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Art School (and being a Moron about it)

Art School (and being a Moron about it)

So, I went to Art School back when I was younger, right out of high school. I was that kid that always took every art class my school offered. I was the cartoonist for the school paper. I was fortunate that my art teacher was an esteemed member of both the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society, and encouraged me ardently to pursue my art.

At one point during my senior year this Russian gentleman came in to do a presentation. He was opening up a new art school in town. His name was Semyon Bilmes–check him out. He’s a fantastic photorealist and has had quite a career. Anyways, his school, at the time called the Bilmes Art School, was an intensive, 12-month program and he only took on six students at a time. The tuition was high too, at least more than I could afford, and not being an accredited school there were no student loans to be had unless I just got a private loan at a bank. Unfortunately my school counselor was pretty useless to help too. Nonetheless, I tried for it. And I got accepted. I remember that my art teacher was so excited for me she gave me a big hug when I told her.

My parents and extended family were always very supportive of my efforts, and thus my grandmother stepped up and offered to pay for art school. This wasn’t a loan, it was free. That was huge.

SPOILER ALERT: I was an idiot big shot teenager and pissed that opportunity away.

Shortly before I started classes I met a woman and started getting involved with her. She eventually ended up becoming my first wife and I wanted to hang out with her instead of art school. I only went to classes just shy of six months, and even that was pretty hit and miss towards the end.

Semyon was very kind to me. On two separate occasions we took a walk around the city, and he tried to talk with me and give me some almost fatherly advice. I think he genuinely wanted me to succeed and reinvest in my artwork. I listened and nodded, and left both meetings thinking I’d stop being irresponsible and man up. But, I wouldn’t be writing this ‘blog post if I had, unfortunately.

I was a moron.

At some point I just never came back to classes. I just stopped coming altogether. I never said goodbye to my classmates, and I never even spoke to Semyon again. I deeply regret being so absurdly irresponsible on so many levels. I was the kind of person that infuriates me now.

Semyon’s school wasn’t Parsons, or Full Sail, or Yale. I wouldn’t have gotten an M.F.A. or anything like that, but it was undoubtedly one of those “once in a lifetime” opportunities. I had a chance to study very closely with a master, to receive direct tutelage from someone who’d had the career I wanted. I would’ve accomplished so much in that year. Hell, the things I learned and did in those first few months still stick with me and I use ALL OF IT.

I blew it. I remember my parents calling me and telling me to stop by their place one evening. They told me that my grandmother knew I’d been skipping classes, and that she wasn’t going to pay any more tuition. Moreover, no one in my family would cosign a loan since I’d already demonstrated that I was an asshat. I sat in my car afterwards and just started crying because there was something in me somewhere that was cognizant of what had just slipped through my fingers.

Years later, I ran into another guy I’d gone to classes with, a fellow named Leland. He’d done a good job of convincing me it was mostly rubbish and said that he’d dropped out too, and so for the next bundle of years I tried convincing myself I hadn’t really lost out on much. Now THAT was rubbish.

I spent a good number of years pursuing another of my passions, music. I put all my time and money into my music and I’m proud of what I accomplished–I got signed to an indie label and put out a CD, and had the chance to meet and play with some great bands that I looked up to. During that time I’d gotten an English degree and later a Master’s in teaching and then went on to teach high school for seven years and then dog training for five (I definitely prefer dogs to teenagers). I guess I was doing the “responsible, adult” thing and pursued realistic career expectations. There was that part that believed that artists just don’t make a living unless they reach rock star status like some of my favorites: Michael Whelan, H.R. Giger, Keith Parkinson, Geof Darrow, et al.

Of course, I never stopped drawing and painting. Here I am now, many years later, freelancing as an illustrator *slash* designer. Maddeningly, I see weak points in my skillset that I KNOW were things Semyon was trying to teach me. Heck, some of them were things my high school art teacher, Mrs. Morris, a woman I greatly respect, tried to show me.

I’ve grown up a lot since then. Some of it due to time and age, some of it due to hard knocks.

I guess the takeaway is that now I’m at a point in my life where I’ve got that hunger back. I’m through doodling and calling myself a painter while doing mediocre work. My skills have improved more in the last five years than they have in the last fifteen. I’m still mad that I’m getting to the skill level I should’ve been at a long, long time ago, but I’m grateful for this laser focus.

Semyon eventually moved his school 20 minutes south to the town I went to college in, and rechristened it the Ashland Academy of Art. I hear now he’s living in Maui and runs a third school called Atelier Maui. That man is still killing it. Sorry I didn’t listen, Semyon!

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