Shortly after I moved back to Chicago, I ran into a man/boy I used to know.
We discovered I was moving to his neighborhood and made a date to meet for coffee. Instead, we got dinner. The conversation was fun and easy and flowed. And when the bill came, he picked it up and said, “I’ve got it. Welcome home, Lesley.”
He drove me to my apartment, “Mrs. Robinson” playing on the radio. I laughed to myself. I am eight years older than he. I wasn’t sure if it was a date or not.
Kind of like my Artist’s Date – my third – this past week.
The plan was to go on Wednesday – between massage gigs. First stop, Blick Art Supplies, followed by a trip to the Art Institute. I bought myself a gift membership in November. The 20 percent discount offered on Cyber Monday had me paying just over $5 a month. I haven’t been there once since my membership card arrived in the mail.
Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way, suggests two hours or more for one’s weekly Artist Date. However, my massage schedule filled up and I found myself with only a little more than an hour to myself. I opted for Blick, painfully aware I would not have allowed this to happen on a “real” date – meaning a date with another person. I would have held this time sacred.
Once inside, I immediately felt panicky and overwhelmed.
I remembered working at an art-supply store at 12 Oaks Mall in Novi, Michigan the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I thought it would be the coolest job ever. It wasn’t. I sold a lot of framing jobs. And mostly, I felt like an impostor.
I wasn’t as naturally gifted as the others who worked there … or so I believed. And yet, I recall seeing the handy work of just one of the other employees – Doug. He was quiet and kept to himself. He had a penchant for airbrushes and purple planets.
Also, I was no longer an art major. The summer before, under the guidance (read: strong suggestion) of my parents – the benefactors of my college education – I switched from a fine arts to a journalism major. The rationale being journalism was a more practical education than art. I was a good writer. And I could have an emphasis in photojournalism. (Never mind that its application of film and camera seemed diametrically opposed to that of my dream – working as a fashion photographer.)
I had long imagined myself in the shmata (Yiddish for “rag”) trade – initially as a designer. I sketched ensembles in 11th grade Humanities class and passed them on to Rachel Plecas and Karen Howard for their nod. That same year my mother connected me with her friend Marge who taught me how to sew. Or more accurately, took me through a sewing project. Together we made a skirt – with buttons. Advanced skills.
I didn’t seem to have the exacting patience for sewing. Or for most of my art classes. My ceramics were sloppy. Beautiful on the outside only. The bottoms of my platters and the insides of my slab-built boxes were “unfinished.” In jewelry class I spent as much time buying saw blades as I did anything else, constantly snapping and breaking mine. It was only in Ms. Ciotti’s photography class that I found home.
I loved setting up the studio lights and shooting in black and white. I loved reaching into the change bag, popping open the film canister with a bottle opener and rolling film on to metal reels. I loved holding the long strips up to the light after they had been developed to see what I had – even when they came out milky because I hadn’t loaded the reels properly and the film stuck together.
I loved the smell of the chemicals in the dark room and its dim lights. How I could alter bad shooting by good printing, burning and dodging. I loved hanging the shiny 8X10 paper on clothes pins to dry. It was an art form with fast-ish results and more immediate gratification than most. How I saw the world determined much of my success.
When I moved my files from the ivy-covered Kresge Art Building, which sat unassuming along the Red Cedar River, across campus to the modern College of Communication Arts and Sciences Building, I was certain I had sold out. That I was no longer an artist. I questioned if I had ever been one at all. For if I had, how could I have “agreed” to this plan?
I punished myself for years, saying a “real artist” would not have attended a Big 10 university paid for by her parents. She would have taken out loans or applied for grants and scholarships to go to art school. I cringed, recalling receiving the print catalogue from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California, fingering its salmon-colored cover and knowing I would never go there. I wondered out loud if I loved creating art or just the idea of being an artist. As if it mattered. But mostly, I just stopped making anything at all.
That summer, working at the art-supply store, I felt guilty and ashamed by my complicity. But I told no one. And so no one could tell me that I was a kid. That I made the best choice I knew how at the moment. No one could let me off the hook. Least of all, myself.
Walking into Blick on my Artist’s Date, I felt that familiar flood of shame. Mixed with excitement and a dose of overwhelm.
I stopped at card stock and envelopes first – thinking I might make cards again. For years I sent my friends and family mini “vision-boards” in the mail, honoring their birthdays and anniversaries. They were always met with delight. My friend Kimmy even asked that I make her one.
I looked at beautiful papers laid over wooden rods and sold “by the each.” I wanted to scoop them up and take them home, but wondered what I might do with them. I picked up expensive notebooks and wondered why they cost so much. Upstairs I looked at stencils of birds. Pads of paper. Pastels.
I located the Modge Podge I needed for pasting words and images on my collage cards. I looked at brushes, trying to determine which would be best for the job. I chose a nylon, round “wonder white” 12. The description reading “good for all mediums.”
I fingered guaches and sets of block watercolors. I put a package of 20 Staedtler triplus fineliners into my handbasket. Expensive. I wondered if I really needed them. Out of the basket. Back into the basket. I remembered buying the same set in Oakland years ago and that I used them faithfully until they dried up – writing entries in my gratitude journal each night. A different color for each gratitude.
I dropped in a package of origami papers from Japan. Thin, brown butcher paper stamped with dragon flies, water lilies and butterflies in varying shades of red, orange, green and blue. I had no idea how I might use them, but I liked them. And at $4.89 they were a frivolous luxury I could afford.
I looked at colored pencils and supply boxes and recalled that once upon a time I owned all of these things. Some I had bought that summer at the art supply store. Others were accumulated over the years, in spurts of faith and sometimes drunkenness, when I dared fancy myself an artist. Or even a wanna-be artist.
I gave away my brushes. My paints. Crayons. Pencils. Scissors. Canvas boards. I put them in a box and gave them to my friend Michelle who teaches “Art for the Soul” classes just outside of Seattle. I didn’t think there was room in the car when I moved back to Chicago. Room for them? Or room for me – to create again, no matter how sloppy, unskilled, uneducated?
I smiled at the craft project kits for children and remembered the ones I received as gifts when I was less than 10. I lingered in front of the bird stencils again. Love birds, facing one another. Beak to beak. Painfully sweet and dear. I thought they might work nicely with some colored pencils. I looked into my basket and told my child artist “another day.” But not, “no.”
My bill came to a little more than $50, and I wondered if I was doing this right – this Artist’s Date. I wondered, am I supposed to be spending money? Is it even possible to do this “wrong?” I constantly think I am “doing it wrong.” Whatever “it” is. It’s an old refrain.
I decided it wasn’t unreasonable to imagine I might spend $50 on a date. That’s a nice meal for two. Admission to a museum and cake and coffee for two. Besides, last week I was a cheap date – a matinee for $5.75.
I thought about how my heart pounded as I perused the aisles. Was it fear that someone would find me out? Know I was an impostor? Or was I delighted, excited and thrilled at the possibilities in front of me? Once upon a time, only the possibilities of men tickled me this way. But now I was enchanted by the pretty colors, tidy packages and thoughts of “what can I make with this?”
I walked to work pretty clear one hour isn’t long enough for an Artist’s Date. I was only getting started.
That night when I got home, I finished. A collage card for a friend – the first I’d made in years. I hope he likes it.