I’m curious: how do you define the term artist? What makes someone an artist? What makes someone qualified to call themselves an artist?

Hi, my name is Carrie, and here on Artist Strong, I help self-taught artists build their skills and develop their unique artistic voice. Today, let’s talk about a piece of paper that too many self-taught artists stress over.

First, I have a confession to make: I don’t have a degree in Fine Arts. I studied Art and Art History and earned a B.A. with honors. I have a master’s degree, but it is not an MFA; it’s an MA in education.

Does that make me any less of an artist?

I’m concerned about messaging that makes people feel less permission to show up for creative interests solely because they don’t have one of those degrees to attach to their name. 

What would that degree actually do for you?

The one reason I toy with the idea of returning to school for an MFA is that I always assumed one day I’d teach college-level art, and many, if not all, job postings list an MFA as a minimum requirement.

So, do you want to teach college-level art? Or do you feel deep down that getting some kind of degree will help you feel better qualified to call yourself an artist?

Let’s talk about this word, “qualify.”

After many conversations, I have the distinct impression that many self-taught artists believe they will develop skills they don’t currently have by attending school. Skills usually refer to the degree to which we can draw or paint realistically. Then they become a larger discussion about how we use the elements and principles of art to convey meaning.

Here’s the thing: not all art schools include skill-based foundations as part of their curriculum. Many assume you’ve already reached a level of skill with your art before attending school. Did you hear that? That means not all art schools teach the skills many self-taught artists worry they lack. The same skills that make those same artists think about applying to art school. Or worse, has them stop making art because they’ll “never be good enough.”

Don’t let art school stop you from making your art. 

The other terrible truth

The other terrible truth is many art schools have professors who use their positions of power to be verbally abusive in the name of art. Danielle Krysa, famously of the podcast “Art for Your Ear” and blog “The Jealous Curator,” openly shares her experience of being told in her final painting class and final year of being a painting major that she should never paint again.

I have a dear friend who speaks with pride about surviving group critiques at her school and casually mentions the tears and drama that ensued among friends after critique. I’ve even heard stories of professors ripping up artwork they didn’t like in critique.

Not only do you not need art school to be an artist, but you may have also escaped an unhealthy learning environment.

Look, not all art professors are like this. I really felt like the art department at my university had my back. It’s one reason I still think about becoming a professor myself! But you don’t need to attend art school to find amazing, supportive mentors either. It’s just one of many paths towards that goal.

What is this all really about?

This conversation is important because it hides a larger, different conversation. This is really about feeling like an imposter or that we are not good enough to call ourselves an artist. And art school becomes a way to have that conversation without directly addressing the self-belief and expectations we hold for ourselves around our art.

I went to school and studied art, but never got the “better” BFA or MFA. Sometimes I’ve wondered if that means I’m less qualified to teach and make art (and at the time of this writing, I’ve been doing both for 20 years!). And there are artists who have that piece of paper who wonder whether they too are qualified enough to call themselves an artist.

I hope today’s conversation has you reflecting on what you really want for your art. Because when you take the time to reflect and define it, that’s the moment you can begin to take steps forward with your art (with or without that degree).

Thanks for reading today’s conversation! Please sign up to receive weekly emails about posts like this one (there’s a button below) and then tell me in the comments: did you attend art school? Have you taken the time to define what being an artist means to you? Let’s keep the conversation going.

As always, thanks for being here.

Remember: proudly call yourself an artist.






Together, we are Artist Strong.