Thursday, May 4, 2017

Artist's Evolution Part IV

Getting into art school was easy.  When I went to my interview at The University of Hartford Art School the most important skill I had was how I talked about art.  By now I was a trained docent.  Discussing art was life and breath to me.

The intake counselor dismissed my drawing portfolio with a wave of her hand.  "You're a primitive" she said.  But she was keen on the things in my bedroom.  The metal file cabinet that had been painstakingly covered with fluffy pink feathers.  The stuffed monkey with a corkscrew stuck in his brain.  And most importantly, what was on my bedroom wall.  My wall changed as the light in the room changed.  I had cut small tear droplets out of thin transparent vinyl.  The back of the vinyl was sticky, like contact paper.   After I had cut out about a hundred tear drops, I took a long piece of string and tied a weight to one end.   The other end of the string was attached to the ceiling.  Gravity pulled the string in a straight line.  This line was a guide.  I stuck rows of tear drops from ceiling to floor.  They covered one wall.  The window in my bedroom cast light onto the wall.  This light changed as the sun tracked across the sky.  The teardrops were dark in indirect light.  But when sunlight directly hit the vinyl directly it shimmered and shined white hot.

The counselor said that my bedroom wall was "conceptual art" and could be used as a master's thesis when I went to graduate school.  I was immediately accepted into The University of Hartford Art School.   The appointment had been scheduled in order to find out what was possible.  But I was in.  The shock was a sweet, sweet high.

The summer before my semester began I took a watercolor class.  I had never painted before.  Not in any medium.

The students were from diverse backgrounds.  Our first assignment was to take a small piece of paper and do a watercolor.  The instructor wanted to establish a baseline, the level of expertise each student started at.  We were to observe an object and paint it.

On a sunny day I sat outside and decided to paint my mother's car.  I had a little artist's canvas folding stool.  It surprised me how the sunlight bounced off the white paper.  A lot of the light bounced off the paper and into my eyes, making me squint.  It was hard to see what I was doing. I started my painting moving left to right, the way one writes and reads.  First I painted the front hood and tires of the car.  However, when I got to the back end of the car, the car dropped off the page of paper.   The painting ended up being three quarters of a car.  Also, I did not think to put a background behind the car.  So that part of the paper was left blank.

The second class all the students lined up their paintings on a wall.  I was aghast.  I didn't realize how poorly I had done until I compared myself to the other students.  Many things I learned in the second class.  First, when outdoors, you need to work with your eyes in shade.  I bought a wide brimmed hat to cut the glare of the sun.  Second, a painting is prepared in the mind and often on the paper.  I was shown how to take two cardboard right angles and make a "window" in order to view a composition.  The teacher had brought a watercolor of his own (he was a retired dean of the art school) and on it I saw pencil lines under the watercolor paint.  So sketching a composition before painting became my method.   Third, all the paper should be covered in watercolor paint (except white highlights).  Objects sit in space with backgrounds. And lastly, a picture is created using highlights and shade.  Looking at light on an object is very important.  Light and dark is how objects are defined.

The next class I painted a bottle of Tylenol.  I used all the lessons I had learned.  The instructor happily exclaimed, "Its a miracle!"  At the end of the course I said to him that the way he talked about art reminded me strongly of my favorite Sunday school teacher.  He said that he was a deacon in his church.  I adored my first art teacher because he constantly got religion and art mixed up.  In this class I moved on from painting bizarre subjects (at least for watercolor)  to traditional landscapes.   It was a glorious experience to sit outdoors in a rolling meadow and paint a tree.

When art school started in the fall I signed up for two very different sort of classes.  There were the shorter hour and forty-five minute classroom classes.  And then there was one longer three hour studio class, Introduction to Drawing.  In all the shorter courses the teacher mostly lectured.  Our assignments were done at home and typically involved doing a narrowly defined art project.  When we brought our art project with us the next class we spent time critiquing.  This arrangement was a good fit for me.

By now I was no longer living in an apartment.  Before I had had a roommate.  Then I spent several weeks on a psychiatric ward in the hospital.  When I got out, the roommate no longer wished to live with me.  So I ended up living in a homeless shelter.  It was my second time living in that homeless shelter.  Since I was a student and owned a computer I was given my own room with a lock on the door.  In my little room there was silence and an intense feeling of privacy.  I could focus very well on making art in this environment.  However, making art during the the studio drawing class was difficult for me.   There was no privacy in the studio classroom.  The circumstance in which I make art matters to me.

Our first studio drawing assignment was to draw a chair.  The chair was placed on a pedestal in the center of the room.  All students sat behind easels in a semi-circle around the chair.    The teacher lectured on the difference between positive and negative space.  We then drew the chair while thinking about positive and negative space.   As we worked the teacher walked around and peered at the emerging drawings.  He spoke to us behind our backs.  I was told to bear down harder on my pencil lines.

There were several things that gave me discomfort.  Something that changed from pre-breakdown to post-breakdown (I am describing before and after the onset of mental illness) is how I relate to people.  A medication nurse once said, "Schizophrenia is a social disease".  I like that statement because it contains a lot of truth.  There is rawness and vulnerability to people who have schizophrenia.  It is most obvious in social interactions.  As a student at Barnard college, pre-breakdown, I only got a little nervous in classes.  A little bit self-conscious.  Then post-breakdown, after my two year stay on a psychiatric ward at The Institute of Living,  I took several courses at Trinity college.  At Trinity my anxiety was off the charts.  I was hyper aware of the other students.  Now I was so anxious in class that I sometimes took a tranquilizer.  A natural, protective barrier had been dismantled during breakdown.  Over decades that barrier between myself and others has been built up again.  Please note that healing does take place but it is at a very slow rate.  The drawing class was my only art school class where I had social anxiety.  Most of this was due to working without privacy or silence.  Also, perhaps I could not handle the fact that the teacher's aim was to criticize me and correct me as I worked.  I don't mind criticism after a work is finished.  But in the middle of the process of creation, it is deeply disturbing.

So as I drew the chair.  The event was toxic.  I was trying to immerse myself in creative flow while at the same time battling fear.  After the three hour class I walked back to my car in pain.  I was  deeply suicidal.  It was a raging war in my head.  Thoughts of  "I want to die" mixed with "I must live".  All I could foresee was the drawing class triggering suicidal thoughts again and again.  It was an easy decision to drop Introduction to Drawing.  By doing so I was being kind to myself.  However, this studio classes and many more were mandatory to getting an art school degree.  Art school wanted to teach me how to make art.  But I couldn't emotionally handle the structure of the studio class.   I was facing the reality that I would only be able to attend art school for one semester.  I was sad and solemn.

Then a strange thing happened.  I had an interesting conversation with my art history professor.  In his class he made us keep a drawing journal.  Each day we were supposed to spend forty minutes drawing an object.  Mid-term our journals were handed in to get a grade.  By accident I had a folded piece of paper in my journal.  It was a little piece of fiction I had written.  When I bumped into my teacher in the art school lobby he addressed me to tell me that he really liked my writing.  I told him that I had to leave art school.  He did not think this a catastrophe.  Sometimes, he said, school ruined natural talent.  He had had a college roommate who was a strong creative writer like me.  And he believed that school ruined his friend's talent.  The fellow had eventually become a book editor.  My teacher told me I could become an artist, or writer, without going to school.  Radically, he suggested that I may be better off not going to school.

So the idea was planted in my mind that leaving art school was not an end to my being an artist. 

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