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Painting Saved My Life

I’m not a trained artist. I didn’t go to art school, nor was I raised in a family of artists. I learned the fundamentals of art in public school. Thank you, New York City Board of Education, for allowing (some) students to receive (some) art education. Students who struggled with reading and math were not allowed to take art classes because they had to spend that time doing remedial work. Even as a child I knew this was unfair, and felt guilty about being able to take music and art. I hope things are different now. I hope educators understand that learning about music and art can breathe life into the experiences of children in school. Experiential learning can imprint information and develop skill in profound ways. I would not have enjoyed school as much had I not been able to explore these other subjects.

Art offerings at my small, catholic high school were skim, but I took a class whenever my schedule permitted it and it did not interfere with honors and AP classes. My parents were making sacrifices to send me there, they were investing in my future, and I needed to “make it count”. Only one of the art classes I took during that time was memorable: The printmaking class. I was given sharp tools and instructed to gouge the surface of a linoleum tile. It was very exciting, and I inflicted many cuts on my hands. I think I made a print of flowers in a vase, but what I remember most was using the tools, and the cuts on my fingers.

My most formative art classes were the ones I took in undergraduate school: Intro to drawing, and Intro to painting. It was my first experience building a frame, stretching my own canvas, drawing a live model, and doing critiques. I loved it so much. Thirty years later, I have the still life of apples that I painted freshman year, hanging in my kitchen. The possibility of majoring in art did never crossed my mind. My parents were working-class immigrants, and I was on significant financial aid. It was a privilege I could not afford myself. So I put away my paint brushes, and focused on other subjects.

Life went on and I did all the things: I went to graduate school, got a job, got married, had children, and on and on. I occasionally thought about my art supplies, but at the time, with small children, a full-time job, and a household to run, taking time to do art felt like an indulgence and I pushed the thought aside. I often engaged the children in arts and crafts and was able to scratch my creative itch that way, without feeling guilty.

At age 35, I found myself going through a contentious divorce, after a difficult marriage, and faced the prospect of being the primary caretaker and custodial parent of my two children, ages 4 and 10, while continuing to work full-time. No matter what the statistics say, divorce carries a stigma, and I felt it. Fear, anxiety, and isolation plagued me during this time. On the weekends, when the children visited their father, I didn’t know how to deal with being alone. Then I remembered the box of art supplies. Now I had the time. It took some effort to psychologically prepare myself to put pencil to paper and paint to canvas after so many years. In fact, I felt paralyzed.

Determined to work through all of my feelings in the wake of the divorce, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. One day as I was picking up mail, I saw information tacked on a bulletin board by an art teacher looking for students. I called the number. Under the tutelage of Frannie Schwab I slowly gained back my confidence in painting, and in life. I spent long weekend mornings or afternoons painting side by side with her in her studio, and before long I was channeling all of my thoughts and emotions through the paintbrush.

Sometimes I feel like I’m in a trance when I paint, and when I step back and look at my work I think, did I just do that? The process always feels a little magical to me. My paintings are very personal. I will never sell my first paintings. They were my witnesses, and precious confidants during a painful time, and yet I want to share them with others. So that’s what you get when you buy one of my prints: Something precious, all my emotions, and a little bit of magic.

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