When Joey is tasked with creating a self-portrait at art school, she decides to remake Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Slightly complicating matters is the fact that she’s never actually seen the movie, but Joey’s not one to be dissuaded. Over the course of the semester, readers follow Joey through deeply relatable stages of creation and procrastination as she struggles to carve a path forward, even as the pull of her sister’s disappearance and years of related familial baggage threaten any small measure of independence she’s managed to achieve.
At different points, Chelsea Martin’s Tell Me I’m an Artist is a manifesto, a search history, a film script, a to-do list, and even a series of Craigslist posts, but above all, it’s a resonant and moving portrait of an artist searching for her identity. Joey’s creative journey offers doubt and joy alike, leaving her feelings in constant flux as she seeks a place for herself among her privileged peers and tries to determine whether coming to art school was even the right choice in the first place.
I spoke with Martin over Zoom about guilt, accidental self-portraits, and the effect of class dynamics on the creation of art.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In addition to the first-person narrative, Tell Me I’m an Artist includes search history screenshots, handwritten messages, Craigslist job postings, scripts for Joey’s remake… The reader comes to a deeper understanding of Joey from the way all of these elements come together; the mixed media vibe also feels very much in line with the self-portrait assignment at the heart of the book. Can you talk more about the process of including these things?
Well, originally, I wanted the book to feel kind of like a journal. Not exactly like a diary, but a really personal sort of object with sketches and art and random ideas that she’s thinking about. I moved away from that idea, but I still wanted it to have a little bit of tactileness. And yeah, exactly what you’re saying—some of the search engine stuff feels like an accidental self-portrait. It feels like this thing where she’s not intending to say anything, but you can see into Joey in a new way other than what she’s telling you… I like books like that, where you’re with the narrator super closely, but then you also have the space to see them separately.
Joey grapples with nostalgia for a former toxic friendship, major family dysfunction between her sister and mother, a budding friendship with Diana, and her ever-shifting connection with Suz, who drifts through a world of privilege entirely foreign to Joey. What gave you the idea to mesh these complex relationship dynamics with the creation of art?
It happened very organically. I’m interested in the idea of how you are with different people, and how to be an authentic person when you have to have such different relationships and different priorities within those relationships. So the friend stuff versus the family stuff was one of the big ideas of the book, like, how do you mesh these two completely different lives into one life? And how do you justify any of that? And some of it just came about—like Diana, that relationship was worked on toward the end of editing, mostly. The crux of Joey’s whole existence is feeling lonely and lost, and kind of latching onto people that don’t necessarily want to be latched onto. So showing her form a real friendship felt super cool to me after the book was drafted and laid out and I could see that was the missing piece.
Joey feels significantly shaped by the absences in her life; she clings to the idea that the things she’s gone without and the experiences she hasn’t had have made her into the person she is. What does the weight Joey places on absence say about her character as a whole?
I feel like Joey’s thinking about this a lot but she doesn’t understand the weight of it all, or where she’s getting this idea that the empty space matters a lot. I think it’s just kind of a natural step for her, from her history and from the relationships she’s had, where she’s having to fill in for other people in a way, or be there for herself when other people could have been. And making Rushmore when she’s never seen it is a way to say that she’s had to make it up for a lot of things. Like with her friend from the past, she’s had to kind of playact that they’re close and have trust when there’s nothing like that in the relationship, and it’s just this weird structure that she’s imagining is something else. And I think that she has that, to an extent with her mom and Suz and even the guy she dates, this weird emptiness.
At one point Joey recalls childhood memories of her sister Jenny’s drawings. In a way, she feels like she “stole” art from her sister, since it wasn’t something she came to on her own, but rather adopted out of a desire to be more like someone else. This feeling is only heightened by the fact that she’s the one at art school while Jenny’s life has veered off in a profoundly different direction. How does this pervasive sense of guilt play out in Joey’s life?
I think Joey’s guilty in general about being happy, or being in a place where she can see herself being happy, while her family is struggling and everything is difficult and there’s all these additional challenges that Joey doesn’t really have to deal with. And so I think the guilt about art is just an extension of guilt about getting to a place that is so different from her sister, and not really understanding why they turned out so different when they had the same parents, the same upbringing. I think to Joey it feels random and unfair, but she benefits from that imbalance. I think she probably knows that she didn’t steal her sister’s artistic talent in a literal way… I think she’s just compulsively guilty. She doesn’t understand how to move past that yet or be like, I’m not responsible for anyone, all I can do is try to have my life. I think that’s a hard thing to get to.
Why did you choose to set the book at art school, and what does Joey ultimately get out of her education?
I feel like art school is such a fraught zone where there are all these class tensions that just aren’t being discussed at all, even though it’s this place where you should be talking about it. At least in my experience being at art school, we just didn’t talk about how the different experiences we were bringing worked together to form our identities and our ideas about art. I also think art school’s kind of a scam and a pyramid scheme, and it isn’t the greatest place to learn about art, weirdly—it’s so dependent on who’s there and who you’re studying with. I feel like that’s the biggest factor, is the other students that are there and if you have similar understanding of what you’re trying to do, or if people are doing disparate things that don’t have a conversation with each other.
But I feel like the institution of art school doesn’t prepare you for the real world or the economy of the art world. I didn’t learn a single thing in class about selling art or marketing myself or even networking. I learned those things from my peers, but it wasn’t taught at all, and I think that is a class problem. Because people who grew up in the arts or grew up with a lot of money probably have a lot more access to that kind of education, just from their families and their circumstances. So a poor student like Joey coming in, not understanding that, seeing how these things work for the first time in her life—it’s not being talked about. Nobody’s being transparent about these networking things or these transfers of favor, and she has to just pick up on it and try to get something from that idea, even though it feels like, “Is this the way? I don’t know. No one’s telling me.”
I think some of Joey’s questions through the whole book are: “Is this the right choice? What am I doing here? Am I here at the wrong point in my life? Because I feel so far behind everybody else around me, and I don’t know what I’m trying to do or say or who I am.” But I think that is part of the benefit of being at art school, because you’re encouraged to ask questions like that and encouraged to find yourself, and that’s all you do, the whole time. “What do I want to do? What do I want to say? Let’s think about it all day every day.”
Right—it gives you the space to do that, which is in itself a privilege.
Yeah, it’s such a privilege—an expensive privilege.
by Chelsea Martin
Published on September 20, 2022