Friday, March 25, 2011

"I'm Gonna Be An Artist When I Grow Up"

"Whataya gonna be when you grow up kid?" Was one of the first questions we probably all remember being asked when we were kids.

"I'm going to be an artist", I always replied, confidently. I don't know how I just knew, but I did. I was fond of repeating what some artist had supposedly said, "I did not choose art, art chose me", because that's what I wanted to believe was so in my life.

So I embarked on my quest and I drew and drew and painted and painted, on our kitchen table, on walls, and on the living room floor.

I copied cartoons, photos in books and magazines and made up my own images and everyone loved it, especially my teachers. I was always chosen to make decorations for the bulletin boards and in high school I became a sort of prima donna, winning contests, scholarships, and even had a student body office created just for me, called the "Art Commissioner", where I spent a couple of hours daily in one of the art rooms painting posters and signs for student body events! It was cool. No classes!

After winning first place in a national poster contest during my Junior year, I became almost famous on campus.

I was never quite sure what I would do with an art career. I guess I just envisioned myself in a studio creating paintings I would sell for thousands of dollars and showing at prestigious art galleries around the world.

But in my heart, I knew that was not a realistic goal, especially after I began to read about the tragic lives of famous artists. Van Gogh cut off his ear! He later shot himself. Oh, God.

Even my mother warned me at an early age "Artistas se hacen famosos nomas despues de muertos!" (Artists never get famous until they are dead!) She loved to rub it in. "Why don't you be something worthwhile, like a lawyer or a businessman?" She would prod sarcastically.

Then, I began to think in more practical terms. She was right. Maybe I could be sign painter, or a commercial artist. I scoured magazines like the New Yorker, studying the advertisements and gawking over the stuff of David Stone Martin, Ben Shahn, and Norman Rockwell. Yes, this was so much more realistic.

You cannot imagine the excitement I felt on getting accepted to one of the most prestigious art schools on the West Coast, California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, CA. on an incoming student scholarship that would pay for my first year's tuition! Me, a little Mexican boy from a barrio in the central valley! I had arrived. I was on my way to the Big Times. I was good and I knew it.

I could hardly wait to get started showing the world how great I was. I would be liked. I would be envied and admired by all.

One morning, early in my first semester, as I sat on a stairwell outside one of the painting studios taking in all the possibilities the world of art had to offer me, I eyed a young Asian guy, below me in the rundown tennis courts, working on an oil painting. His canvas was perched on an easel and his brushes and tubes of paint piled on a small folding table next to him.

It was an exquisite fall day, sunny, warm and a perfect day in which to produce a masterpiece, I thought. I could not really tell what he was painting, but it appeared to be a clump of trees on the hillside. He deftly shoved the brush around his canvas, just as it should be. I was engrossed watching him.

"Man", I mused to myself, "I can't wait to be out there painting just like this guy." This was a dream come true.

Suddenly, the guy grabbed his canvas with both hands, ripped it off his easel, threw it to the ground and began stomping it!! "God, damn son of a bitch!!! God, damn son of a bitch!!!" he cursed over and over until all that was left of his painting was a pile of shredded rags.

I was stupified, dumbfounded. I couldn't believe what was happening. My epiphany shattered like a mirror smashed by a rock. 

I was to learn that being an artist had a hefty price tag, and exactly why the kid did what he did.

In retrospect, this had been a message from God to His artist child, one I have never forgotton: "Be humble my son, be humble."

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