From a young age, I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t realize when I was a six year old that being an artist was a difficult, rarely lucrative, profession. I only knew that I loved drawing. What first grader wonders how they’re going to pay the gas and electric bills once it comes time? Some of my clearest memories of early childhood are the hours I spent organizing my crayons by color into slots and rows in the yellow plastic holder. Despite my innocence on the financial milieu, for career day in Mrs. Knowles’ fourth grade class, I dressed up as an artist. A worn apron of my mother’s held paint brushes and pencils that clanked together as I walked the path to the elementary school. I arrived in Ogden in the middle of the school year. I’d spent the first half of the school year in Orem, Utah; which was even more homogeneous than Ogden. Ogden felt like a big deal to me, but I was at a definite disadvantage when it came to being included in the delineations that can be found in each elementary school classroom.
Each kid in a class can tell you who falls into which classifications: the troublemaker, the class clown, the teacher’s pet, the kid who is good at art. In our class, the designated “person good at art” when I arrived, was Synthia. If memory serves, she even wore a smock and a beret to career day. I’d never even heard of a beret. She was French, complete with a lilting accent. Thoughts of France call to mind things like crepes, croissants and The Lurve. How her family ended up in Ogden, Utah from France is a mystery to me. I can only imagine the culture shock of that transition. At the time, Ogden was the third largest city in Utah — a combination of industrial and suburban. In 1986, it was probably best known for having the worst smelling dog food plant that has ever existed and train tracks that no longer carried anything but cargo.
I never saw or heard anything about Synthia after fourth grade, but I didn’t let her amazingness at art kill my dream of becoming an artist. When Picasso was painting, I wonder if he ever thought for one moment that anyone in the world was better than he. Imagine if Picasso had said, “It looks like ol’ Matisse has created some damn good paintings. I suppose I’ll put the brushes away now and be a street sweeper.” Having seen Synthia’s work pushed me to be better.
In the 80s and 90s, the Ogden City School District had a program called E.Q.U.I.P. It was a gifted and talented program, and required good grades, high test scores, and sometimes a separate assessment. The school district often sought out kids to be in the program, because it took place in the inner-city schools. Today, it would be looked at as a reverse zone variance. In fifth grade, I moved to a different school to attend the E.Q.U.I.P. program. This was when I hit my artistic peak. I had a great group of friends, I loved my teacher, and I was given a set of oil pastels for Christmas. They smelled like a cross between Play-Doh and gasoline. They were my prized possession. I spent hours sprawled on my grandmother’s living room floor, sketching my first piece which was a wishing well along a grass-lined, cobblestone path. I took a class during school hours that was specifically geared towards students interested in art. That was where I learned the proper way to draw portraits and how the face is broken into quadrants, such that the eyes are typically a third eye apart from one another, the corners of the mouth typically align with the pupils of the eye. I struggled with drawing ears properly and shading noses so that it didn’t appear the person’s face was covered in dirt, but by the end of that class, I could draw a decent profile. That year, I submitted a piece for the district’s “Reflections Contest”. The theme was “Wonders of the World”, and I received an honorable mention for my oil pastel drawing of the Pyramids at Giza. That summer, my mom sent me to an art camp where I learned that salt could be used to add textures to paint and that there was more to art than just drawing something recognizable.
All I wanted to do was draw, sketch and make creative lettering. Classes like Algebra were just requirements, and I couldn’t see when I would ever use them. (To my daughter: If you’re reading this, pretend like you never read that.)
Art class in middle school was comprised of an interesting array of humans. There were those who took the class to actually produce something and those who were there because it was a laid back and you could get away with doing virtually nothing. We learned calligraphy, how to create 3D artwork and at one point, we made jewelry (which would eventually turn your fingers green). My two close friends, Nancy and Liz, were in the eighth grade art class with me. Some of the jewelry was made with a burning wax and little drills. For reasons unknown, we liked to carefully drip the blue wax onto our fingernails and create patterns with the dots. The heat penetrated our fingernails and made its way to the actual skin underneath. We would gasp and Lamaze breathe as quietly as possible while it dried. At one point, when we were making our fingernail creations — which we were very much not supposed to be doing — the art teacher walked by and asked what was going on. We sneakily hid our hands under the table to scrape off the wax quickly, so as not to be discovered. Once he was gone, the fun continued. The art room at the middle school was huge. There was a regular, well-lit classroom setup with desks and the largest desk at the front was the teacher’s. A gigantic, dimly lit, exterior room lined with cabinets, various supplies, and long tables was where we spent most of our time. When the students were out in the tabled-area, the teacher was most frequently at his desk in the other room or nowhere to be found. I’m guessing he was probably nipping from a flask, because the thought of teaching any middle school class makes me want to have a drink myself. The class was fairly unsupervised, and therefore, one of my favorite times of day.
The summer before I started high school, I went to Washington, D.C. I was able to visit the art museum at the Smithsonian. Even at age 13, I could have stayed there for hours. I drank in the art and wondered what the artists were thinking when they created this painting or that sculpture. I purchased an interesting packet of postcards in which all of the art was abstract; a series of lines, colors and geometric shapes. It was like nothing my 13-year-old, Utah-self had ever seen.
When I started high school, I continued to take art classes; but by the time I was a sophomore, I found my calling in the creative writing department. Artistic drawing and painting, and the thoughts of being an artist in my professional life, fell behind me. On my living room wall, I have two framed pieces I created in high school. They remind me of the gentler days when I didn’t realize what being an adult actually meant, and I recall that first set of oil pastels and the grass-lined path I created.