Sometimes my mind takes me back to that one day in early September of freshman year, when I visited the University of Michigan Museum of Art with a group of strangers; students from my hall, from orientation, people I thought would become my best friends. In reality, they just became even more distant. How cultured and sophisticated, I thought to myself back then.
When I started college, I pictured constantly expanding my horizons — traveling to different places and trying new things. I was excited to explore more of Ann Arbor’s culture and be the kind of artsy person I saw on my Instagram newsfeed, with pictures of graffiti alleys and hidden fairy doors. This seemed like what college would really be about.
I imagined the group of us moving through the museum in a sepia-toned haze, talking about Neo-Impressionism or tempera paint, armed with cups of overpriced coffee from down the street because we were too good for Starbucks.
For me, that day was disastrous.
Despite having religiously pored over a glossary of art terms the night before (thanks, Google), I found myself hopelessly inept. Standing in front of an incredibly detailed painting twice my size that must have taken months, if not years to complete, I felt small. Who was I to critique someone else’s work? What business did I have tossing around terms like sublime or naturalistic when I didn’t understand anything about art?
It slowly dawned on me that I’d probably never had an eye for art in the first place. I’d look at a piece and think it looked pretty neat, while the person next to me would talk about the motivation behind it and how the artful brushstrokes created an illusion of depth. As we moved through the next few rooms, I found myself falling back a little more each time, eventually making a swift exit, while the rest of the group was busy laughing and talking, bonding over a particularly interesting photograph.
You see, I’ve never described myself as a visual art person.
A writer? Sure.
A musician? I can work with that.
But when I see a blank canvas and rows of paint, I’ve never felt the urge to create. I’m not immediately struck by a vision, and I don’t know how to take an idea and visualize it in a way that is comprehensive and beautiful. At best, I can scrawl out a vague stick-figure-esque drawing or maybe paint one of those generic-looking landscapes. Maybe.
I’d watch my friends in high school effortlessly create gorgeous pieces of art and wonder in envy at how their brushes seem to glide smoother than mine, how they just intuitively knew where to place the next stroke of paint. I spent years wishing I had that skill — taking art classes in high school and practicing whenever I had time and a pencil — but it was never instinctive for me.
Which is why I never thought that I’d end up in an art class my sophomore year of college. Through a unique combination of requirements and the program I was in, I found myself taking LHSP 230, Creative Communities, a class focused on public art and creative expression. It was a terrifying prospect to me: Art was something I’d been trying (and failing) to do for a long time, and now I’d be in a space entirely focused on it.
And I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about that. Living in a learning community focused on writing and the arts, I had friends who were incredibly artistic and seen what they’d created in these classes. The work they made was amazing, and I was nervous because I wasn’t sure what exactly was expected of me. I knew, without a doubt, that I wouldn’t be able to make anything even remotely as good, but I’d resolved myself to trying as hard as I could. Even then, I felt pressured to achieve perfection.
Our first assignment had us creating “luminaries,” which were three-dimensional structures made out of wire, paper-maché and lights. I’d gone into this assuming we’d start out with something small, but our professor had larger plans for us — specifically, to be a part of a pop-up parade at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. So not only was I forced to face my fears much sooner than anticipated, there’d be an audience of people who actually appreciated art watching my every move.
There were moments where I’d find myself in Alice Lloyd Hall’s art studio, huddled under a workbench, the overhead lights occasionally blinking off as if mocking my catatonic state. As I looked at the tangled mess of wire and tape that was supposed to be my project, and compared it to the perfect ones all around me, I was frustrated and confused. Those first few weeks were hard — nothing made me feel more incompetent than not being able to create something with the apparent ease that everyone else in the class possessed.
I think it was one of those 2 a.m. moments when I had nothing to show but the battle scars left by metal splinters (wire is harder to work with than you’d think) that I finally realized — I was the only one that cared this much. While everyone else was having fun and creating things, I was stuck inside my own head, too infatuated with rigid definitions of “art” and “artist” to do anything at all. I’d spent years building the entire concept of art up in my head as if it were some sort of mysterious and elusive force that I’d never be able to understand, something that was unattainable. I’ve constantly been telling myself that I can’t create art, when it can be interpreted in so many different ways, and constructed with a variety of mediums — there is no singular definition.
Art doesn’t have to be understood, just to be appreciated. It’s hard to convince myself that after years of thinking the exact opposite, but I’m allowed to have my own definition of art — and I’m allowed to create things, whether or not other people think they’re good. When it comes to things that are so subjective, I’ve learned that over-analyzing every single move only held me back.
I still don’t know much about neo-impressionism except that “Starry Night” is pretty cool, and I’m vaguely sure that tempera is some sort of egg paint. On some days I’ll go to the UMMA and sit in front of my favorite painting, “Broadway Melody.” I appreciate the subtle blues and pinks and the intricate patterns, and how it invokes thoughts of jazz and happiness. On those days, I don’t wonder what neo-impressionism means, or what tempera is made of — I just focus on being in the moment.