Are you an artist or a frame maker?
Why it’s worth knowing which role you’re best suited for, and how valuable it can be when looking to join a new community.
Last week I received an email from someone in London asking how life in NYC was going for me, and what I thought of The Met museum.
They knew I’d had to wait a while for my work permit and so naturally assumed I’d spent a fair bit of my enforced sabbatical visiting museums. Guiltily I replied I had not. I’d barely gone north of 75th Street, let alone explored Museum Mile.
Amends were made and yesterday I spent a couple of hours exploring the huge Metropolitan Museum of Art space next to Central Park.
I decided to travel roughly in chronological order, starting with Ancient China, via Dutch 16th portraits and 19th Century American furniture, and ending up in 1920s cubism.
In the final room of my visit something caught my eye – a painting by the Japanese artist Bumpei Usui.
The work itself didn’t appeal to me greatly (it didn’t help it was also next to a bunch of work by two of my favourite artists, Gris and Leger), but the placard next to the Usui piece was what grabbed my attention.
Bumpei Usui immigrated to New York from Japan in the late 1930s. Rather than integrating into the city’s art community as a painter, he operated instead as a frame maker, and through this practice became popular with many leading contemporary artists. 
Two things about this very short synopsis jumped out at me.
First, he was a recent arrival in a new country, seeking to integrate into a particular creative community. I could relate to that.
Secondly, he decided to focus on one of his multiple skills, and rather than aiming to directly become a member of that community, he instead built his reputation by providing its members with a valuable service they could trust. A wonderfully simple yet effective strategy.
I instantly saw the persona of the frame maker in other areas of work: operating relatively unnoticed; there to provide structure, protection and context for the artist’s work; yet also with their own value, tools, craft and language.
Of course, some paintings have no frame at all, and some are certainly best without, but for many others the frame is a crucial part of the work as a whole.
And just like in other creative industries, whilst a rare few people can become accomplished as both frame makers and painters, more often one tends to complement the other.
A few hours after my museum visit I went downtown to meet with an advertising creative embarking on a new venture. We got along well.
After he told his story he invited me to tell mine by asking ’so what paintbrush do you use?’.
I smiled. I’d never heard someone use that phrase before.
I told him I didn’t really use a paintbrush.
I preferred to be the frame maker.
 During WWII, Usui was saved from incarceration by his many friends who spoke up for him in New York. For the duration of the war, his large collection of Japanese swords (over 120) was stored at the homes of his many friends and was returned to him when the war was over.