No, I'm an artiste.

Posted by Marina Fleites on

When I was little, my dad used to call me an artiste, like, in French. I was the kid that would end every day of preschool with a cubby overflowing with arts and crafts projects. I was always doing something creative, whether it was finger painting or using sidewalk chalk to turn our driveway into a little town. I even started a one sided feud in elementary school with one of my sister’s classmates who tried to tell me something was orange and not coral. Her classmate still does not know about this feud. 

Mar as a toddler painting on an easel outside wearing a crayola smock.

So whenever someone called me an artist I would correct them and say, “No, I’m an artiste.” With the French accent I stole from my dad.

In kindergarten I did my first sewing project. Mrs. Donovan, our art teacher, had us do potato prints on fabric and then we hand stitched them into pillows. I even still have the pillow. When I was thrilled about it, my mom asked Mrs. Donovan to give me sewing lessons which started when I was in 2nd grade and could reach the pedal on the machine. In fifth and sixth grade, I had sewing class in school, although by that point I had already been taking my lessons with Mrs. Donovan and taking sewing classes at summer camp, so I cruised through all our projects and got to make lots of stuffed animals. In eighth grade, I made my semi formal dress (with so much help from my mom that I think she really made it). And in high school is where I think I lost it. 

So where did the artiste go? Somewhere along the way, I started to see my creativity as a personal outlet and not something to be shared. I thought it wasn’t good enough, or that people wouldn’t care, or that it was just a private thing. I don’t think anyone ever actually said that, but something about the world I lived in made me feel that way. I didn’t think that it was as important as playing sports or working or studying. I’d come back to it every now and then, but I never prioritized it. After all, I was always told that it wasn’t a career. What happened to the five year old that told everyone she was an artiste and that her favorite color was the whole rainbow?

In high school there was so much happening: volleyball, extracurriculars, more volleyball, a job, friends. Every now and then I’d want to start a project, but most of the time I never finished them. Of course I still handmade all birthday cards and got into baking, but I never saw it as art, more of just a hobby. 

Then senior spring came around - I was into college and looking for a senior project and settled on making a family tree quilt for my mom. The project was huge, so I would only be doing the front of the quilt. I spent the entire month of May doing geometry to get the curves on the tree leaves just right, stitching everything together, doing so much ironing, and finally I had the quilt face done. The next thing to do was the embroidery. My mom had a machine, so we did the names with that, but then I did a super simple running stitch to create the lines connecting all my family members, and to stitch each leaf to the tree. I had never embroidered before, but it was pretty fun. My best friend was doing a knitting project, so we would sit on campus, her with her knitting and me with my embroidery, like two teenage grandmothers.

The quilt was a hit, it hung in the student center and my mom absolutely loved it. But then graduation came, and then it was time for college. I wasn’t about to bring my sewing machine to a tiny dorm room in Pennsylvania, and so the creative burst that was my senior project was short-lived.

The first three years of college were filled with friends, school, and work. Not much room for art. Sure, I DIY’ed things for my dorm or had the occasional craft night with friends, and sometimes I’d start a sewing project while I was home for break, but again I never really thought of those things as art. It wasn’t until the summer after my junior year that MarMadeThat started to come into focus. 

In my study abroad program junior spring, one of my classmates had this amazing painted denim jacket. When I got home for the summer I could not stop thinking about it. I knew my sister would love something similar, so I painted her a feminist jacket for her birthday. I posted it on my Instagram story after I gave it to her, not really thinking much of it, but the DMs started flooding in. “Can I pay you to paint my jacket?” “Will you make that for me?” “How much do you charge?” I was so confused. People wanted to pay me? For my painting? What?

Feminist Hand Painted Upcycled Denim Jacket with the symbol for women in read. The text reads "get it girl."

I started taking commissions. I worked on jackets in my apartment senior year, and even embroidered a couple with simple chain stitches. I took a hiatus after graduation - I was moving, I started two new jobs within six months, and I honestly just couldn’t keep packing and unpacking all my art supplies. When I finally settled in NYC in January of 2020 I opened commissions back up. February 2nd, 2020 I got my first sale on Etsy. Then another. And I started working on the Instagram, the branding, and I was thrifting jackets to paint all over NYC.

I think you all know what happens next. March 2020, everything shut down. I left my apartment for my boyfriend’s house in New Jersey. I was there a month and a half with just one carry-on suitcase, so obviously no art supplies. I ordered an embroidery kit on Amazon to help with the boredom of not being able to go anywhere. I learned some new stitches and took a liking to it. For my birthday that March, my boyfriend got me some embroidery supplies, and I was like “hey - your dog is pretty cute let me try to embroider him.” Mr. Finn was my first pet portrait, and he is proudly displayed in our house now.  

I finally made it back home to Boston, and for the next four months my mom and I had an in-house workshop. On one side of the room she was churning out masks to donate to local hospitals, and on the other side I was embroidering like crazy to fill orders, mostly for pet portrait tees once I did the one of my family dog, Clark. 

And that’s where it really took off. MarMadeThat became embroidery mostly. I ended up quarantining with my boyfriend in Vermont that August, and we decided to move up here full time in December. The community of artists and creatives that I’ve found since moving to Burlington has honestly been the reason that I started to call myself an artist again. They’re all so inspiring and work in so many interesting mediums, it made me realize how valid my own fiber art is as an art form.

Vermont Floral Block Letter Embroidery piece featuring the state flower and greenery.

So, what happened to the artiste? Well, now she’s 24, her favorite color is yellow, and she’s definitely an artist, though now she’s a fiber and textile artist, with non-profit 9-5.

(Also I want you all to know that I have never been able to speak French.)

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