Painting that changed my life

HonfleurAs I sat on my bed in my hotel room in Southern France, I knew that something had changed but couldn’t put my finger on it. I was mad! Frustrated that I couldn’t figure this out. It was like when you’re a little kid and the teacher or maybe your best friend is telling you “You have to be IN the lines Katy! IN the lines!” It kind of felt like that! I had taken art classes since I was 11 when I first looked upon one of my friend’s portrait of a woman he had made himself and copied out of a National Geographic magazine. It was just a girl and it was just a portrait done in pencil. But I was absolutely astonished! How the heck did he do that? It looks so perfect! So real! Could I do that? Taking art classes that young was definitely beneficial. I learned very early that yes, anyone could be taught how to draw like that. It was a skill to be worked on. It was clear that the traditional method of how to draw portraits or sketch landscapes was how to see the world like an artist. How to read light, how to abstract shape. How to learn little tricks such as using one simple line curved in the right way popped out an eyelid, or created the pupil and suggested the twinkle in that eye. It was really fun. And it gave me a lot of encouragement that I could draw like that too.

And I drew and drew and copied and copied from photographs, magazines, calendar images, advertisements, etc. Some of them weren’t exact - cause again I would get impatient with my details. But I tried.

And I went all the way through my High School years never once thinking I’m an artist. I even decided to do the art program in my Liberal Arts college and wanted to do graphic design to be “practical.” But I still didn’t see myself as an artist, as a creator, as a designer, whatever. I was interested in the subject matter but not very talented. Everyone else was way better than me. ESP one of my good friends who had always grown up doing what normal artists did - lounging around the school lobby sketching his peers from life, going out into nature and rendering the rabbit or deer. He was (and still is) an AMAZING real life artist. His paintings, sketches, renderings, you name it are incredible. In fact he has been paid to sketch scientific illustrations for the Smithsonian - the kind that have to be so exact, down to the millemeter of particular species of animals or birds, it’s impressive.

But he was an artist. That’s the way artists should be.

But that was not me in any way. I soon got very bored. And just kind of floated through college with not a lot of purpose, feeling instinctively that I was drawn to art but never gave myself permission. We also had an eccentric professor who had been taught a specific watercolor technique from California/1950’s. I later learned this but at the time didn’t think about it of course. We were taught very specific techniques from him, as well as the tradition of plein air painting. It was not until the France abroad my senior year in the fall that I finally got it —I don’t like plein air painting!! (But now I realize that’s where I get a lot of my “watercolor” influence now).

As I look back I realized I was frustrated and very bored with my college art classes. I didn’t know it at the time of course, but the lack of practical guidance and individual encouragement to find one’s own “personal style” was completely void. You either learned how to paint like this professor or you got B’s. Well I got B’s. So I thought I was no good and therefore didn’t understand it because I felt like I was painting like I was “supposed to” but there was nothing I could understand or hold onto concept-wise. I never did know what I was doing or what I was supposed to do. It was uber frustrating!

On the France abroad fall of my senior year, we would visit towns in the south along our route and by the time we got to the Dordogne area, I was so angry at my professor because it was just a freakin guessing game. He would come over to each of us and talk about things but it was abstract to me or way too specific. For some reason I wasn’t getting it and still after 4 years I didn’t have a clue what he wanted from me.

I was so upset I just picked up my stuff and headed back to my hotel room. In the peace and quiet, I popped in a CD I had made of Mozart (yes no apple devices yet - this was well over a decade ago!).

And an amazing thing happened. I let completely go. And created a painting that was a conversation in my head with the professor. I did everything that he “didn’t want me to do” and when asked “why?,” I responded “I DON’T CARE!!”. The result was something I had NEVER produced before. And I had no idea what to make of it. It was a church, a church from memory (even though I have a terrible memory) but it was . . . abstract to me. And completely foreign.

After I made it, I stared and stared. I felt incrementally that I had made something different that this was a “turning point” but still couldn’t decide what to make of it. I certainly felt good, felt relieved and felt like this was mine. I didn’t feel that I liked it necessarily but it was still like “did I just do that?”

Every night we would all gather together for a show and tell. I had labored back and forth whether to bring it down and finally I thought “F-it! who cares! that’s what I did today so everyone can just be mortified. I put it down with all the other beautiful creations. And held my breath. I watched as one by one my art colleagues and friends passed it by. They would nod and smile and point at other friend’s work and say “nice job!” or “I love that!” “wow!” but not one word about my little painting. Not one word.

And then out of no where, a voice beside my ear whispered, “Katy, did you make that?” I spun around face to face with none other then my . . . professor!! I gulped. “YES.” There was this pause and then he whispered, “well I would like to see MORE of that!”

WHAT?!?! What? I don’t think I heard you? MORE OF THAT?! More of WHAT? I was stunned.

That was it! That was all my church painting got in a response. And I was completely bewildered. I was 100% positive I would get reprimanded and or worse, just ignored. But I got a response! And not just any response but a whole-hearted positive encouragement!


Well I can’t tell you the ending to this story because there was no such thing until years later when I finally concluded I had to make art (even though I still wasn’t “an artist). I wish I could say that I went on to create all these paintings and came out of college bursting with energy and confidence because I was a painter!!! an artist! But that’s not how life is. This painting was subtle, so subtle I barely missed it.

I spent the rest of the abroad not knowing what the hell I was doing still, totally in a muffle because to be honest, I had no clue how I made that thing! You think that’s stupid to say but I had spent all of my young adult life thinking there was only one way to be an artist (sound familiar?) To suddenly turn that around took a great deal of self-confidence and time.

At the end of the semester my professor pulled me aside and asked why he hadn’t seen anymore work like the church I had made? I told him honestly I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t know if I could recreate that.

chartresThankfully the next spring semester was a senior project where we could work on art that we wanted to do. That was the semester where I really experimented with my new style. And guess what? I LOVED IT! LOVED IT LOVED IT!

I remember clearly one incident with my good friend (you remember the guy I grew up with in High School that made all those awesome “real-life” scientific drawings?”). My professor came over to his work that was very detailed, perfectly drawn with the animals, perspective, beautiful layering of paint, etc. and they discussed very specifically that the palm tree leaves in front needed to “go back further in space.” They were too forward, and need to recede. very specific and very exact.

Then professor came over to me and stood there for a couple seconds, and finally just said “that dark blob there? Looks good! But this area - needs something . . . . a bit more . . . . ” I beamed. Yes! We were FINALLY speaking the same language! Wow!

My friend immediately sauntered over to what I was working on and just shook his head, “Courageous Kate . . . you have a lot more courage then I do!” hah! I just laughed feeling suddenly very free. No matter how hard he tried, I believed he couldn’t paint like me - I had found some magical recipe only for me!

I found out later from my professor after that semester and it school was over, he confided in me that he actually wanted to create more abstract work like mine (like mine?!?! what the heck?) He said that all of his life he thought “true art” was what he was taught from his master teachers. And he loved it. But later in life he realized he got so bored with it all and never really “got” the abstraction movement that paralleled his life but late in life realized that was the real challenge. And he felt he couldn’t cross that bridge. It was actually too foreign, too scary? I was shocked. He seemed, regretful and almost sad. He congratulated me for doing it and said to keep going.

I look back at this whole experience clearly grateful for it. It was not earth-shattering by any means. And I realize too that with all my frustrations with my professor, at least he recognized something unique in me. Even if he himself didn’t know how to keep bringing it out of me then. He still recognized it and encouraged me to explore that way of painting. That I will never forget.

Because with that, I remembered this experience 5 years later when I found myself enrolled in a Masters program, a thousand miles from my husband completely alone in the middle of cornfields (literally). This professor may not have been able to lead me down the new path, but he definitely pointed me in the right direction. It was just up to my though to decide if that’s a path I wanted to go down.

After school I got married right away (probably too early!) and dove head first into facing the hard-core reality of trying to make it in downtown Chicago, with my new husband commuting to his first real job ever and myself, having the pressure of temping to find my own job. It was a very scary time and very stressful. I completely put that college experience behind me. I still wasn’t “an artist.” I wasn’t anything really. I hardly could do any design work and I was supposed to do design?

All I knew is that in my heart I wasn’t made to just sit at the computer filling out excel spreadsheets (some people are! like my husband and mother-in-law!). But I needed something more.

I didn’t know that the next 3 years was my ultimate confidence-booster. And I needed a mentor that could help shape my non-existent confidence into something I could fall back and on and actually use. That was where I landed a marketing job with a new fledgling commercial real estate firm run by 2 Jewish brokers straight from NYC.

Painting? Put on hold and to be continued . . .