An Email that Could Have Been Written by My 16 Year Old Self

Gesture Drawings in Ink

I get emails daily from my blog readers on a diverse range of topics. Everything from questions about what drawing supplies to buy, advice on MFA programs, and concerns about careers in the visual arts.  You name it, I’ve gotten an email about it.

Once in a while, I get an email that is much more than questions.  I recently received an email that I found to be particularly poignant and moving.  I was riveted by this email because I felt that it could have been written by my 16 year old self.   While I admit that my memories of trying to study visual arts in high school still make me boil,  it’s very rewarding to hear that I am filling that same void I experienced 20 years ago for someone today. I always say that no matter how difficult a class I teach is, if I can just reach one person, then that makes it all worth it.   I’m delighted to know that I’d a meaningful impact on one of you in this way.

Here’s the email I received:

“Firstly, I would like to thank you for your blog. It has given me great insight and joy to read about your perspective on art school, teaching, and being a practicing visual artist. Your blog has also given me amazing tips that have helped me build my portfolio. I feel I owe a great deal of my confidence in my work to your writing, so thank you so much.

Secondly, I would like to share my experience in high school art classes. I am much like you described yourself in your blog post. I am withdrawn, shy, and lack confidence. Although I have always excelled in academics, I always have felt like I don’t belong in my school. Since I was little, I could not stop thinking of things to make. I loved every art class I took; I would finish a project and beg to know what the next one would be in order to think of what to make.

As I started my freshman year in high school, I saw that most people thought of artistic people as outsiders, so I felt I shouldn’t do anything artistic anymore. Although I felt I left part of myself behind, I hoped that it might lead to friends or to popularity, but it obviously was not the case. As sophomore year began, I met my Art I and AP Art History teacher. She was a wacky painter that would push you both academically and creatively to the extremes. Because of her, I rediscovered my passion for art and fell in love with the history and study of art. I have been enrolled in her class since junior year, and it has been my escape from everything that makes me anxious or sad.

This summer, I attended the RISD Pre-College program and was inspired by my peers to push my technique and pursue ideas that are outside of the norm. I thank two of my favourite teachers there for believing in my vision, but more importantly, teaching me how to believe in it myself. I have seen a resurrection in my creative process.

 I think the greatest problem in my school is ignominy that comes with being an artist. Because it is a private school in a country outside of the US, most student’s parents are politicians, economists, etc. so creative fields are completely alien to them. I see people every day that are amazingly creative and tremendously talented, but they say that they could never dedicate themselves to a creative field because they want to “have their lives matter.” I find this not only deeply troubling, but also the reason why schools all over the world don’t emphasize the arts so much; because the students don’t take advantage of creative opportunities.

At the high school level, I think an individual’s responsibility is to find what they love and explore it to the best of their abilities, but the reason why people that could be artists don’t pursue it is that the school system does not push the arts. A school should give students the opportunity to study their artistic passions and should promote the development of visual language throughout the curriculum, not only isolated art classes.”

Robert J. Lang Lecture at Brown University

Last week I attended a lecture at Brown University by Robert J. Lang, a renowned origami artist whose work I’ve followed for several years now. The innovations he’s accomplished in origami are breathtaking, but I’ve also been particularly drawn to his work because of the dramatic career shift he made to get to where he is now.  Lang had a long career as a physicist for many years before taking the leap into origami.  I can’t imagine that it would have been easy to be in a scientific field for that long, and then to tell everyone one day that you were going to drop your career to make origami.

I was thrilled when I heard Lang would be speaking at Brown, and I knew immediately exactly what question I wanted to ask him at the lecture during the Q&A: how did he get the guts to transition from being a physicist to being a full-time origami artist? Lang said that he had been working on a book that eventually became “Origami Design Secrets.” He worked on the book on nights and weekends, but realized quickly that if he didn’t drop everything and focus exclusively on this book, that the book would never happen. He also said that he recognized that there would always be plenty of other physicists in the world, many who were much more accomplished than he was, but he felt that he was literally the only person who could write this book. That and having some savings in the bank helped.

That evening as I drove home from the lecture, I ruminated over Lang’s response to my question. I realized how comparable my own circumstances were to Lang’s description of his decision to begin a career in origami.  There will always be a multitude of fine artists out there, many of whom I will never be able to hold a candle to in terms of noteworthy achievements in the field.  I won’t land a paragraph in future art history textbooks, but I really do believe that I am the only one who is capable of doing my new project. Like Lang, my new project is now or never.  That’s a new level of conviction that I haven’t experienced before in my work.

So what is my new project?  Right now I have to stay mum, but I can tell you that the process started back in November 2014, and some major movement has happened in recent weeks. If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been blogging as frequently, this is why. I haven’t had this many late nights since my freshman year at RISD. This project has been exhilarating, stressful, scary, and completely riveting.  The best way I can describe this project is that it’s like having the world’s most delicious piece of cake in your mouth, with a guillotine positioned 2 mm from your neck at the same time. You’re afraid to bite into the cake because at any moment, that guillotine could come down.  For a while, the thought of that guillotine was paralyzing, but I know now that I have to bite down on the cake regardless of my fear.  I might get metaphorically executed, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Stay tuned, much more will be revealed in the next two months.  If all goes well, I’ll have something big and new to show you this upcoming winter. 

College Art Portfolio Video Critiques

Accordion Bookbinding Project

I am now offering individualized video critiques for students working on an art portfolio for art school or college admission. As an adjunct professor at RISD for 9 years, I know what students need to prepare in order to do well at the college level. Through my additional teaching with the RISD Pre-College Program and RISD Project Open Door,  I have helped numerous high school students develop their portfolios for college. If you’re just getting started, I recommend reading this article I wrote about how to prepare a portfolio.

Below is a 30 minute sample of a video critique of a student portfolio for college admission:

Each video critique will:
1) Provide a detailed assessment of your overall art portfolio.
2) Discuss specific concerns on select individual artworks.
3) Highlight what aspects are working well.
4) Recommend concrete strategies for how to make improvements.

I will be honest, constructive, and candid in my critiques. Expect my comments to be tough and forthright. I know that it’s not always easy to hear that you need to make major changes in your artwork, but keep in mind that the objective of the critique is to provide you with an expert opinion of how your portfolio will hold up in the competitive college and art school admissions process.


1) Contact
Email me at clara(at) to express your interest.

2) Payment
The fee for each video critique is $50. I will send you a payment request to your email through Paypal.  You do not need a Paypal account for your payment to be processed, Paypal accepts credit card, cash, or check. Once I receive payment, I will email you to submit your portfolio to me.

3) Submit your artwork
1. Create a folder labeled with your first and last name in Google Drive or DropBox, and then upload 8-20 JPG files into that folder. Please do not submit more than 20 images, if you do, I will select 20 images to critique. If you submit fewer than 8 images, I will not do the critique until you send me 8 images.  If you cannot provide 8 images within 2 weeks of your initial portfolio submission, I will issue you a refund.

2. Label each JPG file with a number. Please format the numbers like this: “001.jpg.” , “002.jpg”, “003.jpg”

3.  Add text to each JPG file with the media and size of the artwork.
Example: “oil on canvas, 18″ x 24.”  In Google Drive, you can add a description to each file. In DropBox, you can add a comment to each file.

4. Share your folder in Google Drive or DropBox to my email, clara(at)  Once you have submitted a portfolio to me that meets the requirements for 8-20 images, your payment becomes non-refundable.

4) Receiving your video critique
1.  I will email you promptly to confirm receipt of your portfolio link.

2. I will aim to complete your video critique within 72 hours, with a guarantee that you will receive it within 1 week.

3. I will send you an email which will grant you access to view the video on Google Drive. Sharing, copying, and downloading of your video will be disabled.

The Right Words at the Right time

Accordion Bookbinding Project

One of my students at RISD once wrote on their self-critique, “Art is hard.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself. When you work professionally as an artist, there are the artistic challenges of creating the artwork, but on top of that, you have to build a very thick skin to handle the constant bombardment of rejection, and be incredibly tenacious despite difficult circumstances.  From my point of view, creating the artwork is the “easy” part of being a visual artist.

For me, the greatest struggle is when my confidence in my work wavers. Some days, I feel empowered and confident, my artistic vision is crystal clear, and my work ethic and energy is boundless. Other days, I feel overwhelmed, terribly discouraged, and have no faith in myself. You would think after almost two decades, I would have figured out a permanent solution, but I don’t think that one exists.

Last week I had one of those moments, my current project is an enormous investment and risk, probably the biggest I’ve taken on in my career. (I can’t reveal more at this point, hopefully soon!) Unlike my previous work, where I could take responsibility for the entire project, this project involves other people, so it’s a completely different dynamic that I’m not used to. I know that fundamentally, I am extremely passionate about this project, but it’s very nerve wracking to put in so much commitment and labor into something that might go nowhere.  I knew that I had to find a way to maintain my enthusiasm and optimism despite the constant threat of failure that loomed over me.

I wrote to one of my friends, Gina Perry, who is a children’s book illustrator and expressed my fears and anxieties to her.  She said that my situation sounded very similar to children’s book publishing, where you have no choice but to pour in hundreds of hours of unpaid work before you see a contract.  Her words to me were:  “You don’t achieve big things without that type of investment and risk.”

download (1)
Illustration by Gina Perry

Her words really resonated in that moment, especially because I know that she has years of experience, deep in the trenches, dealing with rejection, chasing her artistic goals.  Now I have a sticky note on my desktop with her words. When I feel my confidence sinking, that sticky note lifts me up.


Visual artists have to learn to live with uncertainty and still be willing to take intimidating risks despite the lack of guarantees.  As a reaction to this, I frequently crave any moment in my life where something is guaranteed.  I love baking because I know that if I buy the required ingredients, follow the recipe exactly as written, that in the end, I’ll definitely have muffins to eat.  Unless the recipe is bad, or I make some really stupid mistake, those muffins are guaranteed. Sometimes being a visual artist is like doing all of those tasks, but then every time you open the oven, all you find is a pile of ashes. Gina got me back on track last week, and I’m hoping that sometime in the near future, there will be muffins when I open my oven.

RISD Health +

I’m featured on the new RISD site, “Health +”, which represents a group of RISD faculty members “who are engaged in health and healthcare issues, as demonstrated by their work as professional artists, writers, designers, and educators.”


What was your experience learning visual art in high school?

Charcoal Drawings of Bones

Visual art has always been the most compelling force throughout my entire life that I could always turn to, no matter how tough times were.  My desire to draw as a child was insatiable, and I relished every weekly art class in elementary school.

In high school, I found myself with meager options to study visual art.  I was a decent academic student, but I was not a star athlete, the two areas that were glorified by the other students. Socially, I was awkward, shy, isolated, and always felt out of place.  Visual art was the thing I knew I was good at, the only subject I deeply enjoyed.  For all the other students, art class was a joke, the class you took when you wanted an easy A. The art teachers I had were incompetent, and consequently, the art classes were remedial and pathetic. Basically, I had to teach myself.

I felt alone, lost, and embarrassed by my interest in visual art. Other students were studying classical music with world renowned musicians at places like the New England Conservatory Preparatory school, and I heard constantly about students who were being sent to prestigious, national soccer tournaments.  For me, there was no equivalent in the visual arts. And this was at an excellent public school in an affluent neighborhood, I can’t imagine circumstances are any better at most other schools.

From speaking to my students, it upsets me to find out that the situation is exactly the same as it was twenty years ago for me. The vast majority of high school students who want to learn visual art are on their own.

So today, I want to hear from you:  what was/is your experience learning visual art in high school? Are you on your own like I was?  What would have helped you?  Comment below, or email me at clara(at) 

If all goes well,  I might be taking direct action on your suggestions sometime in the very near future!

Charcoal Drawings of Bones

I’ve become the absent-minded professor

Charcoal Drawings of Bones

When I first started teaching at the college level in 2005, I remember staunchly pledging to myself that I was going to eternally remember and appreciate every single student I ever had.  Nothing bothered me more as a student than when professors didn’t take the time to get to know each student as a unique individual.

Now it’s ten years later, and I find myself walking around the RISD campus, bumping into students who wave and call out my name.  Once in a while I remember a student’s name, but more often than not, I have to wave back and just say “Hello” without a name.  All I can think to myself is: “I totally know you were my student, but I can’t remember your name, or what semester I had you.”

Obviously, that pledge I initially made is long gone. When I contemplate the sheer number of students I’ve taught in one decade, the numbers are dizzying. The other day I was looking at my grade archives, and I’ve now taught 25 classes of Freshman Drawing at RISD, (20 students per class) and that’s not counting all the other courses I’ve taught in the Illustration Department, the Printmaking Department, and the three other schools I taught at before.  I’m at the point now where I’ve had so many students that if you’re not in my class right now, it’s pretty much guaranteed I won’t remember your name. (and if you shave your head and/or dye your hair, there’s no chance)

I casually told this to a student once, and so he asked me how he could get me to remember him.  I told him that he would have to pull some totally outrageous stunt in class, or, be extraordinarily amazing or terrible in some manner. That semester, he put himself on a personal mission to cement himself into my brain. Final Crit

He succeeded, and I will never, ever forget him.  He performed the most precise impersonation of my critiquing style for the entire class one day to hysterical laughter from the other students.  I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard in my entire life. He had all of my physical mannerisms, hand movements, the right phrases and vocabulary, the correct intonation of my voice, and the facial expressions down to an exact science. (apparently, there’s a point in crits where he says that I “go in for the kill” by bending my knees, lunging my body forward, and pointing my finger at the drawing) Let’s just say that I learned things about my physical movements that I never knew before. Teaching certainly does expose you to a high level of scrutiny in a way that other professions do not!