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Art school diary, Part 1
When a writer goes to art school, all bets are off.
The day before starting art school, my second youngest asks me at the dinner table if I am excited, and I say yes. Nervous? asks my middle son. Heck, yes. You’ll be fine mum, my second oldest reassures me. I smile at him. ‘You mean, I’ll be freaked out, insecure, neurotic, and emotional?’ He looks at me blankly, the line from The Italian Job clearly forgotten, but across the table, my husband grins.
The first day of art school arrives. In the grey morning light, I pull on the outfit I worked out the day before. It is cool, but not too cool. Arty, but not too arty. As I leave the house, my husband comments that I look like a cool artist. Perfect, I say.
On the Metro, I try not to think about how freaked out, insecure, neurotic, and emotional I am. A sign across from me reads, ‘Need help?’ Yes! Someone, if you can hear me, send help please!
The day I start art school is also the day I start writing again. Because then I can say, well, if you can’t paint, at least you can write. Or, if you can’t write, at least you can paint.
Art students, as it turns out, all look very normal. Not a single beret in sight. The only person sporting any sort of headwear is in fact the one person who feels least like an art student. Me.
My art instructor is middle-aged, male, and just the right amount of friendly. Our first-day project is to sketch a cast of our choice using nothing but graphite and straight lines. I choose a cast close to me that has the least amount of detail: a naked female body with no head and no arms. During the one-on-one feedback sessions, my instructor and I use the words ‘breast’ and ‘groin’ and ‘nipple’ so easily and comfortably that I start to wonder whether I have accidentally enrolled into a cosmetic surgery course of some kind.
That left nipple looks too pointed, you might need to fix that up. Yes, yes, I see what you mean. What about the other breast? Do you think that looks okay? Not too pointy? Yes, that right breast looks right to me. Great, I'll leave that one alone then.
At art school last week, I learnt that smokers make great art students because they take frequent breaks (to smoke), thus enabling them to see their work with constant fresh eyes. Don’t smoke though, my instructor says.
My parents never cease to surprise me.
When I was sixteen, I thought they would disapprove of me being a prefect, so I didn't invite them to the induction ceremony at school. They found out anyway whilst perusing the school newsletter (funny that), and, strangely enough, they were totally okay with it.
When I was twenty, I waited till they’d flown back to Hong Kong for a holiday before emailing them to say that, after four years of studying accounting and law, I did not wish to become an accountant or a lawyer. Instead, I was going to try and give marketing a go, even though it wasn't one of The Three Acceptable Professions for Children of Chinese Parents. I can't remember how many sleepless nights I endured before my father replied from halfway around the world to say, ‘I can see how you would be good at marketing.’
This morning, at the ripe old age of forty-two, I messaged both my parents to tell them that I was no longer working part-time for a design agency and that, instead, I had started going to art school. I held my breath big time as I waited for my phone to buzz with a reply. (Would they even understand what ‘I'm going to art school’ means? Does such a sentence actually translate into Chinese?)
Five minutes later, my father replies: ‘What a big change! You have the genes for artwork, so you have the advantage.’ He then wanted to know how I was travelling to art school, and, being the diligent maths tutor that he is, worked out in less than sixty seconds that it was a 70-minute trip one way. ‘It's a quick long way,’ he concluded. This, I took to be his official seal of approval.
My mother, who was no doubt still asleep at the time, messaged me almost four hours later: ‘I agree with you as long as you feel good.’
It was like becoming a high school prefect all over again.
When I say I am going to art school, it feels a bit like I'm telling people I'm taking a gap year. Maybe they’ll think I’m too old, I think to myself. Or maybe they’ll think I’m wasting my time. But then I realise, these are actually the thoughts inside my own head, and also, the random waiter at The Rock’s Cafe probably doesn’t care a hoot whether or not I’m going to art school or taking a gap year. He just wants to clear away my coffee cup.
The truth is, art school is hard. Harder than law school. Harder than business school. Though probably not as hard as giving birth.
For starters, your mistakes are literally on display for everyone to see. There is nowhere to hide. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Artistically speaking, you are as naked as the model posing centre stage. (Though, thankfully, not as cold.)
Conversely, you can see in the blink of an eye how amazing everyone else’s progress is, and you can't help but think, every day, I am the slowest one in class.
And of course, Command+Z does not exist in the world of art. Neither does ‘Copy and paste’. Which means when your instructor tells you after two hours of solid sketching that you’ve made the head too small and the right leg too long and the torso too wide and the breasts too symmetrical, you have no choice but to erase the head, the leg, the torso, and the breasts, and start over with just a neck, two arms, a leg, and a groin.
Yup, art school is hard.