How Art, and Teachers, Empowered Me

Semesterland 4

Semesterland 4

People who know me well cannot believe I was once a timid, troubled, panic-stricken young woman with no self-esteem at all, who hit rock bottom while sitting on a kitchen floor in the middle of a Friday afternoon, sipping on a beer, my second. My youngest two children are napping.  The oldest is thankfully in school.

I look down deep into the half-finished can and know I really don’t want the beer; what I want is to change a life that has, to my despair, turned out just like my mother’s. I am nothing but a mother and wife, can do nothing useful except bear children and reluctantly keep house. And it is not the dark ages, it is 1982.

Then I remember the Schedule of Classes from the community college, and unsteadily rise to rummage for it in stack of unopened mail on the clothes dryer. I locate the art courses, the name and number of a guidance counselor, and call to make an appointment for the following Wednesday. I feel like a weakling for not making it sooner. But I also turn and pour the rest of the beer down the kitchen sink.

Four years later, with now a quite unfamiliar sense of panic and that feeling of a floor beneath my feet about to open and swallow me, I hear my teacher say No.

He has pushed me into registering for a portfolio day at the Art Institute of Chicago, and now he won’t help me put together my first portfolio of artwork? Unbelievable.

Then this community college art instructor, the first man I have ever trusted, the first person in my life who ever encouraged me, who once said for whatever it’s worth, you are very good at this while watching me draw, sees the look on my face, and explains himself.

You need to learn the worth of your own work.  There is no way to do that without jumping in with both feet — a phrase he frequently uses in his drawing classes — and making choices all by yourself. Once you put the portfolio together, I will look at your work and give you my opinion. But not before.

I almost hate him as I head home to my resentful husband, my needy children. But the next day, while he is at work and the kids are in school, while standing in the living room surrounded by four years worth of my hard-won artistic labors, I feel filled with a sense of power and accomplishment. I know without a doubt that most of what I see is not only good — it is amazingly good.  Almost as if someone else did it. But they didn’t. It was me. And that is what I feel while looking at my artworks, then choosing the best of them, all by myself — a solid sense of myself.

My teacher only recommends removing two of the dozen artworks I put in my first professional portfolio. And I it feels wonderful, already knowing those works were not as good as the others.


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