Art Education

Some Rare Autobiography

School and I didn’t mesh well, in particular grades 7 through 12, “despite” the fact that I attended what were measurably “good schools.”

I still am not sure what “good schools” are. My husband also attended “good schools” but it turns out that meant something totally different where he grew up. Here is the absolute fullest context of my public education:

My parents, who are a combined one thousand years old (so they tell me) moved to my hometown in Nineteen Midcentury-Two when it was more of a yawning farmville. My mom was a nurse and my dad worked for a local newspaper. There were and are some vaguely progressive crunchy types there, too, doing the hippy farm thing, I think. This is not possible anymore unless you bought into it in the Midcentury, but pieces of that part are still visible around town. Anyway, they bought a ranch style house on a dead-end street for, like, five dollars (so they tell me), and proceeded to live through the boom that the town experienced when nearby newly-minted interstate highways brought high tech companies— another new sort of thing and importantly a type of business unbeholden to downtown brick-and-mortar operation— to the middle of nowhere. This meant that the yawning farmville was now also populated by software engineers and biochemistry health science sorts, who got busy populating the additions and renovations on their formerly ranch-style homes, and a decade or two later what you had was a robustly funded public school system in a fairly pastoral setting with a lot of really brainy and actively involved parents and suddenly thousands of bright, promising children making their way to Ivy League colleges.

I think, in large part because I did learn with literally thousands of other kids my age, I didn’t internalize the “high school role types” thing that seems to heavily color a lot of American adult interactions, and I really can only regard the whole “jock/prep/nerd/goth/etc” rubric as a joke or something from Hollywood movies. I forget! I forget that it was real and maybe remains real in the minds of many people. This is not because I am more enlightened or evolved or something. Usually when I express a complete indifference to things like this it comes off, or is taken as, me saying I am above it and always was above it. I know that I can give this impression to a lot of people, and I feel that it’s an inaccurate one but also none of my business if it’s what someone thinks. I promise you that I wish on some level I could understand the things that are important to other people more, not less.

But anyway there were too many students for a clear pecking order. Also I think our football hero— and that’s the role type at the center of everything as I understand it— was also a talented concert musician and extremely nice. I know that I was eccentric and low on friends but so were lots of kids, and I never felt like there was anyone it was off limits to, like, talk to. No one was ever shoved in a locker. I don’t know where that image comes from but maybe lockers used to be bigger. People were only very mean to me a few times, and half of those times I deserved it because I had done or said something fucked up myself. I remember the two worst things I said and did and I am rightfully ashamed of them, and committed never to repeat those mistakes in thinking and action. I know that sometimes I wanted to be interesting and sometimes I was for the wrong reasons.

The other half of the times someone was really mean to me, who knows. Mostly I forgot what they were about. One time people were openly satisfied that something dangerous happened to me because they had found me tedious or loud or something right before the dangerous thing happened. That was rude but the dangerous thing had occurred due to the neglect of the adults present, and that’s the only part that still really bothers me.

Come to think of it, the “the adults fucked that up” ones are the kinds I do remember best. Another time, much more low stakes, it was an adult snapping at me— yelling, really, in public— to refer to her by her first name and not as so-and-so’s mom. So-and-so here was a friend of mine. It was extremely alien to me to refer to someone’s parents by their first name if they refused the formality of honorifics. I think I even argued with her “but you are So-and-so’s mom!” Oops. Oh well. Now that I am an adult, I can understand her frustration, but I think if I had kids I would probably accept that “so-and-so’s dad” (and also the occasional confused “so-and-so’s mom”) would become one of my names. She was within reason to find it annoying, and she was wrong to yell at me in public and make it a whole thing. My friend, So-and-so, was protective of her mom’s feelings and our friendship didn’t fully recover from the awkwardness.

So it goes! Socially, I bounced around. I had a crush on every single girl I hung out with (including So-and-so) but I had no guts to take it there with girls, and I feel now that this did make me a worse friend to them.** I dated a chess guy with three nipples and I really liked him but he had this latent libertarian macho thing— which was weird for a guy who was 5’ 3” and into sweater vests, or maybe not that weird?— and eventually we fell out completely because he thought I was too much of a haughty feminist and I thought his mournful attitude and “my role model is a woman now” angst about his older sister’s transition was, well, transphobic (it was).

** Not to get too analytical or make this whole rant about trans shit, but I will note that it’s a common myth that trans men/mascs who are attracted to women are self-hating lesbians, and that their transitions are acts of internalized misogyny and homophobia, and I can say from the very bottom of my lived experience that nearly the opposite of this is true. Coming up with reasons to avoid my desire to transition— and also do gay stuff— left me grasping and clinging to a lot of internalized misogyny, because it’s a very solid thing in the world to hold onto, and working through it in tandem with taking the social and biomedical steps I wanted to take was exponentially beneficial on both fronts, as in, I became better to myself and also better to women as a result of not holding myself to being one. Of course, I’m also attracted to men, and the wildest counter-point myth I’ve seen about trans men/mascs who are attracted to men is that we transition as the ultimate “not like the other girls, but a cool girl” male-attention-seeking behavior. This is so especially absurd as to just be hilarious, as we all know the thing (implied straight) men want in their fantasy of “a girlfriend who looks like a bimbo and acts like a dude who can hang” is me, the girlfriend who looks like a dude who can hang and acts like a bimbo.

Anyway. I was not a good student. I was in and out of Special Ed and Special Ed accessories. I was curious and took a lot of interesting classes but did zero homework and spaced out. I couldn’t sit still, and I definitely couldn’t focus for forty-three minutes and then switch focus to a different thing for another forty-three minutes and do this seven times a day, every day, starting at 6:20 in the morning. Sometimes I think I had severe unaddressed cognitive and emotional issues and sometimes I think I was tired and probably having a fairly reasonable reaction to the flow of things. I was definitely, like, very dehydrated for at least six years in a row.

I skipped class a bunch, too. I don’t know why. I didn’t smoke. I’ve never smoked and I didn’t drink until I was an adult and I didn’t try pot until I was 23 or 24 and trying to address chronic pain, and I have never done any other drugs. I have absolutely no moral issues with them, it’s just substance agnosticism, if you will. I had other vices as a teenager, such as inappropriately older sexual partners starting from an uncomfortably young age, but thankfully none of the adult men I “dated” dared try to pick me up from school. So when I skipped classes I would simply hang out by myself in various quiet places. I read a lot of novels about undefinable but yearning relationships between two or several men. I stopped taking subjects as soon as I had cleared the minimum required to graduate, and many people told me I was tanking my chances to go to college, which was supposed to be the whole “point” of everything in a “good school.”

I very much wish I had stuck with things like math and Spanish, and I also know that the person I was at the time wouldn’t have gotten more out of them. The only thing I could really “be there” for, really try at, really go above and beyond for, was art class.

Specifically, a photography class that doubled as an art history class. We had a darkroom! God, the things I would do to have casual free access to a darkroom again. The photography teacher was an amazing man and everyone was in love with him. He had excellent boundaries and never let us get it twisted, though. He did not try to be cool even though he was very cool, and he played good music during work times, and exposed us to contemporary and historic art that was hugely formative for me.

He said that he would never tell us what a good photograph was, but he would insist that we look at as many different kinds of photographs as possible, and learn why they looked the way they did, and then look at things that weren’t photographs at all and learn about those, too. We had “Dada Day” where we got to doodle the rudest, most juvenile shit we wanted on regular paper and then had to crumble it into a ball and throw it at him. We had “Jackson Pollock Day” where we all got raw canvas on the floor and paint and had to drizzle away (I still have most of this project and am currently using it as a drop cloth). After showing us Sally Mann’s family portraiture, he assigned an essay where we had to explain the difference between “naked” and “nude” and I completely bombed it because I wrote something like “I’m pretty sure nude is just a pretentious way to say naked?” But, like, what a question to ask teenagers who may or may not be even aware that they have bodies.*** He respected us enough as children to show us art in which the artist’s children were nude (not naked, for the record) and give us room to consider what sexualization even was and how we would know if it was present. In a public school! I would not say that he saved my life but he did create the conditions in which I was able to save my own life, and for that I am forever grateful.

*** It is not nothing that I failed to grasp this idea when I was a child who was actively sexual and often naked— not nude— with adults who failed to grasp that I was a child. I guess I’ve alluded to this part of my adolescence a few times now, because to avoid it would be dishonest, but otherwise I am going to leave it at allusion and as-needed context. Please do not push me on the topic but please do not pity me, either.

So! I had an anecdote that I originally meant to arrive at this morning, and it was this: There was one week where we watched Art 21, but of course they were his selections from Art 21, and he was a lovely human being with good taste so he selected very well.

We watched the Andrea Zittel segment, “Consumption.” I forgot Andrea Zittel’s name until someone recently jogged my memory based on a description of this segment, but it left such a huge impression on me. It wasn’t the kind of impression that resulted in a an immediate obsession, as other artists did for me then, but a longer and slower influence. If you want some art homework, you should watch the clip via the link above and also look at her current projects on her website.

I also originally had a ton of thoughts for this post that amounted to “let us consider: contemporary art that is kind of practiced through personal lifestyle production as a light in which to recast pandemic hobbies as ‘legitimate’ art,” but then I wrote a personal essay about high school instead. Believe it or not, I strongly dislike both writing about my personal life and thinking about high school, so I feel hesitant to post this at all! But it’s what bubbled up this morning so here we are.

I will come back to the art in another post, though. I’m eager for a little curated show-and-tell.

Love,

Julian

Andrea Zittel, “Linear Sequence” (2016). From the artist’s website: “Linear Sequence was the result of a personal challenge in which Zittel attempted to develop a support system other than the traditional system of vertical ‘legs’ (such as those of tables and chairs). In this case horizontal steel timbers serve to divide space and support the horizontal surfaces: a bench-like seating area with side and back supports and a low table with two cushions that one can sit on while reading, writing, eating or drinking.”