I always knew I was an artist, it wasn’t even a question of what I wanted to be, I already was. Even as a kid, it felt like my purpose was to create images, and I was lucky to have an incredibly supportive family who recognized my passion and helped me nurture it instead of steering me in a different direction. When people warned against a career as an artist—“starving artist” was and still is common phrase—I wasn’t deterred. I knew there were artists in the world, I had learned about them, I could see their work in the small galleries of my hometown and in the enormous museums in Washington, D.C.. So if they could do it, why couldn’t I?
For now, I’m going to skip ahead to my senior year of high school. College applications had been submitted and one day I come home to a fat envelope with my name to the right of a bright red and yellow VCUarts logo. I had already received a couple acceptance letters by this point, but this was the one I had been waiting for: Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts.
The heavy envelope was a good sign, I knew, but—because I’m me—I still had my doubts. I’m pretty sure I shrieked when I read the first line of the acceptance letter, which was followed by some uncontrollable tears to add to the full grin on my face. Obviously, I was elated, I wanted to start packing immediately, I was ready. Despite the doubts I had been harboring that year of application writing and future planning, it wasn’t until that night that I really felt like everything was coming together. My path was clear. I was going to be okay.
I would be lying if I said I was a good art student. When university courses started in the autumn of 2011, I found I rapidly became exhausted and unmotivated. There was just so much work. I realized that, despite the fact that I had always been a diligent student in secondary school, I had only ever had one art class at a time with only one art project assigned at a time. Now I was in three demanding art courses (most semesters four) in addition to general education requirements.
After a couple of months I grasped that there simply weren’t enough hours in a day to work on and complete multiple creative assignments with often coinciding deadlines. At least, there wasn’t enough time to create work up to my perfectionist standards or work I felt very passionate about. So I put in enough time and effort into my assignments to get a decent grade, but there were only a couple assignments a year I felt truly zealous about and inspired by. I was dreadful (and still am) at keeping a daily sketchbook, and when brainstorming project ideas I would often only get as far as the first design instead of pushing myself to find something original or complex.
Looking back, I know now that a lot of why I was a “bad” student was because I was living with depression and a couple anxiety disorders without being aware of it. I remember wondering how my colleagues/peers could handle the course-load and still create these stunning, thought-provoking images. And naturally these thoughts would make me feel even more of an inadequate artist and so I would become more depressed and exhausted and unmotivated.
The only time I think I’ve ever truly doubted myself as an artist was during those four years of university and a year following graduation. Education in general causes you to question things about the world, but in art school we were driven to question ourselves. Is the composition complex enough? Do the colors work well together? What’s the meaning of this piece of art? Could this in any way be seen as plagiarism of another artist? Is this the best you can do?
After a while, I couldn’t stop questioning. I was indecisive, often taking the safer route than taking risks, which made me passionless. At that time, I thought the only reason I didn’t drop out was because I didn’t want to disappoint my family, friends, and acquaintances, even people I had yet to meet. Or worse, I would prove people right…that I was inadequate, that I had wasted all this time and money on nothing, that I was a failure.
I was at my lowest during the year after graduating, but that year was also when I began to understand that there might have been more going on than me just being a flop. It was within this year that I started questioning my mental health. I didn’t have many obligations anymore—no classes to go to or art project deadlines to meet—and I had the freedom to binge watch Netflix or play video games for days at a time with no real ramifications. I was doing whatever I wanted to do, but still felt passionless and bored. I was sleeping more than ever, but I was still exhausted.
It wasn’t until recently, after months of doctor’s appointments, medications, and therapy that I started to get my confidence in my art back. While I still acknowledge the negative feelings I had during my time in art school, I can now appreciate those four years and wouldn’t take them back if given the chance. I’ve learned that I needed that discipline of art school; I needed the deadlines, the projects I wasn’t interested in, the critiques, even the comparing myself to my peers.
Now my brain overflows with ideas, it’s impossible to turn them off. I’ve discovered I’m able to find solutions to design problems without much thought and I trust my instincts more than ever. Of course, there are still weeks where I have trouble getting off the couch or wielding a pencil, but more often than not I’m able to push through it and get motivated just enough to do something productive. I know this is all due to my education at VCUarts.
I’m not saying that anyone who wants to become a successful artist needs to attend an art school—that’s a topic that may have it’s own blog post one day. But in my case, art school was the mountain I needed to climb to become the artist and the person I am today. I don’t know if there’s a moral to this story, but I thought it was necessary to include for my next post, in which I’m going to talk about why I create; a lot of the reasons come from my struggles with depression and my education.
But I also hope this message reaches others who are experiencing self-doubt in their craft or passion so they know they aren’t alone. I believe it’s only when we acknowledge our feelings that we can begin to overcome them and heal.
See you next week! -Maddie