If You Made It, Sign It: A Case for Signing Your Art, No Matter What You Made

by Michelle M. Johnson

If you've ever been to one of my coloring/creativity workshops or happen to have had a conversation with me about something you made with your own two hands, then you've probably heard me say what I am about to type next: 

PRETTY PLEASE, WITH A CHERRY AND SPRINKLES ON TOP, SIGN YOUR WORK!!


I don't care if you feel like your creation is "art" or "Art" or "just a craft" (ugh, that last one kills me, but I hear folks describe their beautiful creations with that phrase all the time, but that's a discussion for another blog post), letting the world know that your hands, brain, and soul decided to make something by signing your name, your initials, your glyph to that work (that is what you see me very awkwardly signing in the above video, a glyph or "ornamental vertical groove," and #protip - don't try to paint your personal mark on pottery with your right hand while videoing yourself doing so with your left...) is super important.

I have always felt strongly about giving yourself creative credit where credit is due. For as long as I can remember, the only prerequisite I've had about coloring in my treasured coloring books is that you sign and date your name on the page that you colored, even if you didn't get the chance to finish it. But, this idea of signing your work, no matter what you've created, solidified in my heart ages ago when I took my then toddler son, Sam, to a quilting exhibit at the University of Texas at Austin's Texas Memorial Museum. I have two very strong memories from that outing: 1. Watching my 18 month old child play with magnetic quilting squares meant to be stuck to a large piece of sheet metal that had been installed on a museum wall in order that visitors to the exhibit could create their own quilting patterns...and my little tyke continually trying to stick the magnet to the wrong wall, a non-metal wall, and watching it fall to the ground at his feet over and over again, each time joyfully uttering the phrase "damn it!" (an embarrassingly real parenting moment for me and a wake up call that my efforts to reign in my colorful vocabulary had not been entirely successful) and 2. Examining gorgeously intricate quilt after quilt, some over a hundred years old, and reading that, due to a variety of cultural expectations about "women's work", the origin stories of many of the most beautiful specimens of this mathematically mind-blowing and fantastically colorful art form were lost to us - LOST - because the quilts were not signed (yes, signing a quilt is most definitely a thing that can be done)!

That day, my brain starting pummeling through ideas about ego, about what constitutes art, about how we as a society shame creators, especially women who create, when they proudly state "I made this," and that the end result of all of this - I don't know, I guess it feels like fear of artists/creators getting too big for their britches - is that we lose the history of how, of why and by whom things, beautiful things, are made. 

I'm not entirely certain of this next thought, but I do believe that it was that experience almost two decades ago that started me experimenting with my initials to create my mark, my glyph that I have since gone on to leave on everything that I had a hand in creating  (and I mean EVERYTHING - cards, pottery, illustrations, collaborations, poetry, choreography, mix tape CDs...and yes, pun intended). I chose to create a glyph instead of simply leaving my signature on my creations because my name is extremely common, even versions of it that include my middle name. Creating my glyph not only made me feel like I finally had a moniker that stood out, it was also an incredibly fun intellectual puzzle to create something that represented me that could be drawn/written in a single flourish. I highly encourage you to try to create a symbol out of your initials, even if drawing or handwriting isn't something you consider your strong suit; chances are someone, somewhere has your exact name (maybe even in your family), but the likelihood that anyone anywhere creates the same shape to identify themselves as you do is small. 

Over the years I have tried to encourage the many artists, makers, creators in my family to sign their work, no matter what it is, with varying degrees of success. If I happen to be sitting right next to them during the creation process and I am able to gently make my case that they should leave their mark on their art, then a piece of family history gets created. But, I unfortunately live thousands of miles away from the vast majority of my family, so I have quilts and cards and blankets and pots and paintings and scrapbooks pages and ornaments, all sorts of stunning creations that are all unsigned. Right now, the history of these items is alive and well - my partner and I are young, our memories are intact and we can verbally share the origin stories of these family treasures whenever the moments arise.

But, honestly, the moments don't arise often: the museum quality quilts that my partner's nana made for us stay packed safely away as we currently have cats who would have a hay day with them (our gentleman kitty, Edward, is certain the worst sorts of boogers live in the folds of blankets, so he obsessively digs into any sort of covering within his reach); we are more into coffee rather than tea during this time of our lives, so the stunningly painted ceramic teapot my partner's grammie gave me for my birthday ages ago is on display, way up high, still in sight but not always in mind. I have many stories like those about the treasures we are stewards to in our home, things so precious to us they are tucked away. Sadly, because they are tucked away, the occasion to tell (and re-tell) the origin stories of these creations to our son never arises. When we are gone, and this family history is passed down to our child, will we have told our family stories enough times for him to remember who made what, who had a gift for what art form? Will he understand why he is so fascinated by shading when he draws (he gets that from his grammie), why he is so good with patterns (he gets that from his nana), why he enjoys creating detailed things (he gets that from his grandma Barbara), why he focuses on realism in his art (he gets that from my mom)? I don't know, but I fear the answer is 'no' because there is no record of who created which pieces of family art; no one has signed their work.

Perhaps I care entirely too much about folks signing their coloring pages and their drawings, about folks figuring out how to sign their knitted blankets, scarves, hats (there's *got* to be a way!), about artists of all types and levels proudly leaving their mark on their work because every creative act is a personal victory. But, recently, my in-laws' house burned to the ground in the Camp Fire, a devastating firestorm that took place in northern California this past November, and I can't get out of my mind how much family history is now forever gone.

This driveway once led up to my in-laws' beautiful house in the woods of
Magalia, California. The Camp Fire consumed their home,
 yard, outbuildings, and all the treasures that resided there.

Signing your art won't protect it from a catastrophic event like a raging forest fire, of course.  But, if there is a take away from this horrific event that I have gleaned through listening to my in-laws talk about this nightmarish experience, it is that, after our loved ones, what matters most in this world are the things we make and share with each other. 

If you are moved to create something, whether it is a gift or not, whether you keep it in your personal space or move it out to a more public venue, please sign your work, leave your mark on your art.

And, if you read that last sentence and you felt your brain adamantly responding, "No way, Jose," then I'd like you to ask yourself why you do not want to let the world know that you made something, that you are an artist. Creating a personal history of ourselves and our interests by signing our work is not boastful; it lets our loved ones know that we were here on this Earth and left something good behind for them to remember us by.

Comments

  1. When I was in art classes in high school I figured out a quick sign of my initials, and by extension made my official signature my first initial and last name, linked, as I got older and had to sign things, etc. When I was getting married I spent a month figuring out how to change the D to an F - not easy! My signature is still just my initial and last name because sometimes I use my first name and sometimes my middle (hi, it’s Arwen!) and that way I don’t have to think about it and just sign the same thing everywhere. But all that to say, I love the initial sigil and I’m pretty proud of mine still after all these years, and even prouder that Caity has an even better one. 😁

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    1. Thank you for sharing your story! I am so glad you sign your work:) I was happy to see it on your "Signs of Progress" coloring page!! And, I agree with you - names are something to consider and be proud of! I, too, have loved watching my child figure out how he was going to own his name in his signature - it is a sign of maturity, I think:)

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