HOW I DIDN’T BECOME AN ARTIST

an interview with myself by
CAROLYN SWARTZ


When did you first realize you weren’t an artist?

Hard to say because as a kid, I was always drawing—on cardboard that came in my father’s folded shirts from the cleaners, on lined pads, newspapers and magazines—just about anything, really, except for walls, which was expressly forbidden. When I was 8, my mother entered drawings of mine in a kids’ contest in the Boston Globe and they got published.

So you could draw pretty well?

Yes. Somehow my brain, basically lacking in math and organizational skills, could easily decode and reproduce lines, shapes, volume and contours. So I could create reasonable likenesses of family, friends, pets and household objects. My mother once looked at a portrait I’d done of her and called me a “cruel” artist.

Were you?

Well, the “cruel” part, yes. But not the “artist.” But I kept drawing, graduating in high school from No. 2 pencils and Pink Pearl erasers to charcoal, Conté crayons and pastels. Then, when I was applying to college, I found out about a scholarship for girls from my hometown going to a four-year college, majoring in studio art.

What? That’s crazy!

Crazy, but the only way my family could afford a private college. I was a snob, so that kind of clinched it for me. But as an art major, I was only interested in doing figurative work, which wasn’t seen as cool or edgy. I wanted to be cool, of course. So I got edgy by using my work to elicit a reaction of outrage.

How so?

My senior thesis project was an ambitious sculpture inspired by the Paris-born Venezuelan-American sculptor Marisol (1930-2016). It was constructed of wooden boxes, one on top of the other, to which I applied paint and collage materials. It was about life-size, and as you walked around it you saw a man and a woman, back to back, engaged in what would now politely be referred to as phone sex.

What was the collage part?

The guy was wearing (only) a real Grand Ole Opry T-shirt and he had a two by two for a ... oh, never mind.

And did your desire to outrage succeed?

Hell, yes. Just before commencement, as senior art majors were mounting exhibits for graduation weekend, the administration got wind of my piece. They knew parents would be touring the arts center and forbade me to show it. My professors—the art faculty—saw that as an act of censorship: an assault on academic freedom. They told the administration that if I couldn’t show my work, they wouldn’t show theirs. I sat back, bemused by the controversy I’d created with no greater artistic ambition that ruffling a few feathers.

How did it turn out?

The administration acquiesced. My work was prominently displayed in the rotunda of the building. A few parents were offended. But most saw the humor in it.

So you majored in art, you graduated with a degree in art, and then what?

Right after college I joined a band.

You became a musician?

No! My brain could decode harmony, melody and rhythm the way it could decode what I saw. But having a skill is different from being an artist.

Please explain.

Being an artist is a calling. It comes from a drive, a compulsion, a need to use your medium to express what can’t be expressed in any other way. What happened to me was that I started writing songs and performing them. My songs weren’t love songs or protest songs—they were stories.

You started to see yourself as a storyteller?

Let’s say I went on to become a writer and filmmaker, two labels I’m OK with.

And that infamous sculpture: Where is it today?

It sat in my mother’s basement for about eight years. When she decided to sell the house, my then-boyfriend and I disassembled it, loaded it into the back of his station wagon, drove to the town dump and tossed it, piece by piece into the giant maws of a compactor.

Any regrets?

None. That piece served its purpose. And it’s a good reminder of how I didn’t become an artist.

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