wednesday, january 13, 2016

National Portfolio Day: The Power of 'Schlepping'

I have a personal story to tell about National Portfolio Day. I've naver shared it before, but it is important to me, and every January, it comes back to my mind. For those who don't know, NPD is a sort of European-rules college fair for young artists seeking to get into a competitive art-school track, hoping eventually attain the mystery of the coveted, yet elusive, parentally-misunderstood and generally terrifying: 'career in the arts.'

I remember when the event was held at the Seattle Center, back when I was just a sophomore in high school. A family friend, April Ferry, a beloved and now-retired art instructor at the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences (SAAS), encouraged me to go. I was not a student of SAAS. I really had no art program in the Catholic school I attended. But being a neighbor and a kindly soul, April did what she could to guide me. She gave me a lot of good advice and encouragement along the way without which I might never have found my footing. Having been a New York art student and a working artist herself, she taught me the meaning of the word 'schlep.'

And schlep, we did. All my stuff--goopy canvases, dusty drawings, greasy sketchbooks--up the steps inside the Center House to wait, terrified, in the long cue for a chance to have my work reviewed by actual representatives of some of the finest art colleges and academies in the country. This was in the days before digital photography, long before Tablets and IPads. We had to schlep our stuff in the flesh. And it was worth it.

Those brief conversations with the 'Reps'--actual artists themselves, people who seemed to care so much and take a real interest--changed my life. These people understood something about me that hardly anyone in my life could understand: I too, am an artist. The Reps could see it and they took me seriously. They spoke confidence into me; they told me I really could have a future in this. Even more, they affirmed that what I was doing with my time was something, well wonderful. I came away from my first National Portfolio Day with my heart blazing with hope and my work cut out for me.

The following year, I was a junior, almost ready to make my college applications, and I was well prepared. I had assembled the best of my work and had worked hard with whatever instruction I could find outside of school. I was doing figure-drawing from life at local art stores and anywhere I could get in front of a live model. I was taking workshops and visiting the studios of local artists, asking them questions. I was working with oils. I was reading practical books and art history books. I was copying artistic anatomy, and devouring reproductions of the works of my chosen masters.

That Friday night in January, I had my glossy black portfolio-brief all full of drawings, with my best canvases bundled up beside it. I went to bed early enough to get up on time. I wanted to get the full day of glorious critical feedback and insight, a chance at scholarship money--maybe even a rare 'on-the-spot' acceptance from some great, prestigious east-coast school.

When I awoke, it was still dark. Dad was shaking my shoulder, telling me the news: last night, someone very close to me, a friend and a mother, someone who was an intimate part of my childhood, had died. The body was found this morning. I'd better get dressed and come quickly. It was the worst day of my life.

Many hours later, after the police and the coroner had gone, and sobbing had dwindled down to a dull murmur in the house, dad took me aside and asked if I still wanted to go through with it. He wanted to know if I felt willing to take my work to downtown to National Portfolio Day to be assessed by the visiting colleges. If we hurried, there might still be a chance to have my work reviewed. Could I handle it?

I didn't know. I looked at my paintings and drawings all bundled up and ready. I had worked so hard for this moment. This was my last chance to be reviewed before I made my applications. I felt that some Reps had the power to make me an offer of acceptence, and that would seriously impact my chances of success as an artist. I thought of the future I longed for so much, and weighed it against the grief and weariness and agony of the day.

We schlepped.

I wasn't nervous standing in the line this time. I was numb. I had just enough time to speak with one or two representatives before the horn sounded and National Portfolio Day was officially over. I remember looking down at the table where my portfolio was laid out for inspection. I was now older than most of the other kids. I could see that my work was excellent, in some ways, very advanced compared to the others. I should have been proud, but I just couldn't care that day. I was too sad to feel anything like pride. Yet I stood in those lines at National Portfolio Day, clutching my work.

When it was finally my turn, I set my canvases on the table. There was my latest self-portrait in oil, the eyes, life-like yet weary from staring into the mirror, gazed up at me from the table. Then came the dread moment: as the Rep worked her way through the pile of canvases she finally pulled up an oil-portrait of the very person whose death had changed my life that day.

The Rep kept talking to me about my painting, but I couldn't focus on what she was saying. She sounded far away. I heard her voice suddenly grow concerned as my eyes began to fill with tears. I couldn't look up. I just kept staring at those eyes in the paint, burying myself in them until the critique was finally over.

Dad helped me get my work back to the car and load it up. Wearily, he turned on the engine.

"Come on, let's go back to grief street," he said.  

I am an artist. I proved as much to myself that on that dreadful day. I had never been touched by the indifferent force, the shock of death before. My sense of everything, the world and myself, changed forever.

Nothing felt okay, yet I watched myself do what I had set out to do anyway. I was reeling, terrified, but somehow I held on, for my self, my work, my future, because it was the only thing I could do, because I am an artist. In the midst of intense pain, I carried my work, my heart, my whole internal universe in a heavy bundle and laid it out before the eyes of objective scrutiny. In a way I still don't fully understand, this decision set up a spiritual foundation for who I am today. I schlepped.

There were no scholarships offered, no 'on-the-spot' acceptances that day. Due to financial constraint, my parents could not support my dream of going to a school on the east coast after all. Yet the dye had been cast. I had made my decision.

Months later, I received notice of acceptance to the University of Washington. On the first day of fall quarter at the state school, I marched across campus to the counseling office to declare my major. The counselor looked at me incredulously.

"Most students take at least a year or two before they're ready to declare a major. Your classes haven't even even started yet. And students usually change their mind, several times even, as they work through their general education requirements. Plus, you won't even be able to enroll for painting classes for the first two years. Are you sure you want to declare your major today?"

"Yes," I shot back. "My major is Painting. I wish to declare Painting as my major. Go ahead and write it down. Painting. I won't be changing my mind."

And I haven't.

So that's my secret story about National Portfolio Day. Now, as fate would have it, almost two decades later, I find myself appearing there in January, this time on the other side of the table--at the end of the long lines of nervous teens gripping their portfolios--as a Rep.

I don't normally tell this story of my experience with the event, except to say that I attended it faithfully it myself when I was in high school, and that it was indeed life-changing for me. However, I never can stand behind that seemingly mile-high table, scrutinizing the dreams and longings of hopeful students, sometimes pathetic, sometimes humbling, without remembering what it really means to me, and what power there may be for them too, in schlepping.