Adventures in the Life of a Failed Artist

For years, I spent most of my time in thinking, writing, rethinking, spending free time in heady enterprises like deep conversations. But drawing allows me to rest my mind a bit and focus on a shadow, a bright speck of light, a curve of a line, or where two silhouettes intersect. Last Spring, I took an 8 week course at the UCAL. It was an enjoyable experience where I got to use a different part of my brain for once. In some ways, my new artist utensils remind me of opportunities lost and my own personal failures. Maybe this was a gift I that I let flounder and sadly I have to chalk it up to circumstance. Back then, gifted Black girls were never tracked to be artists or even deep thinkers. We were groomed to be engineers, by becoming funneled into programs like MESA.  Distracted, overwhelmed and the on the receiving end of my non-Black classmates discrimination in Physics and Trig, I knew I was destined to become a piss poor engineer.  I slipped into delinquency, high school fights, and general despair. Plus my mother thought I’d be a terrible teacher because I was impatient. I went from the who’s who list to the who’s who of students with multiple talents that didn’t live up to expectations.

School was a miserable place for me, ever since I moved from Trenton and began kindgergarten in a predominantly white schools in the South Bay. But I was curious and loved to write and draw. Ever since I was a toddler, I used to sketch and draw in my mother’s address books. My drawing and story telling in brought me to the attention of my fourth grade teacher. I don’t know if my mother still has the story I wrote, but it was my take on the “Lord of the Flies,” basically the survival techniques of a young Black girl on a desert Island. My teacher recommended that I get tested and following those results I got to escape the dreary loneliness of Kathryn Hughes Elementary school into a world where we played with different shapes and and embarked on odd and nonsensical projects. It didn’t matter that my classmates were socially awkward because they were nerds. I thought I went to this special place because I was different, Black and didn’t think like everybody else. I didn’t think I was so smart, just odd like the other students at GATE. Over time, my teachers expected me to achieve and often accused me of wasting my potential.

I can remember some of those drawings I did from second to sixth grade. I remember the picture I drew of what I hoped I would become when I grew up. I drew my long hair perfectly feathered like Heather Locklear’s on T.J. Hooker. Even though I had my father’s flat nose, I constantly drew an adult me with an aquiline nose with a strong bridge like my mother’s. I remember thinking back resenting my pictures that I drew and how they reflected the low self image I developed after moving into multi-ethnic Santa Clara where Black was a slim majority.

I continued to write stories and draw pictures, often pictures of people’s photographs from time to time. I’ve often regretted that my artistic talents were never really developed. I was tracked so early in high school and I struggled under the weight of science requirements for university admissions and the petty and sometimes deadly violence at a high school that was more like a volatile mix of working class Mexican Americans, Blacks, whites, bloods, mormons, nortenos, rogues, vietnamese gangs, republicans, stoners, jocks, track athletes, and debutantes. I was able to squeeze in one elective art class and an AP art history class. Eventually my college hopes dwindled, and I ended up finishing my last year at a continuation school only to walk triumphantly with my high school class.

I continued to draw things on my own during my community college years, but after a brief stint of being a hardcore Muslim, I burned all my pictures of people and animals. I didn’t pick up a pencil or a pen for years. Nearly a decade later, I took another art class as a return student at Santa Clara University in 2003. It was mostly still life. And my only Black American teacher there noted my work as I captured light and darks on a still life featuring a pineapple. With the help of a some engineering tips, my final project of a japanese garden turned out near perfect. I still consider it my best work to date. Sadly, most of my early work was lost between moves and the instability of being a wayfaring graduate student.

I don’t know why it is so hard for me to pick up the charcoal on my own. There’s something about a structured class and a place where you can let the dust fly everywhere without worrying about it staining the white walls and sullying the vacuumed carpet. I know I will never be a great artist, I think that window closed a long time ago somewhere when I was sketching distorted pictures of my classmates on junior high notebooks. But I enjoy it nonetheless. I hope you rediscover a love and reignite an old flame. You only fail if you never try,

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