This week has been packed with final crits in my Freshman Drawing classes at RISD. I’m always amazed that as much as things have change, some things remain fundamentally the same. Every May, I see the same emotions that I experienced as a freshman in my students. My students are deeply immersed in their experience right now, so it’s impossible for them to get any perspective on their freshman year because it’s too close to them. I, on the other hand, have had 17 years to ruminate on my freshman year at RISD, and it got me thinking about my answer to a question a student asked me during a Q&A on the last day of class: “What do you want us to take away from our freshman year?”
My answer to that question is that even though I demand that my students invest tremendous time and effort into creating and critiquing their artwork freshman year, ultimately, it is not the artwork that is most significant. In fact, I stress to my students that within a year or two, the final projects they worked on this week won’t matter to them. Some might see that as a negative outlook, but I see it as being positive: if that final project isn’t important to you later on, it means that you’ve moved on to greater things.
I describe to my students where the artwork from my freshman year went: some of it I sold at open studios events or at a yard sale, some of it went into the recycle bin, some of it to the garbage, there is one pile of newsprint drawings packed into a portfolio sitting in the back of a closet in my house, and there are two plaster sculptures that are sitting on my fireplace mantle.
So if the artwork ultimately doesn’t matter, what does? It’s the thinking strategies, the work ethic, and the mindset that you can carry with you for the rest of your life. My greatest hope for my students is that after finishing freshman year, they feel empowered and completely capable of dealing with anything that gets thrown at them. After my freshman year, I felt like I had gone to hell and back. As difficult as freshman year could be at times, nothing intimidated me anymore. I knew that no matter how challenging the circumstance was, I would find a way to handle it. Today, I know that I will never miss a deadline, and if there is any doubt in my mind that I might not meet a deadline, I simply say no. Freshman year at RISD stretched me to extremes that I didn’t even know existed, and I developed an acute understanding of just how far I could push myself. These are the qualities that I use every day.