Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. – Pablo Picasso
I had become pretty boring. I was actually probably a lot like you. Wait, did I just call you boring? Sorry about that, what I mean is, maybe like you, I started out very creative and slowly over time made "real life" the priority and convinced myself that using my creativity to choose the right fill color in my spreadsheets was enough. (Side note: My spreadsheets are badass. Gorgeous. But they are not art.)
So I'm on a journey to figure out why I left art behind and to woo it back. This is the story of how I loved art, lost art, and found it again. It explores the idea that it is never too late to integrate who we thought we’d become with who we actually are. It’s a call to action, to free yourself of your inhibitions and allow yourself to be the same kid you’ve always been, who loves to paint or draw or whatever it may be.
When I first took on this project I tried to remember what kept me from becoming an Artist in the first place. In the backdrop of my mind there has always been a chatter of rhetoric about what being an artist is and isn’t and I had long ago decided I didn’t measure up. Through this project I want to challenge the chatter. Because in the end, it doesn't matter that I'm not a Renaissance Man, a prodigy, or perfect. I’m just your average mom of three, trying to figure out how to be creative in a busy, full life. Trying to figure out what it means to be an artist even if I didn’t end up an Artist.
To get to the bottom of it all, I thought I needed to start at the beginning. I asked my father to take a few pictures of artwork I did as a kid. Unknowingly, I unleashed a parental-pride-monster and over 20 items showed up in Dropbox with the promise of more to come. Looking over the images was emotional and also hilarious. It traced my progression as an artist but also gave me a glimpse of how I viewed the world as a kid. For example, being from New York City, I clearly had no idea what a chimney was but I appreciated a place with a lot of natural light (see figure 2.)
The pictures from when I was very young are joyous. Creating art was something I loved to do and I wasn’t concerned with whether or not I was any good. I just wanted to make things. It was spontaneous, in the moment, fun. I can see it in the pictures.
Somewhere along the way I lost that sense of freedom about art. I have memories of self-doubt creeping up on me as early as 8 or 9. By high school, it was stifling. By the time I was a young adult I began to think that if it wasn’t thoughtful, deep, and an important comment on society, it wasn’t really art and worse, it wasn’t worth creating at all. As a result, I let my artist-self drift away into the background in favor of roles I understood better: worker, friend, wife, and mother.
As a kid my parents were my idols. I thought they were art gods. I had a lot of misconceptions over how they got that way. I thought that:
REAL artists can just draw anything
REAL artists don’t need practice
REAL artists never produce anything lousy
From what I saw of my parents, this was true. My mother, as a photographer, never took a bad photo. My father, as an illustrator, could never produce an erroneous line. I held myself up to this standard and I didn’t match up (neither did they, but I had no knowledge of it.) Despite unwavering support from my parents and teachers, I couldn't shake the self doubt.
For High School, I auditioned for and got in to LaGuardia, the High School of Music, Art, and Performing Arts. It was the school the show/movie Fame was supposed to be modeled after. It was a large school, 1,000 students in my class. Going from a class of 22 kids I had been with since I was 4, this was a social adjustment I wasn't prepared for. At LaGuardia’s orientation they told us we were all talented and that was the last time we would be told.
My freshman year I struggled to find my place. I remember a schoolmate’s older sister telling me that LaGuardia was great because it was so big, there was someone for everyone. I felt worse knowing that. I felt alone and out of place. But art classes were a place of solace. When I was creating art, nothing else mattered.
The second half of the year I took a watercolor class. Our teacher was erratic and incredibly volatile. His commentary ranged from “You look like a whore when you chew gum.” To “If you use white paint in a watercolor you are cheating.” He had a lot to offer in terms of instruction, I learned a lot of skills from his class, but he was abusive. Besides calling girls whores, he also walked through the room with a flat knife and cut through paintings he didn’t like. On multiple occasions he picked up students’ drawing boards and threw them across the room. He had Hooker’s Green on the supplies list. All these years later, I still wonder if he just wanted to get to say “hooker” in class.
I loved watercolor but he was scary and when he walked the room the tension from the students was palpable. I can still feel, in my body, the fear of knowing he was walking up the aisle, getting closer to my desk. He liked my work, and would give me constructive feedback to help me improve. I’m not sure if it was because of talent or because I always followed his instructions carefully (I still feel conflicted at the mere idea of using white watercolor paint) but he seemed to treat me differently.
His praise made me uncomfortable and added to my feeling of being out of place. Instead of feeling good about how I was doing, I just felt further alienated from my classmates, especially as my friends who struggled in the class only received angry ranting from our teacher in response.
When we would turn in an assignment we would have to grade ourselves on the back. Looking at these grades I see how conflicted I was. I didn’t know how to gracefully be good at something. I mistook confidence for cockiness, which was about the last thing I ever wanted to be. I think to be an artist, you have to be willing to promote yourself, this was something I really didn't know how or have any interest in doing.
Everyone expected, including me, that LaGuardia would be the perfect place for me. But by sophomore year, I sank into a depression, started cutting all academic classes and only attended my art classes. I went from a good student to a failing student in the first three months of the school year. Uncomfortable with my peers, with praise from teachers, with the quality of my artwork, add normal age specific issues like body consciousness, missing my friends that I had grown up with, emerging into womanhood, a series of family issues, and I was a mess. I had plans to drop out of school altogether.
If it hadn’t been for art, I may have dropped out but my art classes had me holding on. There were days that I would go to homeroom in the morning and then cut classes until printmaking before lunch, then cut until oil painting at the end of the day.
<PSA> To anyone in high school reading this: I know it can be incredibly rough. I wish I had been able to ask for help. In retrospect, there were people I could have turned to but at the time I felt so alone. I was ashamed of bad choices I was making. But here’s the thing, everyone makes bad choices here and there, and it is how we recover from those choices that matter. If you are feeling overwhelmed or stuck, ask for help. No matter how bad it is right now, it can and will get better. Check out the It Gets Better Project videos. This project is an outreach to LGBT kids, and the videos are incredibly inspiring. School can be horrible but your life won’t be a reflection of what school was like. You will find a better fit for you, I did, keep reading. Hugs. </PSA>
In printmaking I sat next to this insanely talented kid. He could turn any hunk of wood or linoleum into a photo perfect rendition of whatever image he desired. Sitting next to him I would try to hide whatever I was working on. While he seemed to create perfect looking things, I thought my work was a clumsy mess. I remember very specifically making this raccoon print and how absolutely mortified I was by it. Linoleum is unforgiving and I made a mistaken line on his chest early on. All I could see was this mistake.
I talked to my mom about my desk mate being so good. My mom told me that just because something looks like a photograph, doesn’t mean it is all that interesting. That idea was foreign to me. I struggled to make things look realistic, I thought that was the goal in art, I never stopped to see the value in what I created. Or even think about how the art that I loved lacked realism. I loved Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night is magical and it's certainly not because it looks like a photo.
When I look at the raccoon now, I see personality in him. Sure he has that stab wound in his chest but “Racky” lived a hard life, and as a raccoon kit he got knifed in the chest over whose turn it was to knock over the neighbor’s garbage can. He's imperfect but that’s part of what gives him character. (Let’s just ignore my lack of creativity on the naming.)
My parents were at a loss for what to do with me and my failing grades. We started going to family counseling. A move that, as disgruntled as I looked in those sessions…and believe me I made it my business to look as pissed off as possible…changed the course of my life. In those sessions, I found connection with the people desperately trying to help me, and I began to see hope for the future. In one session, my father asked if I thought it would help to switch schools. The wave of relief that came over me was physiological. I was in such a bad pattern at LaGuardia, I didn't know how to get out of it.
In the new school I felt completely out of place but in a new way. It didn’t matter though, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. With summer school behind me, and it being my junior year, I could see that I was going to get out of the hell-hole that was my high school experience. My focus turned towards college which was a possibility again.
Having taken 6 art classes in 2 years at LaGuardia, the new school determined I had completed my art credit and that I needed to focus on my academics to graduate. It would be my sophomore year of college before I would take any art classes again. As a result, I turned to other arts, acted in school plays, wrote short stories, focused and got my grades up. Any visual art I did was outside of school. I’m not sure that anyone I went to school with there even had any idea of my background in visual art.
When I got to college I was told that freshmen rarely got into art classes without an exception from the professor. I decided I would try to take a photography class. The registration process at Sarah Lawrence College (SLC) requires you to interview professors for the courses you want to register for. Nervously, I went to meet the Intro to Photography professor (I’m sure the course title was something far more radical, it was SLC, after all.)
Before the interview began, the professor looked at my name on the sign up form and said, “Longacre? Any relation to Sarah Longacre?” I beamed, “Yes! She’s my mother!” There was a long pause before he said without looking up, “Oh. She turned me down for a book once.” My mother was the head of the photo department at a book publisher at the time. In my mother's defense, she was an amazing person, who went out of her way to give artists their start but as the head of the photo department she probably had to turn a lot of people down. In the professor's defense, it may have been an offhand comment without resentment. Either way, I have no memory of what happened afterwards because I decided then and there that I wouldn’t be registering for his class.
Instead, I took French (I was terrible at it), Philosophy (made my brain hurt), and Intro to Literature (which I loved). And I made about four million Fimo beads and a hundred thousand collages in my dorm room when I should have been studying. But in general, I survived my freshman year.
My sophomore year of college, I took a mixed media studio art course. It was the first time that I had a full wall of art space to make whatever kind of mess I wanted to make. I loved that space and I’d stay until two in the morning lost in my own world, listening to my Walkman (!!?!), feeling connected with myself and my art in a way I never had before. I also discovered painting in oils. I loved the paintings I made that year. The process of making them, how they appeared to me suddenly in the markings on the canvas. But most of all, I gained a confidence in myself and my art and I loved who I felt I was by creating them. I felt like an artist. I felt true and whole and complete.
Towards the end of the year, I mustered the courage to ask my studio mate something that was weighing heavily on my mind. Did she think I could be a professional artist? “Yes,” she said, “because your paintings would look good over someone’s couch.” This answer made me burn with shame. This was a defining moment for me. A simple comment, an opinion given freely, probably with little thought of the impact, and definitely without malice, I took it and used it to solidify what I had believed for so long, I was not good enough.
The following year I went back to theater and I finished my senior year with creative writing and a sculpture class. Sarah Lawrence was the right place for me, it felt like home and I grew as a person and an artist there. I met people who understood me. It took me the full four years but I found courage to be myself there.
By the time I graduated, my liberal arts degree was made up of such an array of credits you could say that I have a degree in Variety. The good thing about this is that I proved to myself I could be pretty good at multiple things. The bad part is that it let me off the hook for focusing on any one area and really making a go of it.
A few months after I graduated college, jobless and still living at home I met a stranger on an airplane. After listening to me go on about how I needed to find a job he said, “What’s your rush? Is your dad kicking you out of the house? ” The questions scared me. How would I make money off art? What kind of job would I even look for? My dad had told me to take my time and figure it out but I wasn't even sure how to figure out what I was supposed to be figuring out. And it never occurred to me to ask for help. I was a college graduate, I thought that meant I should know. The stranger’s advice was good, but I didn’t take it then. In fact I ran like a bull to the first paycheck offered to me.
I got a job working at a small non-profit. It was not rocket science but I loved the people I worked with and my boss. I processed donations, I answered phones, I worked on a software conversion project (which would be the foundation for my time at Microsoft), it was not creative but I felt a sense of purpose and belonging. It was clear how to become good at it. And I did. I moved out of my dad’s apartment and moved into a small one bedroom where I converted the bedroom into an art space. And then, just when I was feeling settled, I made the major decision that I needed to leave New York and I moved to Seattle.
When I was looking at colleges, our family therapist took me aside and said, “Go far. Go far away.” I didn’t. And I didn’t get what she meant then. But when I moved to Seattle I changed, I became a better version of myself. I needed to escape not New York (the greatest city in the world) but who I was in New York, the patterns I had developed that weren't doing me any good. Just in the same way that it wasn't LaGuardia but who I was there that I escaped when I switched schools.
In the last year I have thought about the advice of the airplane stranger a lot. Especially as I worry about what kind of a work gap being a stay at home mom is making on my resume. Some nights I wake in a sweat, feeling an intense need to update my resume, LinkedIn profile, and contact everyone I know to get a job. The stranger’s advice from the plane helps me calm down. I think how 1) working, even part-time, is at least a year away because of the needs of my family. 2) I have a unique opportunity right now, in the very few moments I have to myself, to focus on my artwork. And 3) when I do go back to work, I want to have a strong artistic framework in place so that I never stop producing art again. Hey, maybe I’ll even figure out a way to be more creative as part of my profession.
This blog is where that last bit comes in. Over the next six months I’ll be exploring my relationship with art and talking about practical ways to get art back (and keep it) in your life. I’ll also be documenting my experiences working on two painting projects.
The paintings are ones that I have been thinking about for a while. I haven't attempted them out of the fear that they are too technically difficult for me. When I realized that was the reason I had to stop and ask, why am I such a scaredy-cat? The worst that could happen is that these paintings are absolutely horrible. If that happens, I assume I'll survive it, and not trying at all would be a far worse failure.
Picasso said (or at least the internet thinks he did), "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." To me this means that we have to be an active participant in what we love in order to retain it. And we have to choose to do that continuously. I am an artist in this moment not because who I am is set in stone but because I am making that choice for myself. For me, my hope is that this project helps me accept my imperfections as a gift in my artwork. And that by letting go of my ego I can return to the artist I was as a kid.
My hope for you, is that if you are someone trying to regain your footing in art, that reading this will help you, in some small way, push through whatever barrier you need to do that.
Art on. (You know, like Rock on, only with art. :- )