Let me tell you one of my stories. This one began in 1993 when, at 17, I went to the Netherlands, heart full of love and head full of dreams, hoping to become an artist. With the encouragement and guidance of my uncle, I took my portfolio and Canadian grad transcripts into the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in the Hague, the Netherlands, and walked out with a hearty invitation into the second year program. They loved me so much they put me into second year!! Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
My parents dug deeply and funded my great adventure, and I moved to the Hague in September, 1994. I was 18, and had rarely lived outside of the rural island I grew up on, apart from a year in the rural Shuswap, and short trips to the suburbs of Vancouver for family visits. My uncle picked me up from the airport near Amsterdam and brought me to the room he had arranged for me in a small flat in the Hague. Nobody else was home. The room was tiny. About eight by ten feet, with one enormous ten-foot-wide window on the side that faced the street. There were blinds, but the street-lights, the tram-lights, the sounds of trams and cars and scooters and sirens and drunken wee-hour partyers, the many neighbours all sliced upwards through those blinds and reflected off the ceiling to where I lay on the floor, huddled in a blanket on the folding mattress my uncle had given me. I cried so long I couldn't sleep.
At midnight on that first night my first room-mate walked into my room, introduced herself as Margriet, but said I could call her Daisy, if I wanted to, and I could use her dishes until I got my own. I was alarmed, but she became my first friend in that new and terrifying city. The first piece of news I read there described various female body pieces found in a garbage can in the park just a few blocks south of my new home. In the two years I lived there, I never went to that park.
I picked myself up in the morning, shopped with my cousin for essentials, as we were both setting up our new residences in neighbouring cities, and argued lengthily over who would buy the few white and orange cups, and whether each would look better with wine, beer, water, tea, and milk in them. My parents funded this shopping trip.
My tenure in the Netherlands was wonderful and terrible; I made some dear and treasured friends, and connected with my Dutch family in a way I never would have managed had I not lived there. I learned to speak Dutch, to cook and clean for myself, to live on very little income, and to find and create work for myself in a complex city that, at first, was completely foreign to me. I fought off a rapist in the middle of the night and then used my wits to force him to walk me to safety. I became courageous. I became an adult. It was perhaps the most powerful time of my life, and I have my parents' open minds and generosity to thank for it.
|Me at the Royal Academy, 1996 - photo by A. van der Vlist|
I majored in drawing and painting, and that department was set up like an open studio, where each student had a personal work area, and we gathered in some common spaces for lectures, lunches, and hashing out our ideas. As a working group it was great, but there was little support from professors. They wandered around and gave critiques irregularly, but basically in third year we were expected to self-direct and develop a practice. At the time I was working on womb-like forest paintings and abstractions of the same. I was working through feelings of homesickness for my forested island home, while living in the most urban environment I could imagine. While I lived in the Netherlands, a news story came out about a homeowner accidentally cutting down the last bit of indigenous forest. It was not the home I knew and longed for, and art is always a form of therapy.
So in early 1996, as I was deeply entrenched in this visual exploration of my heart's home and longing, the professors came around for the quarterly review, and requested that I come to the back room. But why? Don't we need to be in the vicinity of my work? Nope. They had only one pertinent question: Who were my influences?
Well, that was easy enough, I thought. I told them that probably my greatest influences were Georgia O'Keeffe, Emily Carr, and West Coast indigenous art.
They looked at each other knowingly, and flatly explained that while Georgia O'Keeffe is marginally acceptable, Emily Carr is "kitch", and "Indians don't make art". I can't remember anything I said after that - I'm sure it was useless. My mind was numb. They told me that since I was painting landscapes I should learn to paint like real landscape painters. They told me to get a print of a particular city landscape by Camille Corot and replicate it, stroke-for-stroke, until I had learned what a landscape should look like. I tried. I really tried. I laboured for weeks on this painting of two damn monks standing on a pale terrace overlooking a washed-out Italian cityscape. But the glowing ball of fire in my chest that brings me to paint had died. I was an empty shell pushing meaningless lines of paint onto a barren panel, and nobody - not even the professors - came to talk with me anymore. Until they did.
Sometime that spring the professors returned, ominously as a group, again, to give me an ultimatum: My work was going nowhere. They were going to give me a "Fail" for the year. My only alternative was to leave the school early and they would give me an "Incomplete", instead. With a newly blossoming relationship, a desperate homesickness, and a ticket home to Canada waiting to be used, I left. I went home knowing I had let my parents down, wasted their money, and caused them and my whole family irreparable shame. I soon discovered when I tried to continue my studies in Canada that an "Incomplete" is essentially the same as a "Fail", and I was unable to enter a Canadian university until I'd raised my grades by attending college. I was, truly and wholly, a failure.
Obviously, passion is a short-lived endeavour, as living generally requires a more moderate approach, and my passionate self-loathing waned over the years I attended school in Canada, married and learned to keep house, and eventually raised two children. This is the denouement of my story - the slow tumbling resolution to the crisis of my great failure. There was never a moment where I became un-failed or wildly successful. Never any particular redemption, although installing one of my works in Amsterdam last year did feel like a healing salve. The visceral memory of my firm kick out the door of the Royal Academy of Visual Arts gave me a whole lot more self-reflection, upon which to build a fire. I have now returned to my art career with a great but less fragile ball of fire in my chest. If I hadn't failed so colossally and grown to discover the beauty of it, I never would have arrived here. And perhaps I never would have laughed when my son sadly announced to us that he had received 38% on his math test.
My son Taliesin failed his math test. Colossally. So badly, in fact, that the online school he took it with is allowing him to rewrite it. It was nothing like the 15% I vividly remember receiving on a math-test, myself, but he, having held off telling us out of shame, was surprised that we just smiled and laughed about it. I imagine this single test failure to be just one small but positive experience in Taliesin's journey into academia. Go forward with courage, my love. May you live many adventurous stories, and may you overcome much greater failures than this one!