felt like common ground, I told him, "I make things out of fabric I save too, like from the girls' baby clothes."
He turned a few degrees in my direction, and tilted his head. "You do? Wow, what do you make?" And from an undivided place I described sewing Christmas ornaments out of old nightgowns. He listened carefully, asked a few more questions, and in the light of his kind attention, my previous confusion, along with its edge, evaporated.
Back at preschool, Eloise sits at the art table. She has a pink marker in her hand, and edges it along the paper. "Mama, it's me and you. And there is Hawaii." I ask her a few questions about her drawing, looking carefully at the sharp corners and swift turns of her lines. I spend a bit of extra time, allowing us the luxury of lingering in a conspiracy of art. She shows me her work, I receive and enjoy it, and somewhere in between she has become the artist she claims herself to be.