On quitting something I loved and returning to it 32 years later
Did I peak as an artist in high school? Stories from an art school dropout Ep 3.
Anyone can be an artist. Not everyone can make a living from it.
At some point in my young art school career, I decided that the art world wasn’t for me. There’s a whole lot to this story, including my growing disillusionment when I learned just how much the art world is gate kept by the wealthy and powerful. This is a real mind fuck when you’re a naive kid who goes from doing art for fun to getting thrown into the NYC art world where gallery representation and the value of art is decided by the people in power—the museums, collectors, the ones with money. It was an eye opening entry into a world I realized I had little chance for.
Keep in mind that this was thirty years ago when an artist’s circle of reach was small and immediate, and when money and family connections meant everything. It still does, but the internet, at least, has acted like an equalizer and has made art more accessible. It’s also commoditized art in a way it never has before, and while this has made earning money as an artist much more possible, I do sometimes wonder if the commodification of art in our capitalistic society puts too much value in what and how much can be sold and not enough on ideas.
By my sophomore year in college, I was far more interested in the life and East Village community I was beginning to build outside of studio walls. Art school began to feel like I was pretend playing in an elitist world of the privileged, where only those who came from money could sustain after they graduated.
I became interested in the art activism work of the Guerilla Girls and their mission of calling out how white and male the art world was. I didn’t think I could ever be brave or creative enough to make any kind of statement with my art, but I also began to question what it was all for. If it wasn’t for the fact that my school gave full scholarships to everyone who got in, I would have felt like I was wasting money on a college education towards a career that may not be able to support me.
Above all, I couldn’t answer this question for myself anymore: what does art even mean to me? Do I even want to make art?
I think about my most prolific period in high school when art was purely about joy, but also determination when I had something to prove to myself. Nearly all of my time was spent in the makeshift studio that I set up in our basement laundry room. It was the worst lit room in the house with zero natural light, yet I spent hours there painting and sewing. I can’t help but laugh at the visual memory of it, like some David Lynch set: me, hunched over an easel surrounded by lines of hanging laundry in an unfinished, concrete-wall basement, lit by a single lightbulb swinging from the ceiling.
I had raw talent as a kid, but I didn’t know how to use it to express myself, so I leaned on my technical skills because it was easier to show that I could draw vs. show what I was feeling. There is beauty in a pencil mark and the way a drawn line is rendered—I’m not arguing against that, but if I’m being brutally honest with myself, the art that I created was empty.
Maybe I wasn’t mature enough or hadn’t lived long enough to be able to channel anything more meaningful than a well rendered drawing, but in truth, I was afraid to get messy, to make anything ugly, and I was afraid to show work in progress until it was finished to my satisfaction. The competitive nature of my conservatory-style art school didn’t help either. Seared in my memory is this one incident between myself, an impressionable 19 year old sophomore and a very serious, very worldly senior painting major. She took one glance at my piece, looked me straight in my eye and said, “this isn’t high school color class anymore.”
So now what?
Do you remember that iconic end scene of The Graduate when Ben and Elaine escape on that bus and you see the progression of their facial expressions change from giddy smiles to one of uncertainty as the adrenaline rush wears off and the reality of what they’ve done settles in?
I keep thinking about that brilliant scene these past two weeks because the start of this so-called new chapter in my life was probably the most unproductive week I’ve had in years. To be fair, I have a mysterious ailment so I haven’t been myself lately, but my emotions have been bouncing everywhere from exclaiming, “I love fake retirement!” to tiptoeing along the edges of remorse as I panicked about the double college tuitions that we’ll need to pay for. “What am I even doing?!”
But…is it so bad to have no idea?
Wasn’t this even the point?
I think back to that period in my life after I quit art school when I was most adventurous and free. I did a bunch of reckless and potentially dangerous things that would alarm me as a parent now (thank god there was no social media back then). It was so far against my nature of perfectionism and planning to travel the way I did, but I now believe I had to go that far to the other extreme in order to unlearn everything that was holding me back. It was only then that I was ready to go back to college, this time as a music major, and then onto graduate school. In some cases, we just need time to grow up, and this is something I remind myself now that I have kids who are that same age.
Trust in the process
I picked up a pencil for the first time in 6 years, just to see if I can still draw. Just like the first time I picked it up again in 2016 after a 25 year absence, it surprised me that those drawing skills are still there. What I’m realizing with clarity, however, is that my art is stunted in time. I haven’t grown as an artist beyond my 20 year old self. I never gave it a chance to evolve since then.
32 years later and I’m asking myself the same question of what art means to me. Do I still feel the same disillusionment about the art world as I did back then? What if, in this period of exploration, I find that I’m still not sure I have the passion for it? What if I’m frustrated by my lack of growth, my lack of ability to express anything? Ultimately, these drawings aren’t the art that I want to be making. They’re a procrastination tactic in the guise of practice because I have no idea what I want to be making.
But this right here, is the process and I have to keep reminding myself to put trust in it. I may have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m forging ahead with the sole purpose of messy experimentation. I want to try things and fail. I want to be free to make ugly things if that’s part of the process. I don’t want to be afraid to share it. Everything that I’ve been telling my 17 year old daughter as her art teacher is now staring at me squarely in the face.
Unlike my naive younger self, I have no aspirations of making a living off my art, and I don’t want to be distracted by money. I’m not closed off to that idea in the future, but I already know how to make money off my ideas—I’ve done it as a designer for 27 years and with the small business that I had for 12.
What I don’t know just yet, is how to be an artist.
What I’ve realized is that I haven’t put in the work.
I’d love to know what art means to you. Has your own art or writing evolved and changed over the years?
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