Thank you for loving me, even though I'm prickly sometimes. Happy Valentine's Day!
When I was in college, I did what I loved. I was a Studio Art and Art History double major and I loved both pursuits equally; so equally, in fact, that it became confusing for me as junior and senior years approached. I felt I had to choose one or the other. If I followed the path into the art world, would I lose art history? I loved pouring over books and had times when I felt so ecstatic in front of paintings at at exhibits or at museums that I thought I would swoon. Somehow I told myself that as an artist I would lose the history but as an art historian, I'd still have time for art. I decided to go to graduate school in Art History. I accepted a scholarship at Penn State University, where I was mentored by incredible professors in many fields. They loved what they did: teaching. With teaching, came mentoring. And they loved that part even more. But I had very little time for art with reading hundreds of pages of scholarship a week and trying to wrestle into submission a reading knowledge of German and a speaking knowledge of Italian.
I began my Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, and did not draw once in a year. Then I was forced to transfer schools when my scholarship was cut after my advisor left to go to the University of Pennsylvania. I reapplied there. I was counseled not to mention that I had a background in studio art:"They won't think you are serious; there is a reason we call ourselves 'History of Art'; we don't even want to be next to the Art Department. in the directory." I should have listened to the voice in my head that understood how wrong that statement was and gone elsewhere. Instead, I added my background to my application anyway and was accepted despite that fact. I had to retake my master's exam, which I had passed 18 months before, and retake classes to prove my prior education was up to "Ivy" snuff. It was. I passed again. Feeling those years of my life draining away, I started to draw again to stop myself from quitting. It worked.
But soon there wasn't time for that, either, once I began to prepare for doctoral exams and then the dissertation. I injured my right rotator cuff, making it impossible to draw for nearly a year. My health went downhill. Though I went and studied abroad, my health had already started to tank. I gained weight. I had a surgery. My blood pressure shot through the roof, and then my stomach became paralyzed due to the BP meds. I felt like these nine years would kill me, and that was no exaggeration. I was deeply unhappy.
I told myself only one thing to get through the last mountainous, rocky hurdle of the dissertation: "Jessica, you can do whatever you like once you finish." That meant taking time to draw whether or not it would make me look like I wasn't serious: because someone who completes nine years of higher education isn't in it for a lark. I graduated and left Philadelphia. I got a job in a small town and my blood pressure went down. By day, I taught wonderful students to love art history as I did at the beginning, unencumbered by stress and pressure and people telling me that I couldn't. I drew by night. I got married and moved to NYC.
And I kept drawing. I drew to save myself again from the pressure of four classes at three schools. I drew because it made me feel like me. And I haven't stopped yet. Sitting at my studio, lost in a world of magic and dreams, breathing in the smell of graphite and pencil shavings, I am myself again. Whole. Creative. Smart. And happy, happy to be alive. Moreso, it makes me excited to grow old because I know I never will actually feel that way, thanks to busy hands and mind, God willing.
The importance of doing what I love did not mean I threw away every life raft I had to scurry after a pipe dream. I did not give up my day job; I don't want to. Instead, I scratched it out in between lectures and exams with courage, gumption, and the desire to do it, not giving a damn what others think. I slowly built up an online shop and a name for myself. I got studio art commissions that I never thought I would when I chose the path for art history. I recently have started working with an art dealer in NYC. I am working on my first children's book dummies. My pictures now hang in homes across North America and four other continents.
None of these beautiful things, these little pearls of happiness, would have happened if I did not believe that I needed to be who I was made to be in order to make it through this life. My first memories are tied up in scribbles and sketchpads; how could I have ever thought to leave that behind? In taking those first steps toward those tiny shreds of happiness, I hope that I have re-forged the direction of my life. Ironically, it was the art that healed me as a person and as a teacher. This semester, I am teaching three art history classes and I have a loyal cohort of students who appreciate the entire package of me. Though I had never taught them studio art, they still bring me their art and ask for my advice. One student even came and sat with me on a 90 degree day for several hours at an art show and proudly introduced me as his favorite professor to each of my customers looking to buy my prints. This semester, I have come full circle: I am also teaching an illustration class for the first time, something I never thought I would ever do. I feel blessed.
The importance of doing what I love--even part of the time--is so great that I believe it saved my life, or at least it gave me my life back again. So please, don't be afraid to try. It might make all the difference in the world. And honestly, what is there to lose?