3 Important Life Lessons
My mom recently moved and I went to visit her new home last weekend. Next to the door she had put a large zip portfolio… one I haven’t seen in 20 years… in it, my artwork.
I had a very influential art teacher in high school, Mr. John Kavalos. His class taught me two important concepts that I carry with me to this day:
1. How to find myself amongst people- some of whom already know themselves and others who are so naturally talented in the most innate form that they can take on any assignment with ease.
2. How to give and receive constructive criticism.
In high school, didn’t know who I was in any sense of the term; I think there are very few at that age who actually do. I was shocked to even have been accepted into his AP class, 1 of ~7 total. I think I received a C the first quarter… I deserved it. He set the bar based on my potential. He taught me how to find myself and he taught my classmates how to support that idea amongst each other.
I floundered for months, trying to complete assignments to perfection — to be accurate and literal in my delivery. Once a week, we would put our progress up on a large white wall, securing it carefully in the corners with push-pins. Then we would all sit down and Mr. Kavalos would moderate a critique, addressing each person’s work. We all commented on our thoughts and feelings…the good, the bad, the ugly. It stayed in that room and was never taken personally. Mr. Kavalos was exceptional at teaching us the difference between a personal insult and a constructive criticism, especially when it gets as personal as your own creation.
I slowly gained confidence and began exploring in mediums that made sense to me… in ways that made sense to me. I stopped trying to copy my peers and started doing something that felt good. It resulted in progressively positive feedback from my mentor and my peers, with the ultimate culmination…THE art show.
Each of us had a cubby and those cubbies were our sacred spaces. No one infiltrated them and they were kept very private, behind the main classroom, in a subset of a hallway-type area. On the day of the show, we would hang out work in our cubbies, our art home, as we wanted them to be seen, and the public would come to walk through our classroom. But, to us, it was our most intimate and respected space turned gallery. A look into our souls were hanging on those walls.
The process it took me to get to that point was long, emotional, confusing, and scary. I had so much self-doubt and rode the wave of my peers’ constructive criticisms. I kept doing my thing, thanks to them and Mr. Kavalos. It resulted in this experimental drawing, which spans about 24”x36” and in color instead of charcoal (my preferred medium). Many other drawings I held in higher esteem. Yet 20 years later, I look at it differently. At the time, all I saw was its flaws. I truly found this piece of work ugly. I wanted to rip it up. I was embarrassed with its imperfections. It seems Mr. Kavalos has taught me a third lesson: Perspective.
This drawing is far from ugly. It is not perfect but it is beautiful and that’s what makes it intriguing. It is sharp and interesting…it’s a documentation of my growth. Ironically, both then and now.
I planned to be an artist. I wanted to be a cinema makeup artist, creating and completing transformations of actors into glorious renditions of their character. I stopped drawing in college after being discouraged by some harsh (non-constructive) criticism in an intro art class… I honestly haven’t drawn since.
Drawing is a double-edged sword for me. It taps into a part of me that allows me patience with my process, as I know the final outcome is what I envision and it’s mine to control. However, the outcome I envision isn’t always what it becomes. In the moment, I am saddened by this outcome. I am discouraged with my talent. But now, 20 years removed, I see the past and the present as fluid. I have not changed in my drive, but I have changed in my understanding of and for perspective. So, I try to look at myself as I am right now, in this very moment, yet also 20 years ahead doing really beautiful work in which I am honored to say is mine.
We are truly our own harshest critics. It took me seeing a twenty year old drawing to help me really understand how hard I am on myself in any present moment. I focus on the flaws and what needs to be improved upon instead of taking a step back and admiring the beauty. We have all be told time and time again to “enjoy the moment” and “hindsight is 2020” and a million other cliche statements, but what if we were to see the present as our future selves?
In eighth grade, I went to the Philadelphia museum and this quote by Eugene Delacroix resonated with me, so I wrote it down and have kept it safe ever since. It’s startling to me that even at fourteen years old, I felt pressure to be a certain way. I wrote this quote down not really knowing why, but now I get it. Delacroix provides me a reminder that the beauty of being oneself is to be imperfect and enjoy the life from your own perspective: “For enjoyment to be perfect, one needs memory to complete it and unfortunately, we cannot both enjoy and remember a pleasure at the same time. That would be to add the ideal to the real. Memory isolates the delightful moment or creates the necessary illusion.”
(In indebted honor of the late Mr. John Kavalos: The Numina Gallery is managed by a group of dedicated and creative students at Princeton High School who plan and curate artistic, historical, and academic exhibits. Numina — Latin for “sacred space”- was the first student-run professional art gallery in the nation. In 2000, it was created from an abandoned storage area at Princeton High School with the help of faculty advisor John Kavalos. It has continued to exist as an independently funded, non- profit alternative space.)