Creativity begins with play and discovery. Craftsmanship, on the other hand, is a long process. A master craftsman is someone who has toiled long and hard to master the skills he needs to reveal the full potential of that creative spark that first inspired him to create.

For a creative person, there is joy in act of creation. I, for one, have dozens of stories, drawings and poems hidden away in a cupboard that are reserved for my eyes only–and perhaps a few selected loved ones.

There was a distinct moment when I made the transition from pure play creative to professional craftsman. It was not an easy journey that I would ever describe as ‘play’. It was tough, painstaking and excessively difficult. I still relish the joy of creating for myself… but my heart lays in connecting with others through my work.

Destructive Creativity

Over the years, I’ve worked with artists who throw a tantrum when they receive feedback and criticism for commissioned work. You are wrong and they are right. No matter how gently or harshly you deliver the message, they are hellbent on attacking you if you do not give them the appreciation they believe they deserve. Their darker side emerges with a vehemence as they grow increasingly defiant and difficult to work with. They argue with everyone and create dramas for people who are ‘just doing their job’.

These so-called ‘artists’ are not interested in ‘the money’. Some of them even think that money is the dirty fruit of commerce. As a businesswoman who also considers herself a creative, this perspective simply doesn’t make sense to me. Unless you have grown up in a pampered life of privilege, you will have to put a roof over your head and figure out how to pay the bills. Past a certain age, it is only natural that we accept the day-to-day responsibilities of life with integrity and dignity.

The Singapore River

The artists I’ve most enjoyed working with are those who have ‘day jobs’. They understand the concerns, the frustrations and the daily drudgery of life. Their art showcases a deep understanding of the human experience that is based on exposure and experience.

Then, there are others… The escapists and the addicts.

They are the ones for whom art is not about life–but about the Self. And it is a Self with a capital S. They bleed through the budget of other people’s hard-earned money so that they may glorify themselves and their work. All the while, they remain thankless, ungrateful and arrogant. Gave me a job? Who cares, I don’t need one. Gave me my first pay check? Who needs money? And lastly, gave me advise and mentoring? I never needed you anyway.

To me, these behaviours are not the hallmark of a true artist, but rather of an immature individual who thinks he or she can live life as a dream while others are forced to foot the bill.

Creativity and Commerce

We are all creative. We should celebrate and enjoy our creativity. But it is a long long journey from creativity to craftsmanship.

There is nothing dirty about the fruits of commerce. There is nothing wrong with exclusively creating commissioned work or work that people need. It does not make you a sellout. To be a craftsman is to allow the twin pillars of Spirit and Humanity to create with you and through you.

We’ve all walked around our cities and marvelled at the buildings, the temples, the restaurants and even the World Heritage Sites we frequent to discover our vast and diverse planet. We usually don’t know who conceptualised or created these monuments–but we know them intimately because these places hold a special place in our hearts. These are the artists who serve mankind through their gifts. They are not those who look to others to serve them so that they may showcase their gifts.

Whenever people have called me ‘an artist’, I have taken offence to that label. Not because I’m not artistic, but because when I meet artists, I never feel we have that much in common. The Self that I meet–with a capital S, no less–is often rather off-putting. They glorify ‘the greats’ who lost themselves in a downward spiral of drugs and addiction as they posthumously mourn the fact that society (with all its evils) never recognised the greatness of the creative genius that resided within that soul till it was too late.

I am creative. I know that much. I am a craftsman. I know that much, too. I spent a decade honing my craft before I made the transition from creativity to craftsmanship. But I am not an artist.

I am an artisan.

What’s the difference, you might ask.

I want to create work that people will enjoy. I will always create and continue to create for myself as a hobby–particularly in the wee hours of the night when no one watching–but the rest of the time, I would like to do work that benefits and serves society.

My heart is happiest when I am with the people. I do not need anyone to look up to me. This is why in my heart I am drawn to folklore, to the magnificent buildings that grace our city skylines and to the maddening markets where people buy and sell. These places belong to the people. They were created by the people. They stay alive because of people. And they continue to thrive and flourish through the generations as we keep these creations alive for the people who are yet to be.

I started working in my family’s textile business at a tender age. My great-granddad always had an excellent understanding of the materials and designs that were popular with customers. It was not simply about profitability. It never is. My great-granddad possessed a deep understanding about what customers liked and were willing to pay for. After all, it is their precious money that they’re parting with and we should always respect that.

I cannot see or view the fruits of commerce as ‘dirty’ because I know that for a vast majority of people, earning money is hard work. It requires blood, sweat and tears. If my work benefits and serves the people who must toil to earn their daily bread, then as an artisan I have done my job. If it does not, I know I must simply work hard in other ways to serve my fellow man.

Whether you are an artist, a hermit, a leader or even a humble follower; you must live your life to serve others. If you cannot, then you will leave this world never having lived at all.

But if you have lived your life having served–in whatever small or grand way possible–then you would have lived a full life. And when you leave this planet, you will know that it was your life–and not the Self–that was a true living work of art.

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