I applied to the University of Michigan simply because my boyfriend encouraged me to. I didn’t participate in any long conversations with my parents where we talked about the right college fit for me. I never visited a campus. The only options I knew about were those that were offered from my High School Art Teacher, where she presented a variety of art colleges during the first semester of our senior year. My parents attended K-12 Catholic School and never sought a degree after that. The Old Man took a few night classes at city college but he never saw it all the way through. He opted to climb up the corporate ladder from the mail room to middle management. He came home every weekend with two briefcases of memos to read through, never spending much time with us kids. During the afternoons of the work week, he napped at his desk. Perhaps it was because he tossed a couple back at lunch. Then after work he went right down to the bar with his buddies. I remember many a nights that he came home all lit up after my mother held dinner for him. When it came time to consider college, we were on our own. I was really confused by this point. I mean, I attended a private, all girls prepatory high school where something like 99% (not exaggerating) of its graduates went on to college. Why wouldn’t I assume that I would be one of those heading off to college? Because in my house we weren’t allowed to ask for things. Whenever we did, we were told that we were ungrateful and demanding too much. And me, being the artist…..I was the most demanding of them all. My boyfriend kept asking me where I was going to college. I shrugged my shoulders in a genuine fog of unknowingness. I really had no idea what was coming next for me. I always wanted to be an artist, but how does someone go about doing that? He said I should try The University of Michigan, of which I knew very little about. He convinced me that it would be an excellent choice so I decided the day before applications were due that I would apply. I approached my poor Art Teacher at Mercy and asked her to shoot my portfolio. “Sure I can.” she said smiling. “When is your application due?”
“Tomorrow.” I casually replied.
There was a real look of horror on her face. Now that I’m an adult I realize the trouble that I had put her through, the stress, the absolute inconsideration. But the 18-year-old version of myself really didn’t see the big deal. I had a way of deflecting the feelings, not allowing myself to get too attached to the events unfolding before me. Luckily she accommodated me like I knew she would.
The next day I received my instructions from her, telling me where to get the film developed. This was 1987, way before the digital age. I had to submit slides of my work, along with my application to The University of Michigan School of Art by 5 PM. I left school at noon, picked up my boyfriend and we drove to Guardian on W. Grand Boulevard in Detroit where we sat in the McDonald’s next door for 2 hours while my slides were developed. Then we drove to Ann Arbor and had to find our way to the School of Art on North Campus. His brother attended U-M but he had never driven to North Campus before. Again, this was the days before a GPS merely directed us on the proper time to turn. We were lost nearly the whole time, screaming at each other, furious at the sheer volume of one-way streets in that town. But he time we found the School of Art, I was sprinting into the building to get my application in on time. The office was located on the second floor so I bounded up the stairs, only to slide the envelope across the desk, exactly 7 minutes before the deadline. The secretary remarked on the impossible tightness of my timing. I walked out victorious, having made it.
A few weeks later, my acceptance letter came from The University of Michigan School of Art. I found out later that the school only accepted 100 applicants a year so it was indeed an honor to land a spot. I don’t think my parents knew what to do with this information. Looking back now I’m not exactly sure if I told them I was applying. I got accepted in March and still had no idea of how I was going to pay for it. We remained silent with each other for months over the subject. It was something along the lines of a pissing contest. I never allowed to get excited about going off to Ann Arbor. In reality, I wasn’t even sure what the place was like. I never went on a tour of the place or anything of the kind. Bernie said it was great and that was enough for me.
The first tuition payment must have been due in June because that’s when the Old Man called me into the Inner Sanctum of his office. “You know, if someone had ever asked me what my children would become, I would have said a doctor, lawyer, maybe even president. I never would have said artist.” He paused for effect. “But I do have an artist. And I’m going to pay for you to go to college.” Wow, this was a surprise. We’d never had a conversation before, never one that was uplifting anyway. I was thrilled, so much in fact that I had a knee-jerk reaction to what came next. “You have to promise me one thing” he said. “You have to promise me that you won’t become a starving artist.”
“I promise! I’m going to become a Graphic Designer so I’ll have a job.”
How in the world could I promise that? I had never even taken a college art course before. I must have been secretly looking at the degree offerings at the U and thought this one sounded like the most acceptable to my family. Commercial Artists, like the characters on Bosom Buddies. They keep that rotating carousel of magic markers on their desk. They get paid to make art. How could I promise my future to him, without even trying anything out?” Deflecting and dutiful. That was me.
We never had a conversation about what it meant to be an artist, how to go forth and do that. From my parents’ point of view, it was something to be scared of. Once I got there, I got to feel the same way as time lapsed. I looked longingly into painting studios at the School of Art and was afraid to take a class. Doing so would be breaking a promise to The Old Man. I tried watercolor because I knew that was an acceptable medium from my mother’s point of view. The more I got into it, the further I got away from the reason why I was there. By the time I graduated I was completely off the path. It took me years to get back on and the journey spans over close to thirty years. The stories go on and on, probably because I seem to have a very thick skull in this area with a slow learning curve. Now that I’m approaching 50, I’ve begun to feel that I don’t have much room for people who don’t believe in me. That means I have to reach beyond my family of origin to a newly-found group that supports me and champions my successes. Most importantly I look inside and find the strength to take chances, take a leap and believe that I’m strong. It’s my purpose to make art and help others do the same. I heard Billy Joel describe his song-writing process and he says, “sometimes it just comes from heaven and goes right into my head.” It’s the exact experience for me when I’m creating and I have to say, I want more of it.
So here I am, following my muse. While the bulk of this article has focused on the most memorable “acceptance” of my life, I’m honing focus on a more important form of acceptance: Accepting who I am.