I was voted Most Artistic in the class, every school year we had that sort of thing. I won awards for writing and for painting, illustration and sculpture throughout these tender years; and I loved being seen in this way. One of my early memories of first prize was earned for my poster featuring onion-domed cathedrals, made in honor of our school’s Russian “twin city”. I got A’s in all subjects – but art was my favorite subject far and away. In art class I constructed projects that, instead of the cookie-cutter replicas that school tends to encourage, were different than the other kids’ versions. I made a spherical polyhedron into a giraffe, for instance.
Don’t ask me why or how; but I did it.
And even though I yet again claimed “Most Artistic” my last year of public school, senior year in 1995, by then my artistic pursuits were flagging. I was leaving these open-ended aspirations behind; I no longer sought creative avocations as often nor as passionately. See, during my school career I had been earning A’s in science, physics, technical writing, and math. And I was told – by family, school staff, and our culture at large – that those pursuits were the better ones. The right pursuits. The salary- and status-garnering fields to pursue.
You know. “Real” work.
By the time I graduated at 18 and headed off on a full-ride engineering scholarship I’d fully internalized two ideas that did not serve me – they didn’t serve me then, and don’t serve me now.
The first, was that artistic skill was innate.
I’d been taught that Art was talent. You either had it – or you didn’t. More embarrassing than being bad at Art (whatever that means), was being bad while being earnest about it all. My creatively-aspiring adult role models sneered at “lesser” artists, talked about the “right way” to Do Art (yes. For reals) – and craved critical acclaim. They needed that external validation, craved it – and anyone who didn’t give them those accolades, was the Enemy.
Looking back, I can’t think of a more Creativity-stunting worldview.
The second idea I’d internalized was that art wasn’t real work.
Real work was 9-to-5, included a benefit plan and a title – and maybe even a parking space. Real work was Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM), something with a specialized degree. Real work was the kind of work where you told other people how Smart you were and how Important your job was. Real work meant being a boss, being listened to.
I ended up being a great engineer. I kept that scholarship, earned good grades, graduated into the field and started receiving promotions almost immediately. I quickly earned the honor of first female foreman at a company over eighty years old. I won an award at a tech conference. Most valuable to me, I had a great reputation with the operators I worked with. I have wonderful memories of my tenure in engineering.
But as it turned out – and with the gift of hindsight – my foray into full-time STEM lasted only a little while. This career required between fifty to eighty of my best hours a week: inflexible, no exceptions (trust me, I tried to work something out). My first boss – a wonderful family man, excellent engineer, and peerless supervisor – shrugged while telling me matter-of-factly, “I didn’t get to see my kids enough while they were growing.” As much as I loved engineering, ultimately the job asked too much of my best waking hours. The siren-song of a creative life, of more time in the day for exploration and open-ended impulsiveness, pulled me back.
Back to my roots.
I came home to raise, and then home-educate, our children. I never would have predicted homeschooling would lead to my second career, my Love-of-my-Life career. But it did. Because it wasn’t possible to be “bored” at home with children (best damn work I ever did), and it wasn’t possible for my creative vitality to die. It grew and grew and surged and splashed forth and it is boundless. There isn’t a day that passes that the ideas – and the projects – don’t keep mashing forth on a great, boundless tide.
I’m so glad I let it happen.
Today I excel in a field that is both engineering and materials science – but also highly creative, definitely considered one of the Arts. Every day is something new, usually something unknown, and definitely something aesthetic.
My years in engineering, of course, weren’t a waste. They were productive; they helped my self-concept. They taught me that there’s nothing magic or special about academics, physics, and high-level math. Just like in the artistic field.
Those years taught me then, what I still know now: That work? is work.
Today to call our family “creative” is an understatement. Like so many in the arts, we joyfully vacillate between the hard sciences and natural world sciences, and the world of music, fiction, film, writing – and Making. We sew; we write. We sing; we publish. We cook; we sculpt. We build worlds.
Our oldest child, now eighteen, is an accomplished illustrator and graphic artist. He likes to tell me: “Don’t say I’m talented. Say I’m ‘skilled’.”
And that’s me, today. I am not “gifted”. I am not “talented”. I am merely skilled. I am skilled because I’ve put the time in. If you put the time in, you’d probably be skilled too.
I’m not gifted. I’m skilled.
And so are you.