The Beginning of the Hardest and Best Year of my Life

Back in the day, I had grand dreams of becoming a comic-book artist. It started way back in the 6th grade, when my mother took me to Zak’s (long-time north Texas residents will remember that chain of art stores) and told me I could get whatever I wanted. Even before I knew I wanted to be an artist, my mother had sensed my potential and always encouraged it. I left the store with a sketchpad, handfuls of graphite, and a thirst to create.

Years and sketchbooks and comics and scraps of paper later, it was time to decide on college. Because I was a combination of apathetic, lazy, and aware of the better choice facing me, I applied to only one school, the University of North Texas. I easily got it. I quickly started my art career, and just as quickly discovered that this was not the best place to pursue my dream.

North Texas features a great art program, which by the time I was a freshman had spun off from the liberal arts college to form The School of Visual Arts. Many disciplines were taught, ranging from fibers to watercolor to sculpture to computer art. I chose drawing and painting, a program which was administered by a number of regionally-renowned artists. Names that I recall include Vernon Fisher, Vincent Falsetta, Annette Lawrence, John Pomara, Rob Erdle, and Ed Blackburn. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the new Modern in Ft. Worth, you’ve also been equally fortunate to have been around the works of some of those artists. Some of their work can be found on this excellent database.

Wanting to be an illustrator in a program with a stronger emphasis on painting and pictoral objectivity was terribly difficult. I didn’t always fit in, but as long as I was creating art and being involved in the studio, it didn’t matter to me. Twice must a painting major pass a barrier review, once at the junior level and once right before one is allowed to graduate. I failed my junior review the first time I went through it, setting me back nearly a year. My teacher and advisor at the time was John Pomara, who I credit with taking my work in many new directions, especially in my use of materials. But it was these “many new directions” that made my portfolio seem chaotic and unthoughtful — basically, my work echoed his and the fact I didn’t see that coming irks me still.

To make a long story short, I worked my ass off and got through my second junior review under Vernon Fisher. After that, I had a full senior year to refine my work into a cohesive pattern, and was largely successful towards the end. My final teacher Annette Lawrence is herself primarily a draftsperson, and under her my drawings flourished in subject, scale, and craftmanship. Senior review came up all too quickly, and despite having a severe case of pneumonia that landed me in the hospital, I was able to round up a strong enough portfolio to graduate. I had passed my senior review and now had a month or so to ponder my future before walking across stage.

A couple of days after my review, I was making the long walk home from the Art Building to my College Inn apartment. It was a cool, clear night in March, just after Spring Break, and I had little on my mind. Then, while passing McConnell Hall, I was stopped cold by a thought that hit me like lightning.

“I don’t want to be an artist.”

And those words rang clear and made the most perfect sense. And I experienced the unburdening feeling one typically feels when they have an epiphany. And I never looked back — to this day, I have not done a painting since and have barely drawn.

The tricky part of this story is explaining not the what, but the how…how could I give up my dream of the past 12 years, especially just a month before I was to graduate? Well, gentle reader, it is unfortunately one of those things that has no explanation. Years would pass before I found someone who had a similar experience, although it was a character within a movie. In Adaptation, a movie that I am not completely fond of, there was a scene that kept me on the edge of my seat. Forced into this position by the empathy surging through me, I watched the scene where the reporter Susan Orlean was interviewing the orchid thief John Laroche and touched upon his habit of switching passions:

ORLEAN: So, did you ever miss the turtles? The only thing that made you ten year old life worth living?

LAROCHE: I’ll tell you a story. I once fell deeply, profoundly in love with tropical fish. I had sixty goddamn fish tanks in my house. I’d skin-dive to find just the right ones. Anisotremus virginicus, Holacanthus ciliaris, Chaetodon capistratus. You name it. Then one day I say, fuck fish. I renounce fish. I vow to never set foot in the ocean again, that’s how much fuck fish. That was seventeen years ago and I have never since stuck so much as a toe into that ocean. And I love the ocean!

ORLEAN: (beat) But why?

LAROCHE: (shrugs) Done with fish.

Done with fish. Done with art.

Simple as that. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll be able to explain it more. But for now, it makes perfect sense to me, which is all that matters.