"Swans Reflecting Elephants"

I was recently reminded of a story I was told by Valentin Kirichenko, a former olympic level USSR gymnast who I was very lucky to have been able to train with.  

Valentin said that towards the end of his competitive career he was recruited by a well known circus company.  They tested him on his skills and offered him a job.
Valentin turned down the circus, saying "I am an athlete, not an artist."

This got me to thinking; at what point someone be classified as an artist at what they do?

Well, when most of us learn something new, it is often performed as mimicry.  We see something or are told something, and try to reflect it.  Depending on our knowledge and perception, that reflection can parallel or drift far from the original(reminds me of the Salvador Dali painting of the same title).  

How is this important in what makes someone an artist?  It's a complex subject but I can offer one opinionated standard:

You are an "artist" when you are evolved enough in your subject/art that your thoughts/ideas/progressions become uniquely your own. 

Mimicking ideas is still very important for learning and progress; few people would achieve a high level without it.   

The goal is to develop oneself to a point where you no longer rely on what other people have done in order to formulate your own ideas.  

This does not mean you have to be a leader; it means that one of the goals of a long-term practice is to eventually cultivate some independent thought.