One of the most fateful days of my school career was my final critique of Painting I. By that time, I was committed to my art degree, because I understood that all I really wanted was to make things. But I had no awareness yet of the struggle it was going to be to get through the program, and in retrospect, that crit was the first stirrings of it.
I had never worked with paint when I signed up for the class. Not really. All but one or two of my peers had been painting for years, and understood the medium; they’d all taken art classes in school and had some understanding of what they were doing, some goals they wanted to achieve. I was self-taught, having had only Photoshop and watercolor at my disposal, with some dabbling in the cheapest acrylics money could buy. My paintings from high school were on cardboard; I had never once touched a canvas, and I felt fancy for having actual watercolor paper, but the watercolor block was a completely new concept to me when it finally occurred to one of my professors to give me one. I knew I wanted to learn more because I loved working with color so much, so I threw myself into the course whole-heartedly, and spent it focusing solely on learning how to paint. My time was spent practicing technique, experimenting, trying to reconcile the way my mind understood color with the way oil paint behaved, which was so different than anything else I’d worked with in the past.
My teacher never gave me any indication that this was problematic. He was supportive, in fact, listening to me when I spoke about the way Photoshop worked in comparison to the paint, letting me play as I would. I enjoyed myself for the entire semester, only to be ripped apart by both my teacher and my peers at the end of it because they couldn’t figure out what I was trying to say, and when they asked me, I had no answer.
I wasn’t trying to say anything. I was trying to figure out how paint worked.
This would become a sore point for me for years and years after. I didn’t care about art with messages in it and in many ways, I still don’t. I wasn’t in it to bash people over the head with my opinions. I just wanted to make things, and it frustrated me endlessly when my professors proceeded to reject idea after idea after idea. I was told to my face, in front of all my peers in a critique, that my interests in fantasy work were cliche’d and boring and they didn’t want to see them, and I blamed all of this on the fact that my work was supposed to have a message. I did not understand why they couldn’t just let me make my art. I only wanted to improve in a technical sense, and their froufrou super special art philosophies were diverting me from my goals in such a way that I still haven’t been able to go back enough to come close to meeting them.
Years later, I’m finally starting to understand. I was taking the idea of “saying something” with my work too literally. I thought they were trying to force me to install some sort of thesis statement in everything I did, probably a bullshit one like all the other students seemed to be working with most of the time, and this was only reinforced when they went crazy over things like a teddy bear I made out of window screen and stuffed with things like tampons and makeup and a pregnancy test. What an amazing commentary on the discordance between and juxtaposition of childhood and adulthood, the way that all children have the person they will become inside of them, the soft comforts of youth fading to make way for these grownup issues!
No. I made it because I wanted to make teddy bears for a while and I knew that crap like that was the only way they were going to let me do it. That “commentary” was a complete accident. I wasn’t trying to say anything at all.
So, looking back now, yes, my work was almost entirely voiceless back then, in that there are more ways to communicate than thesis statements and outright messages, and I wasn’t focusing on that at all. Never once did it occur to me that I should have been examining just why it was I took such comfort in the act of making a teddy bear, and drawing conclusions about what I found there, and using those conclusions to help other people understand things in turn. Perhaps if I had been able to articulate just what it was that drew me to what I wanted to make, they’d have let me get away with far more, instead of reducing me to flailing around in an attempt to find something that would satisfy them enough to get me my good grade.
I don’t regret being focused mostly on technique — I had exposure to materials during my school years I will probably never have access to again, and despite it all, I learned a lot about what I like doing process-wise. I also still believe that my professors handled me wrongly. I don’t care what you think is cliche’; you never, ever, ever tell a young person that what is important to them means nothing. If I had been guided into examining myself more instead of encouraged to abandon my own interests entirely just because they had no interest in them, who knows what I’d have accomplished by now? Perhaps it wouldn’t have taken me over five years after my graduation to realize they had actually sort of taught me something.
My lingering bitterness aside — I’m working through it piece by piece, I promise; I don’t actually want to hold on to this negativity — I have been struggling with my art these past several months in that I am unsatisfied with it, and I have some idea of the sorts of things I’d like to pursue, but the specifics and therefore the process have been eluding me. It has been difficult to dream up any kind of starting point that makes sense, and I feel like Alice confronting the Cheshire Cat, being told that if I have no specific destination in mind it doesn’t really matter what direction I choose anyway. I have been trying to find my voice, and now I’m starting to think that’s the key to it all, if I can learn to see that voice not as something that delivers proclamations, but as something that explains in more subtle ways.
So, what am I trying to say?