Friday, May 17, 2013

On art school and finding some old drawings ....

I went to the wrong art school. It's not a secret, I have known it since i got to my second year. In the rush of choosing what to study at the end of High School it came down to Graphic Design at Tech and a BFA with Psychology and Art at Rhodes. Chosen in the end not because i knew a thing about the art department, but because of the Grahamstown Festival and the ability to apply long after all the other universities had closed their doors. Totally makes sense to choose your school based on an arts festival happening in the town once a year, in the freezing cold of mid-winter. Also i had been to the beautiful Eastern-Cape town and stayed on campus and fallen for the graceful old buildings and tree lined streets, so it was less daunting than Stellenbosch or Cape Town, the places which might have been a better fit.

I was going to be an art therapist - somehow, someday. Even though it wasn't possible to study this in South Africa at the time and I had no way of studying overseas. But some day. And so the actual art department and it's lecturers and style of working were not even on my radar ... it was enough of a dream to actually be going to art school, and then it was only on the back of my major in Psychology. It had always been clear to me that art was not what i was destined for - the only career worth having was one which helped others, where i could be of service. And so pyschology was to be the main focus and art was just slipped in on the sideline to fill out my degree. Or so i said. When really that's what made me come alive and want to get up in the morning but i had never felt like i had the right. That sense of entitlement. Or belief in myself, in having any real talent. If it hadn't been for the most amazing high school art teacher, i wouldn't have fought to take it during high school in the first place, it definitely was not what had been expected for me.

I remember that first year at Rhodes so well. The silence of the room as we sat hunched over our charcoal or pencil drawings - marble busts and figures. Two talented though very different lecturers who encouraged and taught and made me know why i was there. I was so in awe of the talent around me, the personalities, the different lives lived. The students who had always known they would be artists and had no guilt or doubt involved in the decision. I still remember how brave i thought they were. How lucky. How not like me. I was never going to do that, never be able to do that. I wasn't good enough, not ever. I wasn't made for that. But I learnt to draw a figure in full in under three hours. The lines flowed and my fingers came alive. There was luke-warm sweet tea on the sunny lawn outside at break time, and koeksusters dripping syrup from the tea-room across the road. There were sketchbooks and half poems written by candlelight while a yellow moon sailed across the backgarden on light-blue-skied nights, sending chameleons into the shadows to hide.

And then came second year and instead of choosing sculpture, which is where my heart was wanting to leap to, i played it safe. I went with what i had done before - just dabbling, tiny little paintings in high school, but i understood the process. It wasn't as frightening. The sculpture studio was like an alchemy lab with boys with long hair that i wanted to shadow, puppy-like in adoration. The things they made. The sculptures. I was so shy. So scared to join that group, feeling young and completely inept, not part of the inner circle. If only i had known then that it's the very things which frighten us most that we need to turn towards, to push ourselves into. That's where the treasure lies, the deep true places. 

            Copy drawing _ after Matisse 

But i didn't know that then. And i struggled. Really really deep down in every fibre of my being. Those nude models so bored and tired of the same poses in the studio. I was bored too. I started skipping studio sessions to drink tea at home. The same colours, the same battles. The lines which wouldn't come. The oils which turned muddy. I wanted to throw some Tretchikoff colours onto the canvas. Add a bit of Matisse. But it all had to be realistic, brown, earth colours. I shall hate sienna red for as long as i live. The colour of the polished floors, speckled with paint and pencil sharpenings. The colour of my paint. Every tortured day. I hated it so much, and lost all my confidence to the point that i walked out of the art school a month before my final exam, and lost my credit for that entire year of blood and tears. I tried to come back the year after and waitress to support my studies of sculpture full time - finally two years later having realised how wrong my choice had been, and what i really wanted. But it was too late - there wasn't time in the day to waitress and study. After three months of hardly touching the floor of the studio with my feet, it was time to admit defeat and call it a day. I packed up my room in the crazy but wonderful eleven-room-mates house looking down onto the cathedral. I ordered a container and dove into the eastern-cape sea for the last time ... and went home to Durban.

And I painted again. Slowly. And i really tried to figure it all out. Amongst so many other struggles along the way. But confused and unsure and torn between a new career in desktop publishing, the chance to lecture, and travel. I chose adventure and went to London. Where it was all about making ends meet and figuring out what to do when i grew up and no space to paint, and getting married and a new full time career. A few of those actually. And anyone else, maybe the ones who were so driven back then, who always knew - well, they wouldn't have let anything stand in their way. They would have made a plan, worked nights to paint by day, shared a bed to afford to rent a tiny studio. But not me. I got side tracked by life. And i made my peace with that. All along, back at Rhodes, we had been brainwashed about artists having to be dedicated only to art. 'She should be your mistress, your wife, your true passion.' Anyone not obsessed, completely devoted - well they weren't true artists were they ? And so i knew it, all those years in London, trying on new skins in publishing and picture framing, falling in love again ... getting married. Clearly i was too trivial to be an artist. The calling wasn't real or deep enough. I'd been kidding myself all along. There really was no point. If i wasn't good enough or brave enough or dedicated enough to do it 100% of the time, there really was no point. There was no middle ground. That's what i kept telling myself, and it worked.

In all the jobs i had, i kept my fingers in the pool but i didn't dive in : working with design agencies but not designing, framing art made by other people, not myself ... then we came to New York and i stopped working to be a stay-at-home mom. And then one day Hayden went to preschool and i had almost three hours to myself, five mornings a week. Add some personal crises and there it was, the urge to paint again. I didn't know what else to do. The addictive smell of turps and linseed oil, the feeling of smeared paint on my fingers. A commission for a good friend, a lot of encouragement, and there it was - it was flowing again. After more than a decade. And i loved it. I was back. Back in my skin again. After years of arguing with myself, being so sad and feeling as if something had died. There it was.

And i've come to realise that yes, i am jealous of the friends who have done well, who paint for a living or are in the art world for good. The movie directors and the musicians, the brilliant choreographer and the painters. I've watched them from afar and I'm so happy for them, proud even sometimes. And it's taken me a lifetime to know that i wanted that for myself too, I just didn't think i deserved it. And maybe i didn't want it on those terms i believed to be true. all or nothing. Struggling artist. The constant need to prove oneself. What is that all about ? I'm not the only one with that struggle. I'm reading about people all the time who feel the same way, who struggle like i did. Still do. But now ... for me .... well there's a wonderful online community of artists here and some of them would have outright failed a crit at Rhodes (like i did once or twice !) and some are incredibly talented and honest and open and generous. And they are sharing and learning from each other and there's this beautiful community that i never experienced before. And i'm not sure where this is going, or where i'll be a few years down the line. But at least i know what matters to me now, even if it's 20 years later.

And i don't believe you have to be obsessed. I don't believe it has to rule your life to the exclusion of happiness. It doesn't mean you can't have food on the table or a marriage or a family. You can be 'normal.' You can sing to a pop song and spend a day at the beach without sketching. You don't have to be reclusive or a complete intellectual or dress in black or any of the stereotypes we carry around inside ourselves. It's just about what makes your heart sing really. And for me that's paint and a beautiful drawing. Words. Music. The way light plays in the garden in the early morning. 

This isn't the post i planned on writing today. In fact this came out of nowhere and took me for a ride after days of feeling a little daunted by the white blank screen in front of me and wondering what new song or other blog post to share. Which sometimes is the best way, just to dive in and see where it goes. Clearly i had something to tell myself. 

You see i was going through some old piles of papers and drawings today while Lexi was playing at her sand table, and i found drawings ... scraps of ideas, half finished sketches. They've been lying there waiting. Waiting while i had a second child four years ago, knowing it was all on hold again and that it would be a long time before i had pockets of precious time to myself again. We can't have a nanny, and i don't want to. On hold again. More reasons to wait, putting this on the back burner. But that it was worth it. That little girl sitting pouring orange juice from a blue teapot and singing to herself while i took these photos today.

And they're still there, waiting for me. All those ideas are just quietly floating above the paper, lines to remind me. And i remembered why i love this. I remembered why it's part of me. And i was thinking to myself that soon hopefully i'll feel more settled, after the move, and i can plant my toes in the soil and unpack my paints and hopefully, maybe, if i am really careful, i can start to work again. And take it from there. I'm going to leave the door wide open.


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