Tell Me I'm An Artist by Chelsea Martin: Book Review

Tell Me I'm An Artist by Chelsea Martin

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Overview: Joey made it out Lodi all the way to San Fransisco and art school. She's left behind a chaotic family that always makes her feel guilty for the good things that happen to her, and she's determined to make the most of her chance to be an artist. The book centers around Joey's struggle to create a semester long self portrait film, which she decides to theme around remaking the movie Rushmore without having seen it. Despite being a drawing major, this film elective becomes the center of her life and makes her question what it means to be an artists and the actual value and meaning of art. At the same time, her family is imploding at home. Her older sister has disappeared, leaving her baby with Joey's mother who struggles to care for the baby while keeping a job. Joey has to confront what she values most, how she defines herself, and how deeply she wants to keep ties to the past. Overall: 3.5

Characters: 3 I like Joey a lot, and that's a good thing because this book is really just an exploration of her brain. There's little plot or really many other side characters or subplots to distract you. Even the chapter-less scroll of vignettes are solely defined by whatever rambling thoughts Joey is having at the moment as she tries to work through her worries and solidify her beliefs as a college student. I related to her musings on art and her confusion around how to make the transition from a very independent child to a fully functioning adult. Still, being so solely immersed in Joey's head and inner monologue can be limiting.

The main other characters we meet are Joey's family including her sister who comes across as truly just selfish and her mother who seems to genuinely try her best but often makes misguided choices and Joey's friend Suz and her roommate Dianna. Suz comes from a privileged background that she often discounts and is highly immersed in her art. There is an interesting story that unfolds where Joey realizes that the friendships she has won't always be as close as she'd like them to be, and we get to see her navigate friendship ebb and flows. The greatest asset and detriment of the book, though, is that because Joey is so in her own world, everyone else appears a little flat. It feels realistic and intentional to the story being told here, and I didn't mind it while reading, but it left me feeling a bit empty when reflecting on the journey of the novel overall.

Plot: 3 If you like a plot, don't come looking for it here. This is truly just snapshots of every day life and endlessly spooling thought spirals of a sophomore in arts school. If that's a world that interests you or you're in a similar point in life, than this might be the perfect book for you, but I feel like fair warning needs to be offered. There are stakes, of which the main character spends a lot of time debating. She has to work through how much she wants to let her family's problems affect her adult life and how willing she'll be to let them in over and over again. She has to make this film project or decide that she'll fall behind on credits, and she debates whether it's the most important facet of her semester for that fact or still just a grand waste of time. She has to navigate through forming relationships with others both romantically and platonically, and she deals with having to figure out how to keep surviving in San Fransisco with the very limited funds she has while being surrounded by very privileged peers. 

There is development and growth and a point to the story, they're all just very quiet and very personal. I happen to love that. But I still wish there was something more towards uniting these musings and mediations as you wander through the book so that the end leaves a more distinct feeling with you collected from the mundanity of life.

Writing: 4 It's the writing that got me to buy the book, and that's what kept me reading. Joey has a strong, undeniable voice that's arresting from the first few sentences. The unconventional set up of the book without chapter headings or breaks, but organized into tiny vignettes through spacing, works well. It creates both tiny moments to dwell on and reinforces that life is a never ending sea that doesn't stop to give you a clean place to pause. The formatting also leaves room for scribbled statements to take up whole pages or, my favorite part, bars of Joey's search history being revealed. 

Martin does an incredible job of building Joey and her outlook on the world and her limiting beliefs and her jaded hope. She's an incredibly vivid character in a world that feels drawn in charcoal otherwise. And I loved reading her words and relating to her fears and her unhelpfully existential questions. I thoroughly enjoyed the book every time I sat down to read it, and I read the first 100 pages in a single sitting. 

What I'm struggling with now, though, is that reflecting on the book, I'm not left with much of any overriding feeling. Each component is fantastic, but the culmination of them is somewhat underwhelming. I'm glad I read the book and was able to find a sense of belonging and relatability with Joey. I'll likely go back and read certain passages or portions I highlighted again, but it's also left me struggling to write a review that feels in step with both the feelings I got reading it and then reflecting on it.


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