Tell Me I’m An Artist, the new novel from Chelsea Martin (Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life), is both a book title and a plea from its 20-something protagonist, Joey. Joelle “Joey” Berry is enrolled at an unnamed art school in San Francisco and her creative drive is on fumes. How do you paint a portrait of an artist in the midst of questioning what art even is?
In ‘Tell Me I’m An Artist,’ an Art Student’s Greatest Work is Herself
For Martin, leaning into interiority is key. The novel is set over the course of a single semester while Joey takes a course in experimental filmmaking. This cramped time frame lends the novel a richly claustrophobic atmosphere. Joey is pressed for time to complete an assignment she was half-assing from the beginning; she assumes a wide mandate for the task and decides her video self-portrait will be a remake of Wes Anderson’s 1998 indie classic Rushmore—a movie she has never seen.
Like Anderson’s movie, Martin’s novel is a coming-of-age story, and, though there are similarities, like the fact that Anderson’s protagonist Max can only attend an elite school thanks to financial assistance (a scholarship) and creates art (a play) within the film, the point of the movie’s inclusion isn’t to spot them. Joey’s decision to latch her identity onto something she has never seen and therefore cannot know is a kind of book-length metaphor for the creative process that Martin expands on over the novel’s 368 pages.
As Joey spirals over completing the assignment, Martin pulls us into a tormented inner life characterized by endless artistic neurosis. Joey bounces between self-doubt and self-pity like a ping pong; she constantly measures herself against peers she sees as being more adept at “seeing layers of meaning in smears of charcoal.” It doesn’t help that she, a young woman on the edge of financial precarity, is surrounded by people who never worry about, and therefore never really talk about, money. Their lives are not plagued by the questions that weigh her down: Should the loan she took out to cover her rent, art supplies, and meals also be used to support a family—her drug addicted sister and emotionally unavailable mother—that never supported her? Does the desire to make meaningful art actually translate into meaningful art?
Joey will be relatable to readers who’ve visited art galleries and felt too afraid to ask whether the fire extinguisher is part of the exhibit or just a random object in the building. The worries she shares in her inner monologue while attending classes and talking to her peers—banal, intrusive, endless—reminded me of the time I bluffed my way through a self-portrait assignment in grad school. I was supposed to photograph an object as a stand-in for myself. Yes, this picture I hastily took of a tunnel the day before this assignment was due is me. Please don’t ask any follow-up questions.
But aren’t bluffing and inventing just synonyms for creating? This is the crux of the novel. Tell Me I’m An Artist argues the forging of identity itself is a creative process. In it, Martin delineates the way the creative process can be a conduit for either self-discovery or self-annihilation.
Last year audiences were taken with Julie (Renate Reinsve), the protagonist of Joachim Trier’s film The Worst Person in The World, a woman who was not innately remarkable but whose un-remarkability, in the hands of the right storyteller, could not only be interesting, but cinematic. Like Trier, Martin excels at seeing beauty in the mundane.
We come to know Joey not just through her depressing inner monologues but also from the portrait of the artist Martin paints via her internet search history. Questions like “how to make $1800 last four months sa francisco,” and “what flavor pop tart is most healthy,” and “what is wrong with me quiz,” appear sporadically on full pages throughout the novel formatted exactly like internet web searches. They are short and telling. There are other interstitial pages too, some filled with venn diagrams, lists and hasty scrawls that artfully lend Martin’s novel the appearance of a diary (the author is also an illustrator).
The crossroads at which Joey finds herself, between her desire to make something meaningful, and the feeling that she never will, is pedestrian. Every person, young or old, who has ever wanted to make something will see some part of themselves in some part of her. What makes Joey’s journey immensely readable is Martin’s obvious empathy for her protagonist and for the act of creation.
Joey creates and then destroys, and then creates again, never sure she’s making the thing she wants to make or being the person she wants to be. She is both acutely aware of and repulsed by her own mediocrity, and so determined to be something else, that you can’t help but root for her.
Whereas Rushmore’s Max was self-serious and worryingly self-assured, Martin’s Joey can be summed up by the neediness embedded in the book’s title: Tell Me I’m An Artist. Joey needs to be an artist because she doesn’t know what she’d be if she weren’t one. Throughout the novel as she seeks employment, both distance and understanding from her family, and to find her identity as an artist, she asks herself questions that real artists also struggle with: Is the relationship between art and money fruitful or toxic? Will a need to create help you burn passionately or cause you to flame out? Am I anything? And if I am to be something, can it be an artist?
‘Tell Me I’m An Artist’ is out on Sept. 20 from Soft Skull Press. Details here.