What is a Self Taught Artist?

Self Taught or Self Motivated?

In my beginnings, my art career started strangely for me.  As a child, I was always creative and loved to build things.  I had the usual 70’s toys that boys played with—Tinker toys, legos, etc.  And even though they found rotation in my quest to quell the boredom of a boy with an active imagination, my favorite toys lived in the storage shed and woodpiles in my backyard.  How could I build a crossbow like the one I saw in that time-traveling dinosaur movie, or can these wheelbarrow wheels be made into a soapbox derby car with no hills to run it down.  I wish I had pictures of some of the things I made as a kid.

My Junior High School had a metal shop class, and it sounded like a lot of fun to me.  Access to these tools was pretty special, and that class exposed me to welding, iron casting, and general metal fabrication.  And I loved it.  A good friend and I started making custom weight lifting benches for football team members until the school, put the brakes on that.

Fast forward 15 years, a corporate career in Supply Chain, and now a homeowner, I wanted nice things for my home.  I was never a fan of store-bought furnishings and enjoyed the pride and satisfaction of having things in my home that I made.  With the Internet in its infancy, no formal art training, and social media still 10 years away, I start buying books.  Pictorial Ironwork books, instructional books on blacksmithing, and direct metal sculpture.  I built a small propane forge, bought an old anvil, and started hammering metal.  The more I read, the more I wanted to make things as I saw in the books.  I quickly found I had a natural talent for this, and people started to take notice.  

One day I woke up and realized people were paying me for these skills, and I was having a blast.  After a few years of working a corporate job parallel with my work in my studio, I quit my job.  I left the steady salary, 401k, and medical benefits behind to be a full-time artist.  

Back then I was young, probably a bit overconfident, but making some beautiful ironwork.  When people asked, “Who trained you? or Where did you study?” I would proudly state that I was self-taught.  I felt all those years of playing in my studio, “inventing” new ways of doing things, creating the tooling to build and texture my work, earned me the right to say that.  I didn’t go to school, train under a master, or take an online course.  So I was “self-taught,” right?  Not really.  Just self-motivated and doing the right skill for me. 

Self Taught or Self Motivated?

To be honest, I get it.  I’m not involved in the semantics of the term.  If you are Self Taught, you didn’t go to an accredited institution to learn the basics of your craft.  At least that’s what the bulk of internet posters think, as found HERE in a Quora post.  But I feel it’s splitting hairs and that your desire to learn something that interests you solely through self-motivation (as opposed to an instructor forcing you?) is not an accolade. It’s just a different vehicle used to arrive where you are. And however you have arrived here is just fine with me. 

However, Take a Class!

Do you think you’re above taking a class or learning new procedures?  Well, if you do, then you are probably limiting your art career. It’s effortless to put blinders on in our work, and it’s even easier if you work alone.  We tend to say things like, “This is always how I have done it, or I have been doing this for years.” Subsequently, when I started taking classes and workshops for things “I already knew how to do,” my skills (and career) flourished. 

Here is the bottom line:  If you watch someone perform a skill that you feel proficient at, and 5% of that workshop is different from how you do things, you just increased your skills by 5%.  Not to mention, artists are super crafty and always try to become more efficient.  Whether it’s special tool holders, procedures, lighting, whatever, so many times I have watched someone do something genius that was right in front of my eyes for years.  I could not see it through my blinders. 

Teach a Class!

You don’t have to be a professor to share your skills.  And there are benefits from teaching that are harder to come by than posting a YouTube video. 

First, you will get to know other artists in your community, and they will get to know you. 

Second, you just don’t know where your next big connection will come from.  I have met more than one repeat client from events that peers dragged me into kicking and screaming. And this includes classes I was asked to teach for procedures I was not fond of doing.  

And lastly, there is no better feeling than to get paid doing something you love and making new friends.  When my students were up and running in the classes, I always enjoyed talking with them and hearing what they hoped to do with the skills they were learning from me.  I would receive emails years later with pictures of their work that were stunning.  Knowing that I played a part in the genesis of that work is very rewarding.

Matt Weber teaching students how to silver solder
The Author teaching a class in 2007
Matt Weber
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