You’ve read novels and heard people say they remember the day they were born, or the day they came home from the hospital, or the day they learned to walk. I can’t remember any of that. Well, maybe the walking because people in my family have told me the story so many times. According to the tale, I didn’t walk, I ran. I’ve done a lot of things backwards in my life, and I guess running before walking got me off to an early start. Anyway, the story goes that I ran down a dark, narrow hall literally bouncing off the walls with total abandon. Sounds fun. Maybe the story is true. It does seem to be a “memory,” but it’s probably second hand. Legitimately, the first memory that’s solid in my brain is being an artist at nursery school.
For me, nursery school was magical. I started my artistic career there, at age four. Up until that point I had been at home with my mother and two sisters, though for most of the time my sisters were at school. The older of my sisters was five years older than I, so she was surely at school even on the day I was born. My other sister was only three years older, so she was, I would guess, at my grandmother’s house or my grandmother was at our house when I was born, and then went to school two years later.
Back to nursery school. My nursery school was in the basement of the Presbyterian church about a half mile west of our house. A straight shot down 17th south. My mother dropped me off in the lower parking lot, and I made my way through a big heavy door into a hall where I hung my coat. I can’t remember many of the details of what happened after that, except for the art projects. I can vivdly see myself sitting in a little chair at the long table filled with magical materials. We made collages and popsicle-stick creations. We made animals and pots. We stuck seeds on papers and made handprints in clay. We finger painted and used big magic markers to create our own visual compositions. On special days, we donned smocks and painted at a standing easel. No one graded our work. No one tried to “teach” us what to do, how to paint, what to draw. In those days, in the ‘50s, nursery school was all about play. I loved it, and though I want to say that I considered myself a more-than-competent artist, I don’t think “competency” entered into anything we did in the basement of the Presbyterian church. I loved creating, and I loved my creations and no one told me whether I should or shouldn’t. I just did.
In grade school, especially in the higher grades, fourth, fifth, and sixth, competency became an issue. I began to realize, by comparing my work to classmates and to my very talented oldest sister, that I was perhaps not so competent, at least not when it came to turning three dimensions into two. I turned to “academics” and art lost its magic, became something I did because it was required.
But in the seventh grade, in my required art class, (otherwise I would have been somewhere else) Mr. Gibbs, the young, handsome, art teacher didn’t care about turning three dimensions into two. He was looking for bold creativity, and I could do it. I was so little constrained by expectations, and so out of the mainstream of seventh grade society, that I would try anything. I would make pink and orange polka-dot creatures and paint pictures of my sandals askew. He didn’t care that the perspective was wrong, he loved that my work was different. I got an “As” while the talented girl who could draw a horse so life-like you thought it might gallop off the paper got only “Bs.” She looked at my work in disdain, and was confused. To be honest, I was confused too. It was like being back in nursery school, just doing art for fun. Again, I loved art and the creations I made. It was pure joy.
In eighth grade, in a new school, things were different. Art again, was a required class. A required class with tightly defined assignments evaluated under the strictest scrutiny. In this art class, art was all about replicating reality. The teacher’s goal for us was that we produce work that made him think he was looking at a photograph. Of course that required work and planning. The first stage to reality on paper, was to create a small rendition of your grand design which had to be approved before you could begin your project. My first project was a landscape, reflecting my tree-hugger nature. I drew some trees, a fence, a house. No people. Of course, no people. They are the hardest to draw. When I took it up to the teacher’s desk for approval, he crumpled it up and threw it into the trash. Then he looked up at me and said, “Anyone with an average IQ can do better than this.” I can’t remember anything else from that art class. Only that I vowed I would never take another one. I was cured of my childlike delusions of being creative. Back to the math.
And I stuck with math and mathy things for a very long time – long enough to get a Ph.D. in economics for god’s sake. But then I became a mom with a son who was most definitely an artist, like his father. He started taking pottery classes, and after seeing his work, I just had to try it. Once again, I fell in love with art. Again, I found myself in a no-expectations, no-judgments classroom where people looked at my work with curiosity. If nothing else, it was different. I didn’t use a wheel – no circular, symmetrical pots for me. It was all about hand building out of the ordinary things that appealed to my sense of whimsy.
I became so into clay that I wanted to forsake economics for art, to be an artist, a real artist. At the time I was teaching financial economics at the university, so I could take one free class every semester. I started with drawing, the first class in the fine arts core. Again I went back to the world where art is about turning three dimensions into two – the still life. This time I was more motivated and had more encouragement. The professor told me that anyone could draw, not just talented people. And she helped me begin to see, giving me the tools I needed to at least draw something that could be identified. Then it was on to nudes. I was in my forties at the time, but I cannot say that I felt comfortable drawing a naked man. I cringed at how the 18-year old girl who stood next to me felt. She was from a very strict Christian family and was visibly flustered. I was just eternally naïve. But we both made it through. We looked at naked bodies that were not our own, and we drew them. We drew the man, and then a woman.
Eventually, I finished all the classes in the art core, and I got decent grades in them. Mostly perhaps because I worked very hard. In addition, I went to Anderson Ranch to take week-long seminars in the summers. I really wanted to get an MFA in painting. It seemed maybe life was conspiring to give me that opportunity. I came up for tenure in the college of business, the first woman ever in the college’s history. Because a colleague had gotten tenure the year before with fewer publications and lower teaching evaluations than mine, I was pretty sure I would get tenure. As it turned out, the male bastion was not quite ready for the first tenured woman. The first round vote went against me. This seemed my chance to become an artist. Go for the MFA. But long talks with my first drawing professor who had now taught me painting and become my friend, didn’t encourage me. She never said the word, but I could see that “talent” had something to do with her caution. I panicked and started looking for other finance jobs.
An ad in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. A registered investment advisor in the East Bay of San Francisco needed a research analyst. I interviewed, interviewed again. Knocked silverware on the floor of a very fancy Marin County restaurant during a lunch interview. Wrote follow up letters trying to convince them that academics are not slow to get things done. And then they hired me. By the time I got the offer, I also had tenure at the university. All the committees above my immediate colleagues had voted unanimously for my being tenured. I resigned and went to northern California. And for four and half years, I was an artist only very rarely. I painted a little, small things, none of which satisfied me. I was working long hours and again learning a new field – the mutual fund industry.
It wasn’t until I found myself teaching again, at Skidmore College that my artist-self re-emerged. They had an intensive summer painting program, with an amazing professor, and I threw myself into it. This professor, John Hampshire, painted hyper-detailed, hyper-realistic portraits, in vivid colors, that boggled my mind. http://johnhampshire.weebly.com/ But he did not try to imprint his style on his students. Again, here was a person open to my own idiosyncratic style. And I thrived. Especially after we got through the mandatory still life. I loved being there. John nurtured my special brand of creativity, which didn’t fit the standard “talented” mold. I loved to paint. And John saw that. That was more than enough for him.
In all these experiences, I have learned that judgments, from whomever they come, don’t matter. Every one of us when we were kids were singers and dancers, painters and poets. There’s no reason to quit. Here I am now, writing. No one would have singled me out as a writer in any academic environment. Remember, I’m the numbers girl. And I have both a sister, Wendy, and a son, Tim, who can write circles around me without even trying. When Tim was in high school I would urge him to start his papers sometime before 10 PM the night before they were due. But the night before every paper, he sent me to bed, and told me not to worry. I always worried. But it was not a rational worry. Every paper was stellar. He’s gifted. I’m not. I’ve been practicing. Until I was in my 40s I didn’t even want to write. I wrote because I had to – publish or perish. But now I am writing with abandon and none of it is academic. I can do this. But it’s only because I want to. I just got started and kept at it. Occasionally, I do something visual. Some days, it just feels like a visual day. It’s sabbatical and the juices are flowing. I am a painter and a poet and a writer and a dancer and a singer… well, maybe not a singer. But if the background music is loud enough, I can get away with that too.