On Becoming An Artist
Why would someone who has had a successful career as a writer, lecturer, professor and
psychotherapist give all of it up to become an artist? The route was long and circuitous, filled with paths that opened unexpectedly, with choices I made that sometimes defied rational understanding. I grew up in a poor, illiterate, single-parent family where food and rent were the primary considerations; art tools, even in the form of a box of crayons, would, if anyone had thought of them, been a luxury beyond consideration. But I was lucky enough to live in New York City when its public schools still knew how to educate non-English speaking children, when teachers and administrators understood that their mission wasn’t only to teach us to read, write and do our sums but to introduce us to a wider range of cultural choices than we could ever get at home or on our teeming streets with their babel of foreign tongues.
I was in the fourth grade when I had my first taste of classical music, during a period of the school day set aside for what the teacher called “music appreciation,” and my first visit to an art museum, when we were taken on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a child living in one of the immigrant ghettoes of the Bronx, Manhattan and its offerings were so far out of consciousness they might as well not have existed. So when we boarded the bus, I had no idea what an art museum was or why anyone would go there. Yet, the moment I entered the Met’s majestic lobby, something stood still inside me. As we walked from gallery to gallery, I heard my teacher’s voice, exhorting us to listen, explaining what we were looking at, but I don’t remember a word she said, only the stillness inside me and the feelings I had as I looked and marveled at the splendor on the walls all around me.
My mother left home for work at six in the morning and didn’t get home until about five in the evening, so when school was out, I was left to roam the streets at will. As I grew a little older and began to explore the world beyond the bounds of my neighborhood, I found that two things in life were free: the city museums, which were open to all comers, no cash needed; and admission to Yankee Stadium on Thursday afternoons when anyone who answered to the word “she” could sit in the bleachers for free. That’s how I became a Yankee fan – until, that is, I came of age and realized it was unseemly for a poor girl to root for a team so awash in riches and winnings and switched my allegiance to the benighted Brooklyn Dodgers.
The sights of the art museum and the feelings they stirred inside me lingered in my memory long after that first visit, and I determined to find a way to go back. The admission-free policy made it possible. By the time I was ten years old, I was saving pennies (or sometimes stealing them from my older brother who delivered orders for the local grocery store) until I had the subway fare – ten cents for the round trip in those days.
Often the dime in my hand produced conflict in my heart: Should I buy the candy I hungered for, a pastry that tempted me in the bakery window, save it for the toy I wanted, go to the movies? Or go downtown to the museum? Either way I won something and lost something. I think now that on those days when I chose the museum, it was as much to feel the stillness inside me, so different from the noise that was my normal internal companion, as to look at the paintings.
My love affair with art museums has been sustained and nourished me throughout my life. Yet it never occurred to me that I could paint. I’d look at the paintings, especially those works that had special meaning to me, try to figure out how the artist had done it, wish with all my heart that I could do something so magical, but was so certain that I had zero talent for this that I never even thought to try. Words were what I was comfortable with, what I knew and, as my various adult careers blossomed, words became the medium for my creative expression. Not that this, too, didn’t seem magical to one who grew up in a family where, except for school texts, neither books, nor magazines, nor newspapers lived in our house.
My early adult years were busy with marriage, family, my low to mid-level job in some office, and political activism. A divorce in 1960 catapulted me from a volunteer in the political world to a professional managing congressional campaigns. Two years later, I remarried and found myself living on the doorstep of the University of California at Berkeley. With a thirteen-year-old daughter who was at school all day, and a husband who urged me on, I entered Berkeley as a freshman and graduated eight years later with a doctorate in Sociology, post-doctoral training in Clinical Psychology, and a contract to turn my doctoral dissertation into my first published book.
Thirty-five years and eleven books later, I was restless, looking for new challenges, for something different, something to reinvigorate the energy that seemed to have slowed in me. I had been talking for years about wanting to paint but between my busy life and my fears, it was nothing but talk. Until two things came together to move me from talk to action. The first was a birthday gift from my grandson and his wife — a set of acrylic paints and a note that said, “If not now, when?”
It seems quite right, given my life and my connection to books, that a book was the second motivator. Every art student knows Betty Edwards, Drawing From the Right Side of the Brain, but I’d never heard of it until I stumbled across it in a book store, read in it with both fascination and skepticism, took it home and, in doing so, took the first giant step in changing my life.
I had never held a paint brush (no, not even to paint a wall) before I took my first painting lesson in August 2004 and have had about forty hours of instruction since then. I’m not studying right now because an artist I respect has urged me to “just paint” – scary advice that also seems just right. For while I have much to learn from a good teacher, in the long run, painting is about doing. And doing, and doing, and doing.
These past few years have been both exhilarating and humbling, as I struggle to find my voice in this new medium. I’m often surprised at what I paint. My writing is direct, forceful, assertive, no hiding behind phrases to obscure or diminish the power of my thoughts or feelings. Yet the paintings present another face – a side that seeks to step away from the reality my words portray and into a less turbulent, more contemplative place where shape and color form the text in which the imagination can wander into heretofore unknown places.
Lillian B. Rubin