Defining Artists

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Consider, if you will, the following definitions:

Art -- The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

Architecture -- The profession of designing buildings, open areas, communities, and other artificial constructions and environments, usually with some regard to aesthetic effect. Architecture often includes design or selection of furnishings and decorations, supervision of construction work, and the examination, restoration, or remodeling of existing buildings.

Last year, when I coordinated the I Am An Artist project, I heard from lots of different people asking to be included in the citywide art exhibition. A small business owner reached out saying he was an artist, as did an educator and an architect. When the architect asked if I considered them artists, I was stumped. They draw, they design - maybe they are? But they build and have to consider audience and measurements and in many cases, they must react to public feedback. Artists don't. So, what's the answer? Is it left up to the individual architect to determine his or her own level of artistry?

Kionna Walker works at Schmidt Associates, a full-service architectural firm that specializes in K-12, higher education and urban buildings. - COURTESY OF SCHMIDT ASSOCIATES
  • Courtesy of Schmidt Associates
  • Kionna Walker works at Schmidt Associates, a full-service architectural firm that specializes in K-12, higher education and urban buildings.

I found a blog called The Life of an Architect written by someone who strongly believes that architects don't practice art. "Architects are not artists. Architects can be artistic but what we make has to conform to standards and measures established by regulatory entities and it has to be evaluated in its ability to perform a specific job. The reason why architects have to be licensed to practice architecture is because we are legally held responsible in that our work is to insure the health, safety and welfare of the general public. The title of 'artist' carries no similar amount of responsibility to the public at large."

Given that to ponder, I immediately thought of public art. Any public artist worth his or her weight knows that you do have to consider safety and how one's piece fits into the context of the larger community.

Well, I found a local architect -- a black female architect -- which is actually pretty hard to find given that black women make up 0.2 percent of the national average of licensed architects. I asked Kionna Walker a few questions about her practice and if when we consider artists, we're missing out on an entire field of people. Kionna was helpful in determining my opinion. Find our brief conversation here:

Malina Simone: Are you an architect? How do you know?

Kionna Walker: Yes, I am currently in the process of taking the Architectural Registration Exam. And while I'm not a registered architect, I have more than eight years of experience in the profession. Architects are problem solvers of spatial needs, and we try to do it in a creative way. People that do that are architects.

MS: Are you an artist, how do you know?

KW: Yes, I am an arist. Being an artist requires one to be creative. In architecture school, everyone is given the same building to design, but upon completion no one would come up with the same building. We will all use the same elements - doors, walls, windows - but the way we put it together is completely different. And that makes all architects artists.

MS: What's the difference?

KW: On the grand scheme of things, there isn't a difference. Architects have to consider function more than artists.  We are a unique field and practice a certain craft of artistry. That craft is to make sure that our spaces are functional. When artists create, they know how they want people to display it. We're the same but there's more of a 3-D element as we have to decide how people will move about that space.

MS: Is architecture art?

KW: Yes, always. It's the same as a sculpture. It's something that comes from the heart and soul of whoever the designer is. It's something that can be duplicated but it's never as precious as the original. I used to hate the Indianapolis Public Library's new design. I thought it didn't match, it wasn't seamless. And it was obvious that it was an addition. But now, when I think about it, it's beautiful. The new addition glorifies, or frames, something that is old and important. It says that we want you to know that this is the original piece. But this part is new, glorifying the old architecture. Neighborhoods are successful because of old things like this that people use. Schools, hospitals, libraries ... these are the things we have to think about. How will people interact? Will the neighborhood enjoy it? How will they use it? It's art, just a very particular type.

MS: Some architects believe that those in their profession carry more responsibility than an artist -- as an architect, why do you think that's true?

KW: We do have more responsibility because people's lives are at stake. Architects can kill thousands of people at one time. You have to understand so much more structural elements. Lives depend on our work and I don't think that's true of all artists. It's just true for our particular craft. We do have more of a responsibility.


I get this now. Architects are artists. Just as shoe designers are. They're designers and sometimes what they make is functional, i.e. your home. If this doesn't expand your thinking of who can be an artist and how much more we can appreciate artwork, well, I don't know what will.

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