Spokane author Chelsea Martin’s newest novel, “Tell Me I’m An Artist,” follows Joey, an art student from a poor family who attempts to live an aspirational life she soon realizes is far out of reach. In this extraordinarily moving story about class, art and family life, Martin delicately uncovers the ways in which the university acts only as a superficial equalizer, and students who grow up in generational poverty contend with burdens invisible to their peers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joey is in art school in San Francisco and “Tell Me I’m An Artist” spans the length of the project she’s working on: a remake of Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore.” Tell me about this project.
She’s in a film class and her assignment is to do a self-portrait in film. Her take on that is to remake “Rushmore,” a film she’s never seen, and through that process, hopefully learn something about herself. She quickly regrets this, and can’t really handle the scope of the project, so she procrastinates for the entire semester.
She mentions the role that college pamphlets played in her life before art school. What do they represent for her?
The pamphlets were Joey’s way of starting to imagine her life outside of her small town, and imagine that there are people out there that she might actually be able to connect with. They were a turning point for her, and the first step in starting a new life.
When you see these kinds of things, you start imagining who these people are and what this school is like. And then she gets there, and it’s kind of a letdown. But, anything is a letdown when you’re fantasizing about something and then you have it in reality.
Joey starts comparing her classmates to these people who she just saw pictures of and starts feeling like maybe art school isn’t as cool as she imagined, or these people aren’t as brilliant as she was expecting.
Can you describe Joey’s family life?
Her family life is a chaotic tangle of problems and instability. Her mom might be an alcoholic and is neglectful as a parent. Joey has an older sister, Jenny, who starts using drugs, and then has a baby. And during the course of Joey’s semester, while she’s remaking “Rushmore,” Jenny goes missing and leaves her baby with their mom.
This unleashes more chaos because her mom might lose her job because she has to take care of this kid or has to find child care all the time when she wasn’t expecting to, and no one knows where Jenny is. It changes Joey’s perspective of art school because she feels called to help, but also kind of called to not make herself responsible for these people’s choices and for her sister, who’s never shown that kind of care to her.
I feel that in my personal life. Scary [expletive] is happening all over the world, scary [expletive] is happening in my family, and making art just feels so self-centered sometimes.
Something this book does better than any campus novel I’ve read is highlight the way that class differences really manifest. There are the familiar burdens like student loans, extra shifts and constant anxieties about making rent, but you also reveal this other side of class that is not often discussed that is access to experiences, confidence in certain environments, and parents who have the bandwidth to invest both emotionally and/or financially in their child’s talent. Can you explain the different ways Joey and her friend Suz experience art school differently?
Suz grew up with an artistic mother and wealthy parents and parents who were really invested in her growth. She had art tutors, mentors and she went to art camp. It feels to Joey that Suz has had a massive head start because she’s been thinking about her artistic perspective since she was a young teenager. While Joey has been making art that whole time too, she never had anyone telling her art camp even existed. She feels like she’s got all this ground to make up before she can even start thinking about art like Suz.
And I agree, that aspect of class is underrepresented. It is said that parents who read have children who read and get better grades because they’re around people who care about their education. Poor people just don’t have that time. This snowballs over the course of a childhood and a life and a generation. Once you get to college, those differences are just blatant. One reason these class differences aren’t discussed is because it’s honestly an “uncool” thing to be comparing yourself to other people, and of course no one wants to be perceived as a spoiled rich kid.
One of my favorite books about class is Shamus Khan’s “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School” and in there, Khan writes about how these children who grow up wealthy develop this “ease” in navigating any situation they’re dropped in. Suz really epitomizes this.
I’m a new mom, so I’ve been thinking about these things in a different way. With parenting, all of these small things can really influence who your child is. Having a chaotic, anxiety-filled home, I don’t think you could ever be confident growing out of that situation. At the very least it will take a lot of self-work later in life to feel that ease in different situations. Really careful, intentional parenting will give kids those personality traits that help them throughout their whole lives. It’s so much pressure.
Do you think it is possible to pursue art or a similar field of study if you come from a poor background?
Yeah, I think so. Our culture definitely makes it extremely hard, and you have to be really determined to make it happen. But the art that moves me is made by people who have tumultuous backgrounds. I like all kinds of art, but people who’ve had it easy don’t always have interesting things to say.
I think about this a lot writing about art school. I feel very conflicted about how to present the idea of art school to people who might be young and thinking about going. I don’t feel comfortable advising people either way, but it’s just a real risk to put yourself through art school as someone without money. You could really get somewhere or you could lose it all and burden yourself financially for the rest of your life with a degree that won’t get you anything.