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The Art of Becoming an Artist

When I was just an infant, sitting in my highchair, I somehow got ahold of my bowl of plum baby food and proceeded to smear its contents all over the wall. My father walked in on me, laughed, and yelled down to my mother, “Betty, I think we have an artist.” I guess you might say that was the beginning of my career.

Growing up, I was surrounded by kids in the neighborhood who spent their time playing baseball, jumping rope, and swimming. I was content to sit inside the house and draw pictures of kids playing baseball, jumping rope, and swimming. My mother was forever shooing me, “Go outside and play. Get some fresh air.” I was happy to remain inside, drawing fresh air with my box of crayons.

As much as I loved art, my folks wondered if I would wind up a starving artist, so they steered me in other directions, convincing me that a life in medicine might be so much more rewarding. Following their suggestions, at six years old, I attempted my first operation…on my teddy bear. With dish towels wrapped around our faces like surgical masks, my brothers and I approached the patient.

“Scissors,” I called out.

“Scissors,” my brother repeated, handing me a pair. I carefully made a small incision.

“Scalpel,” I whispered.

“Scalpel,” my brother echoed, and handed over a small serrated steak knife.

“Clamp,” I called for.

“Clamp,” my brother said as he slapped a hinged hair curler of my mother’s into my waiting hand. A snip here, a bit of stuffing removed there, and I neatly sewed up the patient, the operation a success. I was pretty certain I’d make a great doctor – right up until the time that I was asked to kill a frog in biology class, to be followed by dissection. I just didn’t have the heart. It was at that point that I realized that I’d rather draw frogs than cut them up.

Still clinging to my parent’s hopes, I entered college as a pre-med student but made sure my curriculum was heavily laced with art courses. My first drawing class was figure drawing. As I nervously twitched at my easel, about to see my first model disrobe right there in front of me, my hand shook so much, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to draw a straight line. That’s when Eleanor (I still remember her name) dropped her robe. Six feet tall and well over three hundred pounds, she gracefully struck a pose. To my surprise, I barely realized that she was…bare! All I saw were the beautiful lines and creases that I was being asked to draw, and so I did, again and again. As my pages flew off my drawing pad and my sketches became effortless, I began to realize the truth. I was no doctor. I was an artist!

In a design class, we were asked to produce a collage. My fellow students were satisfied to cut up a bunch of magazines and paste them on a page. I decided to raise the bar, gluing a smashed soda can, cigarette butts, a page from Playboy magazine, and a dried-up slice of pizza onto a cardboard panel. When we showed our pieces in class, mine was met with disdain. A fellow student called out, “That’s disgusting!” Defending my work and the photo of the Playboy bunny, I answered. “It’s just the human body.” The answer was, “Not that. A piece of mummified pizza? That’s disgusting.”

In my painting class, I decided that I would search out new grounds. Instead of painting on canvas like everyone else, I asked the head cook in the cafeteria to make me a two-foot by two-foot sheet of thin crust. I set the thing up on my easel, took out a jar of peanut butter and a container of strawberry jelly, and began to smear an abstract design with a palette knife. My professor thought it to be ingenious, right up until the ants decided to show their appreciation for the piece.

I eventually changed my major and studied art for the next four years, expecting to graduate, when I was informed that I would be required to pass an oral comprehensive. I was to present myself to a faculty board that would ask me questions about art from the time of the caveman to what happened in the art world present day. I studied every book I had collected during my college career. Drowning myself in black coffee, I spent the last 24 hours before my exam, wide awake, reviewing every page. When I arrived before the panel, I was wired. My eyes bugged out and I shook like a volcano ready to explode. Lights were dimmed and I was asked to identify the image that was projected on a screen. Without hesitation, I shot back. “That’s the Parthenon.”

“Correct,” a faculty member assured me.

“It’s in Greece. Athens, to be exact. Built about 482 BC.”

“That’s fine,” another voice chimed in.

“It was dedicated to Athena,” I went on, the caffeine driving me.

“Very good,” was the answer. “Now for the next slide…”

But I wasn’t done. “It’s Doric architecture. Originally, it was painted. Not white like we see it today.” I raced on.

“Yes, yes. That’s fine. Now for the next…” a voice tried to finish.

“Did you know the thing was nearly destroyed in 1687 when an earthquake nearly…”

“Mr. Cohen. Enough. We will move on.” I was instructed.

Every question, every slide shown, went pretty much the same way. I simply couldn’t shut up. After 30 minutes of drilling, the lights came back up. “Thank you, Mr. Cohen. That will be all,” I was told. It was done. I had more than answered every question. All that was left was to walk out…but nooooooo. The caffeine high would simply not allow it. “That’s it? All that studying and that’s it?” I questioned.

The lights went down, and I was grilled for another 15 minutes. The panel was satisfied; They turned the lights back on. “Thank you,” is all that was said. Still buzzing, I said, “No more?”

The head of the Department stood up, rolled his eyes, and said, “Cohen, get the heck out of here.” I graduated with a degree in art.

Over the years, I’ve worked as a window trimmer in a department store, the National art director for a fashion chain, the art director for several newspapers, an art instructor, and still found time to paint and sculpt.

Every so often, I meet one of my fellow art majors that I graduated with. Some work for banks, some sell cars, deal in real estate, or deliver the mail, but not one remained in the arts. They are always amazed that I stayed true to my calling and they congratulate me for having stayed with it. I, of course, am flattered by their praise, but to be honest, for me, there really was never a choice. I just did what came naturally. I guess my Dad was right. I was a born artist.

One comment

  1. I enjoyed reading your story. Not only are you an artist, you’re a writer as well! The story reminded me of when I was small. I told my mom I wanted to be a writer someday. And she said, “Get your teacher’s certification!” Dang, that is what I did. (LOL)

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