I saw this old painting of mine during a recent visit to my mother’s house. It’s an important piece because of everything I learned creating it. It was made in my beginner painting class – ten years after graduating from art school.
In high school, my parents told me that if I wanted to go to college I would have to pay for it myself. So after graduation I scrapped the idea of college and got a job instead. Coming from a working-class family it seemed like the obvious thing to do. A year later I had financed a pretty new car, but I was miserable doing office work. What I really wanted, I thought, was to work with animals!
I made an appointment with my former high school guidance counselor to find out how to become a dog groomer. “Dog groomer?” she asked. “Aren’t you an artist? Didn’t you win an art scholarship?” I shifted uncomfortably and answered “Well yeah, a small one.” “Then why aren’t you going to art school?” she demanded. “Because I need to make money” was my blunt reply. She paused for moment and then said, “Listen, if you get into the commercial arts, you’ll do far better than you ever will as a dog groomer.” With her encouragement I applied to Mass Art and was accepted, but because of a glitch with the paperwork I was put on a waitlist. Discussing this with the guidance counselor, she suggested that I start taking classes at a community college because it would be less expensive and I could transfer the credits later. So I did. I got a job with flexible hours and began taking classes at Northern Essex Community College.
The following year I applied to Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA and was accepted into their illustration program. I had my academic credits covered, but missed all of the foundational art classes. I felt this keenly because I simply didn’t have the skills the other students had. In addition, I couldn’t receive financial aid because my yearly wages from working full time made me ineligible. So I went to school during the day and worked full time on the overnight shift to pay for school. Between work, homework and sleep, I didn’t have time to take extra classes that would improve my skills.
Montserrat was a fabulous school. It taught me how to think and see the world like an artist. In my third semester the illustration department was visited by a recruiter from Disney. We each met privately with the recruiter to discuss our work. “You don’t even know how to draw!” he told me. “The hands on your figures don’t have fingers. They look like paddles. Look at Disney characters. They show expression with their hands through their fingers. You need to go back and learn to draw before you do anything else.” I was embarassed, but he was right. I needed to improve my skills.
Somewhere along the way, possibly from that recruiter, I heard that Disney recruited many people from Ringling School of Art & Design because their technical skills were so strong. Montserrat offered a program that allowed students to spend one semester at another art school, like a study abroad program, and Ringling was on the list. I applied and was accepted. Off I went to Sarasota, FL.
Already self-conscious about my abilities, I was staggered by the degree of skill Ringling students possessed. Their work that was so far above my level that I couldn’t begin to fathom how it was created. Still in the same financial situation, I worked four part-time jobs to pay for school. Like before, I didn’t have time for extra classes. So I concentrated on the skills I did have (pencil and charcoal drawing along with some some pastel work) and gradually improved. At the end of the semester when I was supposed to return to Massachusetts and Montserrat, I applied to officially transfer into Ringling. I was accepted because I had already been attending classes there, but I was told there was a problem with my credits because I had never taken any foundational classes.
To fix the credit issue, my senior year of college required taking a freshman class on multidisciplinary art and a sophomore figure painting class – my first painting class ever! It was a traditional figure class in which the students quietly painted the nude model while the instructor walked about making comments and suggestions. I dreaded it because my secret was going to be revealed. I thought that if I used a palette knife I could get away with less detail. And since I didn’t know how to paint flesh, I deliberately chose odd colors. When the instructor came to my easel he would ask me to explain what I was doing. After I did, he would grunt or just walk away, but never offered much in the way of instruction or critique. Halfway through the semester when I was painting a green nude he asked me to step to the back of the room. “I have no idea what you’re doing,” he said, “but I know you need this class to graduate. I’m going to pass you, but don’t ever paint again.” Everyone in the room could hear the conversation. I was humiliated. Of course I couldn’t paint – I was never taught! But I did need that class to graduate, so I kept going, feeling humiliated and defeated each time I stepped through the door. I became more self-conscious about the work I was doing in my other classes. Was I a “real” artist if I didn’t know how to paint? Several months later I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and won top honors for my illustration thesis project based on the strength of my pencil drawings. It was a bittersweet success. I felt like a fraud.
Returning home to Massachusetts, I made a half-hearted attempt to get illustration work. Being unsuccessful, I told myself there wasn’t any interest in pencil drawings, but the truth was that I had no confidence in myself or my work. I gave up. I found a tolerable job and told myself that maybe someday I would do something with my art. But as all artists know, the creative urge doesn’t go away. You can stifle it for a time, but it gnaws at your soul. If ignored long enough, that little nudge to create changes into a pointing finger of judgement and condemnation. Whether I tried to make art or not, there was a constant backlash of pain and rage.
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” –Anais Nin
Years passed, during which I married a wonderful man who could somehow see through to the eye of my storm. Despite seeing myself as a failure, his love and acceptance of me gave me the courage to risk humiliation. I timidly signed up for a beginner painting class with Julie Airoldi at the Newburyport Art Association. Julie gently instructed me step by step, from how to set up a palette and clean a brush to how to paint shadows and reflected light. With each class my confidence grew in leaps and bounds. Plums was my first painting. Ten years after graduating from art school I became a painter.
I learned a lot in the years that went into the creation of that painting. More than anything else, I learned to never let someone else determine your value or what you’re capable of.
Never, never, never give up. — Winston Churchill