Early Works: Dartmouth 2002-03

Family Portrait, 2003, Oil paint on canvas, 18" x 12"

I enrolled at Dartmouth College in 2001 with the mind to enter the sciences, psychology to be exact. No, make that psychiatry, which is more prestigious. But something went wrong: I was miserable. The classes that I had aced no problem in high school were suddenly beyond grasp. At first I tried to blame my high school (they wouldn't let me into AP Chem, which is why I'm barely staying afloat at Dartmouth's Intro to Chem), then I lamented my neurotic academic advisor (Sucking down that many half-gallons of Diet Pepsi can't be good for anyone), then I blamed myself (why did I take Physics 13 when it was for engineers not humanities students? Oh, yes, that's because I always take the hardest route), and finally I rested my ire upon my family, who had encouraged me since birth to take the most advanced courses as if I were on some sci-fi mission to save the earth. 

Unused to academic ineptness, I floundered, gained weight, stayed up all night studying subjects that didn't make sense to me and never would (whereas the eccentric genius down the hall got every physics problem right but couldn't explain how he did it), called my father a billion times at work, and studied the course catalogue like it was the bible, imagining that every course choice cemented my future in art history, psychology, English or History. I was a mess. But why?

Still Life Study
2002, graphite pencil on paper, apx. 18" x 24"
Drawing I with Professor Susan Walp

The responsibility of one's unraveling can always be found within. Years of listening to others had trained me to second guess myself. I was off-center and the only thing that could bring me home was making art. Yet I was denying myself this very function. Realizing this, I secretly signed up for Drawing I with Susan Walp. The class changed my life. For once, I was good at something and the work didn't seem like work. I also took an art history class. Suddenly, I was wearing brighter colors, having fun while making flash cards chronicling the history of Western Art. I began to imagine going on the Art History FSP to Florence, which only required a few classes, and studying Italian. While drudging through Chem 5, I looked forward to an afternoon in the drawing studio, or shopping for supplies on Main Street. 

While my family was less than ecstatic about my concentration, they did like my high grades. Yet generational patterns of protecting the young from harm and failure would not let me free that easily. Perhaps I could be an architect, or do art on the side while I pursued a more stable career. After all, how many women are good at math and science? My family's fear in part derived from the example set by my maternal grandmother, Katherine Kilgore, a talented artist who died in relative poverty at the age of 63. Whenever describing her, family members first praise her work and intelligence but always sneak in that qualifying statement: You know, she wasn't the best mother, or She never cared for money, it was so hard on her children, or We don't know what went on at that hippie commune in Santa Fe. These stories meant to scare actually enraged me. She was my grandmother, my first artistic mentor, and of no relation to them. This inward anger, unable to express itself in an emotionally stunted environment, led to the deepest depression I have ever experienced. Winter of 2002. 

Emily, 2003, oil paint on canvas, 48" x 48"

With the help of a wonderful social worker, I extricated myself from my family's clutches and declared myself to be an art major. So out of touch with myself, it was difficult for me even to take an afternoon to sit at Rosey Jeke's and drink coffee while reading the newspaper. The hamster in my brain was running at full speed: You must study! You must work out! You are overweight! You are a failure! Over and over again. I was also on medication and felt desperately ashamed of it. I also found less and less in common with my freshman and sophomore year roommates, who through familial pressures or memories of childhood poverty, pursued practical majors while confining their artistic interests to mere hobbies. Fortunately, I found new friendships in Amarna, a co-ed undergraduate society of eccentrics like me. While many Amarnites were science and engineering majors, they demonstrated an overall acceptance of everyone, which I had a deep hunger for, considering my background. I am extremely grateful for this house and the friends I met there.

Reclining Figure, 2003, oil paint on canvas, 48" x 48"

Through the winter and spring of 2003, I also found solace in painting courses with Colleen Randall, Jim Bohary and in an advanced drawing course with Susan Walp. I enrolled in Italian and arranged to go on a Language Study Abroad in Rome, combined with an Art History FSP in Florence and a summer course in Umbria with the International School of Art (now closed). Suddenly, the future seemed bright. Sophomore summer, my friends and I skinny-dipped, streaked, cooked, danced and threw great parties. I was going away for a year to Italy, something unimaginable only a year earlier.

Study of Piero della Francesca's "Nativity" 2003
graphite, paper, charcoal and gesso on paper, 60" x 60" 
 Drawing II with Professor Susan Walp

College continued to prove a struggle, for it was my first time facing myself without the (over) protective guise of my father's family. Even when I felt that I had won their approval, one of my inner voices would take up their side of the fight and badger me relentlessly. Looking back, I wish that I had taken more art history, English and Italian courses, rather than that terrible government course which made no sense, those mind-achingly boring science classes and that traumatizing abnormal psych class with a genuine psychotic at its head. What's wonderful about life is that you continue to have opportunities to learn and change. Since graduation, I've traveled to Italy several times, studied Italian and picked up classic English and Russian literature on my own. Thank God I never became a psychologist or psychiatrist or whatever. I'd be the looniest loony in the bin, constantly picking up my own problems in other people.

Printmaking I, Spring 2003
Prof. Louise Hamlin,
Dartmouth College
(photo by Joseph Mehling, 2003)

If I had known of Joseph Campbell at the time, 
I would have found inspiration and truth in the following statements: 

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.

Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.


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Anonymous said…
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