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Are You a Shadow Artist?


We’re all creative. If you Google the term ‘creativity’ you’ll notice it’s practiced in different ways.  And creative doesn’t explicitly mean artistic.  Yes, some are actual fine artists like Picasso. But people like software programmers who come up with solutions to technical issues or entrepreneurs who make something to solve a problem in the market (Post-It anyone?) also fall under creative. It’s coming up with something original and in many cases, unusual.

For ten years, I worked for one of the most creative and innovative Masters programs in Canada. Our students built things like games and funky apps. We taught people how to hone their creativity and build digital and interactive products. There was a lot of talent around me: game designers, clowns, artists, storytellers, software developers, and entrepreneurs. But I wasn’t one of them (or rather, I didn’t consider myself one of the cool creative cats). I was a shadow artist disguised as a recruiter.

What is a Shadow Artist?

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way describes the shadow artist as someone who surrounds themselves with creative people but doesn’t produce their own work, denying their own creativity. After assessing my own life, I realized I was a textbook case. 

Examples I’ve seen are a photographer’s assistant with aspiring ambitions of their own freelance gigs, or a cosmetics representative who wants to be a makeup artist. Or perhaps a music festival organizer who plays the guitar and hangs around musicians but never performs. They dip their toe in the work but don’t claim their rightful place in it, instead, choosing to be in the peripheral areas of where they could shine (the centre). 

As a recruiter, I focused on helping people who I thought deserved to officially describe themselves as creative because I couldn’t step into the space and own the identity for myself. I made a lucrative career out of being a shadow artist. I learned to sell, developed an instinct for finding creatives like me and had the verbal finesse to convince them to bloom. This did not serve my own soul in the long run, and I became depleted spiritually.

Photo by Engin Akyurt

Here are a few indicators– from my own experiences– that could help you determine if you might be a shadow artist.

Not Being Enough

You know you’re creative, but don’t think you’re creative enough, and there are always people who could do creative better than you (not true).  “Why don’t you sing professionally?” someone asked me once. Sure I had pipes, good ones if I took the time to develop my vocal skills. But then I thought, sure I’m good, but not good enough. I forgot that even the best vocalists in the world had to work at their craft daily.

Many people started somewhere, and that somewhere was usually from a place of being 1. awful 2. a beginner or 3. both.

Antidote: If you even have a hunch you could be good at something, chances are, well, you are. And there is a specific outlet that will make you good enough. If you know you can be a good painter, then paint. But if you’re not sure what you want to do, then try anything, or even better, try everything. Action breeds clarity, not the other way around. I tried putting makeup on every day for a month, and I wrote almost every day for a summer. I learned so much.

You Fear Rejection

Perhaps you heard no or you’re bad at this when you were young and took that to mean you were bad at your endeavour. So you stopped. What’s the point of doing something if you can’t be good at it? 

First, yes, maybe the painting wasn’t exactly the Mona Lisa, but sucking is part of the process. You need to suck before you get better.

Second, someone’s opinion isn’t the truth. Sure, there are respected critics whose opinions we value, but that’s all they are: opinions. Bonus thought: you can never please everyone. 

Antidote: do the work even if it’s just for yourself, to start. At the very least you’ll have made something. On days I feel down, showing up to the keyboard and writing even just a few hundred words instantly makes me feel better. I always underestimate daily pleasures’ ability to perk me up. And as Seth Godin (probably one of the best creative coaches I know) says, drip by drip your work transforms and that fear of rejection will disappear.

Your Inner Voice is Trying to Figure Out Your Self-Sabotaging Actions

It could be asking something like: why can’t you try 3D art? Or what makes you think you can’t code? Is it because you sucked at Math in high school? This is your intuition questioning your actions. She’s not cruel, just confused.

Antidote: Instead of ignoring her, entertain her questions with curiosity. I can’t try 3D art because I’m uncomfortable with technology, but am I as bad as I believe to be? Or, yeah, it looks like coding does require a lot of math. But does it really? Taking a quick, free class on Udemy might not be a bad idea to figure this out. Or perhaps talk to someone who codes for a living.

You’re in Comfortable Misery

Whether your work is creative or not, you’re not growing and everything feels easy. Trying anything creative comes with initial resistance, and you’ve learned to avoid it. This means you’ve stagnated and it’s time to push a bit–even if it means doing something five minutes a day that feels uncomfortable.

Antidote:  Try writing an opening scene or recording a video impromptu and see what happens. At the very least you’ll feel something other than comfort. If it’s good keep going! If it’s bad, then you’ll feel better for having tried something that felt hard. I always feel good after a tough workout at the gym and applying this to my creative practice isn’t any different.

Being a shadow artist isn’t a permanent sentence. You can step out of your shadow (pun intended), and while the light might initially hurt your eyes and penetrate your skin, once you adjust you’ll be glad to not only be seen by others but see your own self in an inspiring element.

Do you struggle with considering yourself creative? Let me know in the comments below!



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