The innate spark

Yesterday morning I asked my mother, “When I was a kid, why didn’t you and Dad try to point me toward a career, maybe something more lucrative?”

She told me I had set my heart on being a veterinarian for nearly the whole of my childhood, and why would anybody try to talk me out of that?

I did set myself on that path, applied to Iowa State, University of Illinois Urbana, and Purdue University in Indiana. I was accepted into all three schools, but I chose Illinois for several reasons; friends, family alumni, including my father, and proximity to home.

My first year was spent in the College of Agriculture as an Animal Science major. It was a major dominated by farm kids, and other students like me, hoping to be accepted after senior year to the competitive School of Veterinary Medicine just up Lincoln Avenue.

I was well-invested in the experience. I worked at the university dairy farm for my first semester, joined the Dairy Club, I showed a sheep and came in third out of three.

But in all of that, the wheels were falling off a little. My grades were good, but I was falling asleep after getting up for 4am starts at the dairy farm. And I felt a little out of place as an urban kid in a very rural world.

Second semester, I quit the dairy farm and started working at the dorm cafeteria where I ended up employed for the rest of my undergraduate career. I also took a drawing for non-art majors class, and it was kind of a relief.

My whole life up to leaving for school was invested in the idea of being a vet, but my propensity was always art and writing. Though I was never outright encouraged to draw or paint, it was something I did from before I can remember.

I do recall the several coats of yellow paint my mother used to re-paint my walls after the creativity crept beyond the paper on which I was painting a dog or a horse.

Art was always a possibility. In my last two years of high school, several art teachers kept asking if I was putting in an application to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, but I had my sights on a vet, and did not waver.

Anyhow, after my first fairly successful year, I spent the summer at a veterinarian’s office as a kennel assistant.

I have written about that summer that was pretty traumatic; helping to put far too many animals to sleep, bagging them and placing their still-warm bodies in a large deep freezer at the back of the kennel.

For a young woman who wanted to save every animal, it was a little soul-destroying, and it was the real game changer for me.

So I had to find a new major.

Illinois had an extensive art program, and I had already met one of the printmaking professors through that non-major class when my teacher, a graduate student, brought my work to him.

And there was my answer.

I asked my mother about that yesterday-what she thought about me choosing art.

“I told you it was probably the thing you should had done in the first place,” she said.

“You were always best at expressing yourself through your drawing, and later, in your writing.”

Pretty amazing words from a parent, but that’s my Mom for you.

My dad did suggest journalism at that time. He is a career journalist, and had his degree from Illinois, but it just didn’t appeal.

So it was art.

To cut to the chase, after the BFA in painting, my three-year Master’s degree in printmaking, a life fully entrenched in creativity, invention and art, and a few years down the track, I was working as a teacher and academic advisor in another university art department.

I looked after about 450 students in all stages of their academic careers.

One of my roles was to organize something called the concentration admission review.

It actually came into effect when I was in my second semester on the job. I had to create a system that students would apply to one of about 12 disciplines, such as photography, painting, metals and jewelry or graphic design.

The visual communications disciplines, which included graphic design, computer animation and digital art were the most desirable majors, and competition was hot, spaces limited. It was one of the reasons the review was created.

The review period was busy, and I was flat out, assisting students to organise their work, hang it on their designated wall for the professors to view, compose and deliver the documents to the professors, and eventually pass out the good or bad news to students.

The bad news was tough. Many students had hung all their hopes on a particular area of study, only to learn they were unsuccessful.

They had the option to reapply next time, but with every semester, they would face another crop of talent, and their tuition costs would grow.

In my role, I got to know students on a fairly intimate basis. My office was often loud with several students sitting around, laughing, telling me about their lives, joking or complaining about various teachers.

It was par for the course, and as their advisor, I listened, had a box of Kleenex and an assortment of squeezable stress toys on the edge of my desk. I was there first and foremost for the students, and no matter how stressful my job, they made it easy to go to work each day.

I empathized. I had been an art student not long before, and for many years. And young people and adults who choose art are a different species. The level of sensitivity, emotional fragility, cutting intelligence, perception and freedom of expression makes art majors very delightful, and very different.

So during the concentration admission review, there was often a call for Kleenex. So many students wanted to be one of the visual communications majors, and a good half never made the cut.

But I wasn’t prepared for the day Mike came into my office after he got his response letter.

Mike was one of those truly loveable, goofy students.

Not too tall, dark-framed glasses, a little like Woody Allen and honest as a judge, he was a pleasure each time he walked in to have his schedule checked, or a question.

He had chosen sculpture as his 3-D studio requirement, and my husband at the time, who was head of sculpture said Mike was creating some truly fantastic and funny pieces.

Every time I’ve had the luck of a student like Mike, I am reminded it is the artist who transforms the veil of their influences by pure thought and emotion, that often make the greatest impact on art history.

When they have basics under their belt, you give them an assignment and then get out of their way to let them have their head.

I wouldn’t say Mike was a Picasso, but then, who thought Picasso was going to be Picasso?

Guernica 1
Pablo Picasso working on Guernica in 1937. Guernica is one of the masterpieces of the 20th Century, documenting the horror and devastation of the Spanish Civil War.

Well, come the day, with the envelopes were on my desk, crisp and white, soon to be torn open and crumpled, Mike was unlucky.

He had been one of those students, maybe naïvely confident he would get into digital art and computer animation. I had a feeling, but it wasn’t my place to tell any student that they did or didn’t have a chance.

I had been up late the night before, walking the hallways where students were carefully hanging work, putting up makeshift shelves to show off their 3-D design pieces, sculpture, jewellery or ceramics.

I lent a hand here, gave a bit of advice there, and Mike’s wall looked pretty good. I thought his quirky talent might have had him in with a chance.

Come the day, I had all the results in hand before the students, and I knew what the day would bring. One by one, the applicants came by to pick up their envelopes that would deliver a thrill of excitement and relief, or the knell of dread and panic.

Mike came in early and after he had collected his envelope and gone, I had quite a few students come through, crying, jubilant, angry. The response form was not just a tick yes or no, but the professors would provide comments about why they did not get in.

Most of these comments were made by the head of the visual communications area, a fairly elitist, cold-hearted man, but with a frisson of humanity and I thought the comments would have been fair, and constructive.

Each time an unsuccessful student would look at me a little hopelessly and give me their response sheet with questions, I would kindly advise them to have a chat with the professor about why they didn’t get in, and what they needed to work on for a chance the next semester.

It was like passing the buck but I could do little else.

I felt fairly drained after lunch when Mike came in.

He was flat, and a little dazed.

Mike said he had read his comments, and he had a question.

“It says here I have no imagination,” he said, looking down at his response form.

Then Mike looked up at me and said guilelessly, “How do I get more imagination? How can I do that?”

I was at a loss for words, but recovered and assured Mike he had buckets of imagination, that we all have imagination, and it was likely the professor just could not see that.

Improve your drawing, improve your physical technique in metals, or tidy up sloppiness in your presentation, all those things could be worked on, but what kind of person tells a 19-year-old kid they have no imagination?

How could a person, a teacher, more than that, an art teacher, make a judgment like that?

I was livid, and after wrapping up the fairly emotional meeting with Mike, I stormed across the hall and had an embarrassingly tearful argument with the area head.

It came to nothing, but for me, after a lifetime spent assuming we all have the ability to imagine and create, such a stab at a young person’s confidence was unacceptable.

Especially coming from within a university art department, and somebody had to stand up for Mike.

I left at the end of that semester and moved to Australia, so I don’t know what happened for Mike.

I believe to cast doubt on a person’s imagination, to disparage any person’s ability to create is wrong.

In May, I had the privilege to write about a visit to town by Alison Richardson and the ruckus ensemble from the Parramatta Riverside Theatre’s Beyond the Square creative project for people with disability.

The team spent the week working with young students and adults in disability services, creating films and putting together material and rehearsing for a final performance.

The ruckus ensemble, made up entirely of people with Downs Syndrome talked candidly about being artists with disability, and how they refused to be defined by what others identified as disability.

Beyond ability, not one person would question each of us has out fair share of imagination. It is there, like a gem to shine.

Guernica 3
Members of the ruckus ensemble and local residents dancing during their final performance.

Throughout the week with the ensemble, Inverell people danced, told stories, and shared dreams. It was an open microphone for people who are often forgotten, or excluded in our daily lives.

And they shared their imagination. Not one person would have ever been told the spinning, whirring inner workings of their creative mind was not viable.

Every offering was embraced, and from that, people drew confidence and ventured forth with more ideas. It was from encouragement that more imagination and more creativity grew.

And that fed so much self-belief you could nearly see it in the air.

People who don’t consider art should understand that with any creative act, visual, musical or dramatic, comes a measure of putting your inner-self a little, or a lot on the line.

It’s like undressing when maybe you are not so confident the thing revealed will be accepted. It’s a brave act.

For Mike, it was very brave, and he was very honest. His work was an accurate reflection of the kind, funny, unique person that he was.

When I consider the whimsical, colourful and fanciful creations that Mike made in sculpture, and his personal flavor of drawing, his take on the world, I still condemn the professor who in his narrow, husk of a mind could not see the blossom of brightness in that young man.

It is in this way, we need art. It is one of many ways we can break from the pack, and give each other a glimmer of a new way to see the world.

I also wonder that professor didn’t feel just a hair’s breadth of envy for Mike’s talent; that he saw only saw what didn’t meet his own expectations, and was unable to reconcile his opinion with the work’s imaginative vision.

That to it, he was blind. And that’s a pity for them both.


-The featured image is Guernica, 1937. Guernica is one of the masterpieces of the 20th Century, documenting the horror and devastation of the Spanish Civil War.










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