Me, circa 1984.
In 1983, my dad got a new job and we moved from the small town of Barboursville, West Virginia to the expanding western bustle of Fort Collins, Colorado. It was a rough transition, as we had no family there and it was the middle of the school year; we moved several more times in our new town before settling in. As a result, I ended up going to three different elementary schools and three different junior highs.
Needless to say, always being the new kid was a challenge. Bullying was simply seen as "kids being kids" back then; I endured taunts (and even physical violence) for my glasses, my hair, my accent, my clothes, and for just being perceived as being an outsider. So it was only natural that I wouldn't mention my problem with color -- why give my tormentors more ammunition? I was weird enough as it was.
So when I'd give a wrong answer in class, such as saying that a sweater was "gray" instead of "violet" in Spanish class, or when I'd have trouble telling apart green and pink chalk lines in Geometry, I would just suck it up and let the other kids think I was astoundingly dumb instead of letting the teacher know I was having difficulty.
The one class that I succeeded in above all others was Art. After reading Jim Arnosky's Drawing From Nature book at the library, I was inspired to get my own sketchbook, and I drew and drew and drew. Eventually my efforts paid off, and suddenly I found myself being included in things. If anyone needed a cartoon or a sign or a t-shirt design, I was their gal. Teachers asked if they could keep homework projects that I'd illustrated. My work was selected to be framed and displayed in the superintendents' office. I was asked to do posters for the school plays. The insults eased, then stopped altogether. I was finally fitting in.
The designs called for black and white only. Whew!
In high school, I enrolled in two classes that would start my future down two very different paths: Painting and Russian Language. I was especially excited about the painting class, because I'd never had formal instruction before. Oh, sure, I'd been painting with my watercolors, but now I'd get to try other mediums. It went well...until we got to color theory. I was asked to mix paints in several exercises for a grade. For the very first time, I got less than 100%. My teacher was perplexed. I was horrified. For the rest of the semester, I would only paint with colors straight out of the tube.
The only color mixing exercise that I didn't throw away.
Russian class, meanwhile, was a more positive experience. Despite the daunting alphabet and grammar, our teacher infused her lesson plans with folklore, music, and art. The Cold War was thawing out, and there was a feeling of hope that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. might avoid nuking the planet into oblivion, after all. Consequently, my paintings began to take on a bit of a Slavic tone.
A little painting I made for my grammar book cover.
I took two more years of the language and, in early 1992 went to Moscow as an exchange student for part of my senior year. It was a mind-expanding experience, to be confronted with so much great art. The Pushkin Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery, the Hermitage...a veritable treasure trove of Russian and European paintings, and they were stunning. I was in awe. And everywhere I went, I sketched.
A few surviving pages from my sketchbook (it was damaged in '97 due to a flood).
By the time we visited the home of Ivan Bilibin, one of Russia's most admired illustrators of the 19th century, I was convinced that when I graduated I should go to art school to become an illustrator myself, if not a painter. After all, most of my favorite artists were illustrators. When I got back to the States, I finished up my senior year by taking a class in commercial art. I designed type, book covers, posters and the like. It was numbingly tedious, as we didn't use any computer programs, but I was optimistic that when I got into art school, I would be taught how.
"The Unexpected Visitor", 1992
However just as the world's geopolitical forces were shifting, so was the art industry. Looking back, I now understand why my art teachers weren't very encouraging when I mentioned my career plan. I remember one poignant conversation I had with my painting teacher, when I asked her what subject matter she painted in art school. She got a wistful look on her face and said, "Well, I mostly poured paint."
"You poured paint?" I asked.
"Yeah. Onto the floor. I didn't do anything overly representational. It wasn't encouraged."
And my commercial art teacher? "I thought I was pretty good," he said, "But then I found out that there were guys there that were way, way better than me. I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond. I was into caricatures and stuff, you know? None of that ivory tower stuff. Art school, it just...messes with your head."
Instead of taking their experiences at face value, I thought they were trying to dissuade me from applying because my color sense was so wretched; that they were somehow trying to spare my feelings.
My parents, while always being very supportive of my art, didn't see much of a future in an art career, either. They felt I'd be better off with a degree in law or business. My career counselor said much the same. And so, armed with a handful of scholarships and government loans, I graduated and went to college. As a last-ditch effort, I left my major undeclared and squeezed in a painting class between my courses on International Relations and Russian History. On the first day, the instructor laid out all the subjects that would be tackled in the course, starting with several weeks of intensive color theory. After class let out, I hesitantly came up to him as he fumbled with some charts. I explained that I was concerned about mixing colors, as I'd had great trouble with it before.
"Colorblind, eh? Women aren't colorblind," he said, sounding slightly annoyed, "If you're in this course, you've got to do the exercises, plain and simple. It's useless without them."
I dropped the course.
Thus ended my efforts to paint; I buried myself in my studies. In a way, it was a relief. The world I lived in didn't have room for artists who couldn't see color correctly, just as it didn't have room for colorblind pilots, policemen, firemen or electricians. Why make life harder for myself than it had to be?