Edgar Degas, The Conversation, 1889.
It happens all the time.
I meet someone in a new setting; and, in a matter of minutes, the question comes up.
“And what do you do?”
It's a very direct, very American question, and I've often wondered about how we casually toss it out there, oblivious to the unsettling intimations that it would create in older, more stratified regions of the world.
I used to say, “I'm an artist.” But this caused confusion, as many musicians and actors describe themselves as artists instead of, well, musicians or actors. So I amended it to visual artist – but that, too, was baffling.
A few years on, I tried painter.
“Ah! I see. Home interiors or exteriors, or both?"
Even when I narrowed it down to the crazy-specific: “I'm an artist and illustrator who specializes in painting birds and local landscapes,” the quizzical looks remained.
In the end, I realized it wasn't just the title: it was that the profession itself isn't all that common. The average person simply doesn't know anyone pursuing my line of work. Graphic designer? Perhaps. High school art teacher? Very likely. But someone who creates paintings to hang on a wall? Not so much. According to the May 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report there were 4.6 million salespeople, 2.7 registered nurses, 1.7 million truck drivers....and 12,240 “Fine Artists, Including Painters, Sculptors, and Illustrators”. That's right. Just 12,240. That's effectively less than .008% of the entire U.S. workforce. The only thing rarer might be a golf ball diver or parachute mender.*
Maybe one day in the near future, we'll walk around with augmented reality stats that luminously float above our heads like ultra-savvy social media profiles. All someone will have to do is nod or blink in my direction, and they'll know everything there is to know about my work without even having to ask.
Until then, I'll content myself to be patient and explain what I do, even if it takes a bit of effort.
*Or professional chocolate taster. Mmmmm.