As an undergrad, just a million years ago or so, I majored in fine arts. My concentration was in printmaking. While my friends with “real” majors had exams and quizzes, I mostly had “crits” which is cool, art student slang for critiques. On crit day, we’d all hunker down in the printmaking studio with a proof or two of our works in progress tacked up on the wall. Just to give you business and nursing majors a general understanding, art majors don’t all have talent. Some of us were just weird and didn’t fit in anywhere else. The people with incredible talent made beautiful prints and drawings and paintings, while the talentless made ugly junk. In the spirit of full disclosure, my talent level was closer to talented than not, my motivational level was pretty close to “none”.
The woman who taught most of the printmaking courses may have been a frustrated psychologist. She’d look at a student’s print and ask things like “What is this about?” or “What are you trying to say?“. My unspoken answer was “You told us we were having a crit today, so I had to hang something up“. My actual answer was usually not a hell of a lot better and was generally along the lines of, “I dunno, it’s just people in a subway“.
The Sigmund Freud wannabe was never satisfied with my answers, and the resulting criticism of my work was usually harsher than it was for other students who had better back stories.
None of these students were foolish enough to go with the really broad, basic issues as their chosen topic. “Man’s inhumanity to man” and “The horrors of war” had already been pretty well used up by Picasso, Francisco Goya and Andy Warhol. This one kid used to put these pointless pieces of crap on the wall, which looked like he had left his paper on the bottom of a puppy cage in the Pet Pavilion at the local mall for a few days. The images were that bad, but then he’d tell these incredible stories of what the piece was about. The teacher and her lemmings would all furrow their brows and nod and make sounds like they were savoring a fine cognac while having foot massages.
I decided that my images wouldn’t change, but that my stories would. A day or two before my next crit, I sat down with one of my prints and a few beers. I looked at the piece and tried to decide what it was going to be about. I came up with a few wild yarns and committed to one of them. The problem was going to be my lack of anything resembling a poker face. I decided to compensate by holding my hand over my lower face in shame.
Crit day came and we all posted our prints. In defense of my printmaking instructor and classmates, my etchings were typically rather dark and strange. Looking back, they may have wanted to know what they were about because they feared for their safety or mine. Of course, they were totally wrong; John Wayne Gacy was the one painting clown portraits, not me. I slunked back to my seat and waited.
The first student told us all about her etching. She was a pretty girl who had no business being in art classes. She had had a wonderful dog named Skippy or some such name, back in her childhood, which was really only a few years earlier (It’s funny to think of nostalgic 19 year olds). Skippy had run away or was hit by a garbage truck or something, and the girl missed him. Her print was a poorly drawn picture of a dog. It’s face was asymetrical and the fur looked kind of like it belonged on a sea lion. It was only marginally less trite than the sunset piece she had shown us at the last crit. The instructor had to be wondering why she had pursued an MFA, that maybe she should’ve listened to her father and majored in accounting. None of the criticism the girl received addressed the fact that her dog’s face looked like it was melting or that even if it was incredibly well drawn, it still would only be a picture of a seal-dog. Instead, people talked about how to express the love and the empty pain of loss.
I sat there listening and silently rehearsing my story over and over again in my mind – praying for a poker face.
One of the really talented kids went next and it was hard for anyone to come up with anything to say beyond praising his talent and bravery for addressing his recent problems with bed wetting in such a graphically poetic manner.
The spotlight shifted to me. Great! You never want to directly follow one of the talented ones, because everyone has all kinds of pent up criticism at that point. My saving grace was that my story trumped bed wetting, big time.
“Dave,” the instructor said, “that’s a very intriguing image. What’s the idea behind it?“
“Well, ” I began, unsure if I’d actually be able to get through it. “When I was a kid, there was this lady. She was kind of strange, but my parents are in the theater, so we have some odd people hanging around a lot.” It’s always good to pepper your far-fetched stories with some truth – my parents really were theater folk, but the strangest people I met usually had nothing to do with the summer stock cast of “The King and I”.
I soldiered bravely on after a dramatic pause, “Anyway, this lady always paid more attention to me than to my brothers. She had kind of big hands and her neck was weird. One day, when my parents weren’t around…she..umm…“
I couldn’t go on, I was trying so hard not to smile, that I actually looked like I was holding back tears. The instructor jumped into the fray and started talking about the image and making sure that I didn’t have any more pressure to say anything. The other students were sneaking nervous glances at me then quickly looking back at the print. My long, complicated story about being molested by a transvestite could stay right where it was in my silly head. My classmates took the teacher’s lead and all started talking about the image, and the haunting qualities and spirit of conflict in my lines. The pretty girl with the dead seal-dog even reached over and gently touched my arm as she commented.
I couldn’t believe my ploy had worked so brilliantly! Amateur shrinks love nothing more than having one of their “patients” have a “breakthrough”. My printmaking instructor was beside herself with the power of art and her apparent abilities to help troubled youth confront the demons in their lives with paper and ink. The pretty girl probably thought better of anything more than an arm pat, as I was clearly damaged goods.
I still had to do lots of work creating and refining my prints as I pursued my degree, but I was excused from having to go into detail as to discussing the motives for my images. I was allowed to just talk about the composition and other purely graphic qualities of my stuff. Some newer classmates were undoubtedly quietly briefed by the few who were witness to my truncated tranny story.
I have to admit though, once in a while I’ll glance at one of those old prints and wonder what the hell I really was thinking of when I made it. I’ve settled on the thought that whatever it was, it was likely so horrific that I should keep the memories repressed.