At 17 I went to the Rhode Island School of Design for a summer pre-college program. I went to try out art school and to experience life away from home. I was a do-gooder who thrived on pleasing the adults in my life. As a strong student I was unaccustomed to failure, or really, even challenge.
Bo Joseph's drawing class changed all that.
Joseph was an almost stereotypical artist-teacher. He wore only black, spoke little, and presented an infuriatingly mysterious instructional style.
A typically enigmatic assignment went something like this: "Go outside. Find something. Make a drawing with it."
In my quest to please my instructor, I would stress over the specifics of each direction vacillating between thinking I was supposed to take them literally and searching for the higher symbolic meaning in his words.
My peers did not seem so encumbered. They'd return in minutes with dog feces and popsicle sticks, creating bizarre abstract pieces that always seemed to get Joseph's nodding approval.
I would sit in a corner, trying to draw a bird's nest with a broken twig, and he would hardly give me the time of day.
"That's not quite it," he would frequently say of my pieces. "Keep looking."
My anxiety about his class grew and grew with each assignment, as I agonized over how to create what he wanted and fell flat every single time. At last the final day of class came, and we were to work with a live model. Joseph's instructions were predictably vague: "Create." Nearly in tears, I gave up.
I found my favorite corner, pulled out a large sheet of paper, a jar of gesso, and some crusty water-color paints. I looked at the model for a few moments and started to move the paint around the paper.
For the first time all summer I lost track of the students around me, lost track of time, lost track of the figure in black for whom I'd failed in every artistic performance. It was just me, the model, the paint, and something in my head that was telling me what to do.
"Finally," said a voice out of nowhere. I awoke from my reverie to see a familiar shadow across the page. I looked up at Joseph and cowered in anticipation of his critique. He lowered himself to my level and looked straight into my eyes.
"You've heard your inner voice," he said. "Now don't you ever, ever, stop listening."
Years later, after being a teacher myself, I know that Joseph took on a brave experiment with me. I like to believe he knew it would work, but I shudder to think what I would have become without the breakthrough he inspired.
He saw that my desire to please was hampering my ability to create, and he pushed, and pushed, and pushed until I got past the quest for outside approval and found my inner self.
The picture is nothing outstanding. But I consider it the first piece of art I ever created.