Art 101

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

For me the world can have a strangely retentive quality, in which certain places represent the nerve points of my past. When I think of my childhood, I think of the room where I took art lessons, where I first met my art teacher. I see a floral carpet thick with charcoal dust, every surface cluttered by plastic boxes of ancient paint. There is a rotating corkboard cocooned in student work. Nothing on it ever seemed to be removed. Once, I patiently peeled the drawings back, and uncovered a beautiful yellowed sketch of wrinkled denim jeans from 1987, tacked right against the cork. The sketch held a secret.

I could have been six or twelve or fifteen in that memory, so many were the years I spent there. In that place, the air edged with hypnotising turpentine, I always waited for my art teacher’s calm, dry hands to guide mine. She would deftly salvage old castles, traceries of leaves, and subtle hues of skin from my own crude renditions. Ms. Zhuang, my childhood idol, wore a cardigan, tortoiseshell glasses. For Christmas one year, she bought me a 48 set of Derwent colour pencils that I wore to nubs. Once I saw her stumble out of the art room to cry quietly on the phone, for a reason I never found out. I loved her. I hated prawns. But when she gave me cold and rubbery prawn dumplings I ate them unflinchingly, with a stoicism my mother later commended on the car ride home. When I was seven, I told Ms. Zhuang I wanted to be a teacher – just like her. She had smiled for my sake. By the time I understood what that smile really meant, I was sixteen and I had been nursing small dreams – debating, poetry, literature, and politics. These held me in a constant spine-tingling euphoria of adrenaline and belief. My biggest dream, though, was America. I pored over university websites with the moony self- consciousness of a girl with a crush, the seriousness of a girl in love.

I understood why Ms. Zhuang wanted me to study medicine in Melbourne. She understood why I didn’t. She had chosen the art room, but it had a mortgage. She had chosen Australia, but it was thousands of kilometres from her family. I babbled desperately, working for any kind of encouragement from her, my voice slowly, ineffectually trickling to a silence. When she finally spoke, she was gentle. “Look,” she said. “Look how much I’ve lost by trying to follow my dreams. I wanted to be a great artist, now I teach art to children! Don’t you know you will fail? Don’t try to go to America.” I felt raw with hurt. If she echoed my most deeply-held doubts, was it the truth? She thought I was not good enough. She thought she was not good enough. I was more heartbroken by the latter. Though she considered herself a failure, I could never think of her that way. What was greatness? She was my soul’s pivot – she had led me by the hand to Matisse, Picasso, and Velazquez.

If someone can inspire that kind of joy and devotion, that is enough, no matter what happens. The sketch I had discovered that day was my teacher’s drawing, from 1987, before her art room and her dream had become cluttered with children. The truth is that I still am afraid of failure, of rejection. But beyond that, I know that I cannot live a life in which I look back, and wonder on what could have been. Nothing is absolute. Why should I fear disappointment? The drawing was exquisite, buried as it was. In all our years together, Ms. Zhuang taught me something: when given the gift of inspiration, one can swallow their fears, just like prawn dumplings.

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