Returning to teach for the RISD Pre-College program this summer has me reminiscing about my own experience as a pre-college student, way back in the summer of 1993. Despite the many years I’ve worked as a professional artist and professor, I still look back on those 6 weeks as the most pivotal moment in my career as an artist.
High school was a dreadful, humiliating experience for me. I was intensely angry and depressed, with no outlet in sight. I was told by many adults that high school would be the “time of my life,” which was more salt to the wound. If the “time of my life” meant having a hideously low self-esteem, being emotionally manipulated by my friends, and overwhelming feelings of isolation, what could I possibly have to look forward to? Today, whenever I teach high school students, the one message I always make sure to leave my students with is “it gets better.”
The public high school I went to worshiped students who excelled in athletics and academics. If you didn’t fit into these two categories, you basically didn’t matter. The art classes at my high school were pathetic. Most of the students who enrolled in the art classes were just looking for easy course credit. On top of that, the head of the art department was extremely adversarial towards me. My senior year, I volunteered to organize a major student art exhibition, (which had never been done before) only to have it killed by the head of the art department. The following year, after I had graduated, guess who organized a student art exhibition? I was livid when I found out.
Then, the summer of my junior year my parents let me attend the RISD Pre-College program. Suddenly, I was plunged into this extraordinary artistic community and environment. I was in complete disbelief that a place like RISD could exist in the world. I saw my own passion for art in the other students, and fostered friendships, many which remain today. I treasured every minute of my classes, and worked on my homework assignments with feverish enthusiasm. The teachers I had took me seriously and treated me with respect and understanding. I remember the first thing my design teacher said to me was “You work with such conviction!” For the first time in my life, I wasn’t a freak anymore.
That’s not to say that the program was a cake walk. I hated my painting teacher for the first 4 weeks of the program because he didn’t automatically shower me with praise. (we eventually bonded in the last 2 weeks) There were many late nights working in the studio. I will admit to being jealous of other students’ abilities and having to confront the cold, hard fact that I was no longer “the best.” Despite all of these challenges, the bottom line was that the program had fundamentally changed my life forever.
When the program ended, I was devastated. My friends and I spent the last night crying. I couldn’t accept that I had to return to high school. When I came back to high school, I was still angry and frustrated, but I was also different. RISD Pre-College had given me a glimpse of what my life could be like. I held onto that glimpse, and it gave me the strength to get through that final year of high school. I stopped caring about what other people thought, kept in close contact with my pre-college friends, and went full speed ahead with my artwork. In January of 1994, I was accepted into the RISD undergraduate program, and the rest is history.
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