The worst critique
by Amy Gilles, Assistant Professor of Studio Art
Have you ever cried in public? Have you stood in front of 50 people, including professors and a famous art critic, and cried? I have. I was standing in an art gallery in front of some of my own art and had just heard the critic say, “I’m not sure you have what it takes to make it as an artist.”
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making art. I was illustrating my own books before I could read them, covering walls with drawings of people and animals, and filling notebooks with everything from my imagination. No paper surface was safe in our home. I drew on paper plates, utility bills, and napkins, and in the margins of text books. I grew up knowing that whatever else I might be in my life, I would certainly be an artist. It felt foundational to who I was, and I took it for granted.
“Thinking of myself as an artist wasn’t the root of the problem; thinking that all my value came from my ability to be an artist was.”It wasn’t that I had never faced any criticism or discouragement in my pursuit of art before that infamous critique. During college, I had occasionally endured some scathing critiques of projects, and those had stung. But even in those moments, I had felt confident that my identity as an artist was secure. The piece in question might not have been good, but I knew that I was capable of good work. But that’s not what the critic in graduate school said. He wasn’t talking about any particular piece. He was talking about me, about my ability to create good, meaningful work. In front of a room full of people, I suddenly doubted something foundational about my identity, and it struck at a very deep place in me.
You might be surprised to hear that I am ultimately grateful that this hard event happened. I certainly wasn’t initially. I cried for days. I laid in my bed and wondered if I should continue my MFA program. I wondered if I had been fooling myself and everyone else for 24 years. In my confusion, I reached out to my pastor and asked if we could meet for coffee. As I mopped at my eyes with a soggy napkin, my pastor kindly smiled at me and said, “Amy, you’ve placed your identity in this passion of yours, and now that someone has directly called into question your ability to pursue it, you don’t know who you are.” I knew he was right. I slowly began to understand that passion and identity can and should run parallel to one another, but that when they become enmeshed, there is the potential for a lot of confusion and pain. Thinking of myself as an artist wasn’t the root of the problem; thinking that all my value came from my ability to be an artist was.
I would like to say that in the years since that pivotal critique I have learned what it looks like to find my identity in things that aren’t subject to change and fickle opinion. But the truth is, it is an ongoing discovery. I have had many more meaningful conversations with pastors, family members and friends about what it means to find my security in eternal things rather than my own abilities. The most important aspect of this journey has been spending time with the Lord, reading His Word and coming to better understand who He is and what He says about who I am.
It is clear to me that God is the one who gave me the passion for making art and that he has continued to richly bless my efforts to pursue that as a career (it turns out that God has the last word on that subject, not an art critic). But it is also clear to me that God desires for me to experience the freedom of knowing that my identity is safe and never in question. And do you want to know a secret I’ve discovered? When your identity is separate from whatever you’re passionate about, you are free to take risks in that area and even to fail. It still hurts when something I’ve worked hard on doesn’t turn out like I hoped or isn’t met with the enthusiasm I was expecting, but, when I believe the truth about my identity, such an experience no longer disrupts that deep understanding of who I really am.
A large portion of my current job as an art professor is spent on the opposite side of the critique experience. Now I am the one looking at a student’s work, offering my thoughts and opinions, asking questions and, yes, sometimes having to say difficult things. But I vividly remember what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that experience, and more than anything I desire for my students to know that their value is not based on what they do or create. Their passion for art is an important aspect of how God created them, so I want them to grow in that without limiting their identities to their artistic output.
Amy is originally from the Midwest, where she graduated from The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with a Master of Fine Arts in Painting. She is passionate about being outdoors and much of her artwork focuses on the experience of walking and coming to know and feel connected to a particular landscape by moving through it. Her work has been shown in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. When not on a hike or a bike ride, Amy loves working with students in the studio, classroom and individually.