My art history would not be complete without revisiting high school – however cringe-inducing it might be.
I started grade 9 in 1995.
Even though I’m talking about my past in the context of my artistic development, any walk down memory lane would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the glaring awkwardness. So let’s get it out of the way. I look back on my old photos from high school and I sincerely wonder, what on earth was I thinking? At the same time, I remind myself that it was such a different time from now. Just to give you an idea, the week I started high school the number one song on the radio (because we listened to the radio!) was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”, and Friends was the most popular show on television. We all wore jeans, white t-shirts, and plaid button-downs over-top, sometimes tied around our waists. We all thought we were sooooo cool – even me! Pant waists were still pretty high back then – not total mom jeans but it wasn’t great. Nowadays people wear their high rise pants and feel ironic. Back then we did it because we just didn’t know any better. How could we – we barely had the internet!
I think most people usually just go from elementary school to their feeder high school. I had a few choices. I guess as an alternative to art school or my local high school, my mom actually lined up overnight at an all-girl’s Catholic high school that only did admissions via a lottery – it was really popular with local parents. Suffice it to say my mother put a lot of effort into getting me into this school attached to its very own nunnery.
This seemed like insanity to me. Grade 8 me was totally appalled. I already had my sights set on going to art school anyway. So in the winter of 1994-95 I applied to the Cawthra Park S.S. Regional Arts Program. The admissions process involved a few steps including a portfolio audition – it was all very proper. Two of the art teachers interviewed me, asked to look at my portfolio, and then had me draw a still-life scene for twenty minutes.
I was accepted and I was thrilled. My mom came to terms with it 😘
Cawthra Park S.S. was “famous” for being real-life Spike-from-Degrassi’s high school, but we never saw her. Students in the Regional Arts Program majored in visual art, music, drama, or dance. Art class was really great. I remember enjoying it very much right away.
The grade 9 art majors had Mr. Jensen, and let me tell you that was both an awesome and terrifying experience (I feel like that was a theme throughout grade 9). It really gave meaning to the expression, “baptism by fire.” Mr. Jensen was a no bullshit kind of guy. When you sensed he was in a bad mood (like the time he told us he got into a fight at hockey practice as an explanation for his black eye?!?) you would just stay out of his way. He was also awesome. Just a really awesome guy. He was a legitimate artist – he’d paint landscapes at his easel right alongside us sometimes. And he taught the most captivating art history classes. My knowledge of 20th Century art and the progression from impressionism through post-modernism is solidly intact because of this man. He was just a fantastic teacher. Kind of like Dead Poets Society: Cawthra Park Freaks and Geeks edition. Despite being a little bit scary, I just loved Mr. Jensen. His talks on Picasso and Dadaism and Michelangelo made me appreciate artists and styles I thought I knew or would have written off as being “dumb” or “boring”. And I loved the way he seemed to appreciate my art and my vision and what I had to offer. He seemed to think there was real merit in my work and I loved that because Mr. Jensen didn’t have time for fools – on this point he was incredibly upfront.
As an aside – I had really high hopes of finding magic again when I took art history as an undergrad at Queen’s but no such luck – it turns out Mr. Jensen was the diamond in the rough of our class. We had other art teachers over the years and they were good, but Mr. Jensen played a huge role in my high school experience and his teaching guides how I judge myself and my success as an artist even now. Definitely a lasting impression.
Academically I did very well. I think when I started in grade 9 I had enough raw talent to do reasonably alright and I thought a lot of the projects were fun. I liked getting good marks and I wanted to do well, that’s in my nature. At the same time, class didn’t feel like a chore in the first year or two. In the beginning we spent a lot of time drawing and then there were introductory “units” on painting, print-making, sculpture. Looking back, the projects were pretty disjointed. We spent time on colour theory and produced a series of abstract drawings focused on light and shadow. We spent a month on watercolours and produced a still-life watercolour painting at the end. It was pretty cool to get to go to art class everyday but I guess I’m not surprised looking back that a lot of my work has a sort of empty quality to it. It really wasn’t very inspired.
I’m not sure that I became a better artist by going to “art school”. I do think that it kind of opened up more options to me. Being a creature of habit I probably would never have experimented with acrylics (for example) without being assigned to do an acrylic painting. Likewise for oils. And I learned I hated printmaking. Like, I hated it so much and could never apply enough pressure to get an even print and it was just so… messy.
I did so well in my first year art class that I was awarded the Year 1 Visual Arts Award. I didn’t know this even existed but once I did, and once I found out that it was offered for every year of the Regional Arts Program – the gloves were off. I feel like people are really surprised about this aspect of my personality but it’s true – I am really, really competitive. As such I mounted a Herculean effort to be “the best” at art class.
What did “being the best” mean to me? Number one it meant achieving the highest mark in art class, every year, which I succeeded at. This made each year less fun than the year before. And in the process of aiming for the top, I also totally ruined the enjoyment of learning for the sake of learning. I was just so obsessed with the number awarded to my work. Not only that, I know that I wasn’t “the best”. I don’t even know what this means now. A lot of my fellow students went on to become very successful professional artists. I just got to be really good at playing the grade game. In fact, one of my life regrets is that, despite doing so well on paper, I didn’t decide to do art as a career…
One of my lasting takeaways from art school is that I really got a bit of a bug in my head about art needing to have meaning. I kind of learned the hard way back then that it’s just not good enough to create a carbon copy of the world around you. It’s ok for practice, sure, but what you paint matters. Without meaning, without a story for a Mr. Jensen to tell his grade 9 art class, the work has no soul. The story can be the colours, or the choices made by the artist, or all the things in their life that led to the pivotal point in time when a work was created. For me, art without purpose really became art that’s not even worth doing. This concept created a huge artist’s block for me in my last year in the program and lasted for a number of years (as in, what’s the point if there is no point?) but I’ve come back to it in a big way now and I find it’s really my central motivation.
By grade 11 there was a significant contingent of students that chose to focus on abstract and conceptual art, especially for our thesis project in our last year. I thought it was all just madness. I just wasn’t open to it. We got a new department head around this time who really championed conceptual art… and I really struggled to continue to paint in a realistic style with some sort of heart. When I look back on a lot of my art projects from high school they seem kind of lacking, and I remember feeling a bit empty when I was creating them too. It’s funny how that feeling isn’t lost on me even now.
Because of art school I have a soft spot for the work of Mark Rothko because it reminds me of our class trip to the Albright Gallery in Buffalo. I also have a soft spot for the super weird movie “Metropolis” that we watched there and back. I love the Group of Seven even though they are “overexposed” perhaps in the history of Canadian art – it reminds me of art history class. I’ll never forget the day students were invited to bring their dogs to art class and we spent the morning sketching in the middle of this off-leash crew of pups just wandering around the room, coming up to us to say hello. It was the best. And I’ll never forget my classmates, because even though I’m not in touch with most of them now, it was a really great group of kids. I actually recently had the fortuitous experience of reuniting with a high school friend through kind of five degrees of separation and from our conversations – it was like no time has passed. We may be separated by nearly a continent, but having this shared history makes these friendships feel like home 🙂
If I could go back in time, I would try to enjoy the “journey of learning” a little more. I suppose that’s easy to say now that I’m twenty-five plus years removed from the awkwardness of trying to paint a masterpiece while worrying about being popular and pretty enough too. I felt so creatively burnt out after art school and it took a long time to want to go back to it in a meaningful way. I was so hard on myself and my work for so long. In the past year, the most freeing thing for me creatively has been thinking – it doesn’t have to be perfect. In so doing, I feel like I’ve been creating the best work of my entire life and I really feel like the best is yet to come. I’m grateful for the solid foundation provided by the incredible learning opportunities that I had when I was younger. I just hope it’s not too late to still make something of myself in the art world.
Stay tuned for part two of my high school reminiscing – my last year in the art program and my last year in high school was a pretty pivotal time and worth its own post… thanks for reading!