Are Artists Born or Made?

I’ve been interested in art for so long that sometimes I can take it for granted.

Most kids like coloring, but I really liked to color. In fact, the best birthday gift I could receive as a kid was a large set of crayons. I was fascinated not only with the basic colors of the rainbow but with the plethora of colors in between. I wanted them all, all the colors.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time coloring. My mom was my first art teacher. She seemed to take pleasure and satisfaction in showing me how to stay perfectly in-between the lines. Hours would go by. She even showed me that by taking a cloth or tissue and rubbing the crayon wax against the paper, you could make the colors and shading so smooth that your individual markings would seamlessly blend into a pool of color. With this technique, and with a little help, I even won a few coloring contests. Being ‘good at art’ once got me $300 and even some pizza on occasion.

But, it’s hard to draw the line between nature and nurture when it comes to art. My mother most definitely always had an affinity for art, although she hadn’t officially picked up a paintbrush until the age of 70. When she did, however, she took to it like a fish in water, to the extent that her art teachers assumed she had misled them as to the extent of her prior painting experience. She also is a serial decorator, meticulous and relentless in achieving perfect aesthetic harmony in every room of the house.

It may be easy, therefore, to jump to the conclusion that I got my artistic talent, genetically handed down, from my mom. Doing so, however, would overlook all those hours she spent with me as a child sitting at the kitchen table patiently coloring with undivided attention. It also may dismiss all the coloring books she bought me, and all those crayons. And, it most definitely overlooks the fact that she, herself, was first influenced in art by her older brother, who too liked to draw and spent quality time with her one-on-one sharing what he had learned.

But whether or not I was born with a special talent, the encouragement to continue drawing and coloring was always fostered, even outside the home. As I reached elementary school my teachers ‘caught’ on to my drawing enthusiasm. More specifically, they caught me selling my art for homework passes. 

Students at the school were rewarded for their good homework with passes that gave them a free day without having to do homework. When kids saw my drawings and asked if I could make a drawing for them, I sold them my drawings for these passes. Word got around, and soon I was coming home after school each day with new assignments: two horses, one deer, a unicorn, an eagle, and so on. I would break out my encyclopedia, look up the animal, draw it, and trade it in for a homework pass before class the next day. I went weeks without doing homework before my teachers eventually caught on. 

My parents eventually did receive a call from the principal. I remember the day well, My parents came to the school nervous and ashamed of my blatant disobedience, but my father, a self-made businessman, was secretly proud. I was terrified, I had never been in trouble before, not officially, and I imagined the worst: having my crayons taken away and no longer being allowed to draw. But rather than scold me, the principal disciplined me by contracting me out to draw portraits of teachers on their birthdays in front of the classroom. 

I couldn’t believe it: my punishment for drawing, instead of doing my homework, was to draw more? As I would draw the teacher’s portrait on her special day, the students in the classroom would scoot up their desks to get a better view of the work-in-progress. The finished pieces would then be paraded through the school, among the other teachers. It was my time to shine.

The school I attended was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria. In addition to portraits of the staff, I was also enlisted to recreate scenes from biblical stories to be hung over the altar for Sunday mass. On Fridays, I was taken out of class and placed on the floor of the cathedral with a box of crayons, markers, and a huge white piece of paper. I was in heaven. I would stay there alone until I finished my weekly masterpiece. Every now and then I would look up and stare at the stained-glass windows showing St. Catherine casually posing next to the wheel she had been tortured on. Her facial expression looked sad but far away; she never did seem to mind. The lights, the colors, the smell of incense impacted me deeply.

photo by Lawrence OP

Not coming from a Catholic family, we never attended the Sunday mass, so I never did see my banners on display, but the feedback I would receive each week did wonders for my confidence as a grade-school student. I was lucky to have this amazing support behind me, and I don’t know what my trajectory as an artist would have been like without it.

I write this because I get asked by friends with children about how to help develop their child’s interest in art. Sure, classes can help as they get older, but what helped me is what seems to help most kids: attention – pure, and with no strings attached. The attention I had with my mother was her way of spending time with me by sharing a mutually enjoyable activity. At my school, the teachers and staff saw what I did as a gift and wanted me to share it. Whether learned or inherited, it was a gift for sure.

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