Guest post by Timothy H. Lee (2006-08 Scholastic Awards winner) on his inspiring journey to becoming an artist and his experience in our first Art.Write.Now.Pop-Up! flash residency in the Scholastic flagship store’s main display window from September 29 – October 4
It’s been 3 weeks since my residency at the Scholastic building storefront ended, and I find myself finally transitioning back into a private studio practice. I was surprised at how difficult it was to transition from working in front of hundreds of people a day, to spending quiet nights painting alone. Although my residency only lasted a week, my experience there was one that had a profound impact on my life: not because I met Nick Cannon, or was interviewed by Hi-Fructose, or even because of the opportunities I received as result of my exposure (though I will not lie and say those weren’t amazing perks). The Art.Write.Now.Pop-Up! served as a confirmation that becoming an artist was the right decision.
I grew up my entire life thinking I wanted to be a physician. Although I had shown interest and adeptness in drawing from an early age, it was only a hobby and not yet a passion. I attended Hunter College High School in the Upper East Side, where I was thrown into one of the most brutally competitive atmospheres I’d ever experienced. In the midst of classes, exams, and papers, art emerged as an outlet – a way to escape reality and lose myself in my work. While the doodles I created were far from masterpieces, the importance of art in my life became clearer as I progressed through high school. It was during this time that I received my first recognition from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and knowing that an outside jury of art professionals deemed my work unique and original boosted my confidence.
When I started Wesleyan University in 2008, I was a dedicated pre-med student. However, I still took art classes to keep myself sane when the rest of the world drove me crazy. Eventually, I declared a major in Studio Art, alongside Biology and Neuroscience, and resolved that even though I would become a doctor, at least I could tell myself I majored in art in college.
In my senior year, I was required to complete an honors thesis for Studio Art – a year of independent studio work that culminated in a self-curated solo exhibition in the school gallery. I was given a spacious studio that I could access at any time, and I wasted no time taking advantage of it. Concurrently, I had just taken my MCATS and sent off my primary application to a number of medical colleges. Balancing grades, my thesis, and the strenuous process of med school applications proved to be one of the darkest times of my college life.
I started painting eyes on paper after seeing an amazing series of drawings by Eileen Cubbage. Eyes have always attracted me because I communicate with people through the interpersonal linking of our sight. It is difficult for me to carry on a conversation with someone I cannot visually sync with. At my critique, however, my professors were less than thrilled at these “pretty and delicate” eyes. Frustrated with myself, I crumbled the works and tossed them to a corner. That’s when they suddenly became interesting and provocative. I had finally created something that intrigued me, albeit by accident, and it was exhilarating. With this adrenaline rush I began experimenting, furiously, and developed a system of mark-making that could tap into my chaotic mind and pull out bits of information onto paper. My eyes were glowing as I began to create sculptural eyes and large expanses of “snake skin” landscapes.
In the midst of this revelation, my medical school applications began arriving. Many of the applications asked a very important question: What motivates you to become a physician? Re-reading this question, I was suddenly hit with a gut-wrenching truth: I wasn’t interested in being a doctor at all. Sitting in my studio at 4AM, with the howls of the chilly January wind providing a soothing ambiance, I realized that art had been the biggest commitment I had ever made in my life. It was not a hobby, but a passion – and something I knew I had to develop full-time. I withdrew the remaining applications I had sent out, and for the first time, immersed myself in art 100%. My thesis exhibition, secretive skin, received the Elizabeth Verveer Tishler Prize in Art for best senior exhibition, and my thesis was voted high honors by the Art department.
I graduated in 2012, and came out into the real world still in a honeymoon phase with art. The feeling of bliss and naive excitement came to an abrupt halt when rent, insurance, and other bills began pouring in. On top of that, I was suddenly the tiny guppy in a sea of artists. No one noticed my work, and I suddenly became overwhelmed with doubt about whether I had truly made a sound decision in choosing to become an artist.
When I was first notified that I was selected for the Pop-Up, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I came in on the first day, expecting to work like the way I did in my own studio, but that thought was thrown out the window as soon as I sat down in front of the window. I was startled – like a deer caught in the headlights – by the swarms of strangers that passed by. I became even more self-conscious about my work, and spent the first day very tense. But as the second day commenced, I realized that working in the storefront gave me a very special opportunity: to observe the general public’s reactions to my work. Although I felt like a zoo animal the first day, the perspective changed quickly and I became the observer viewing the experiment. Since I was separated from the street by a wall-to-wall glass window, which blocked me from speaking directly with any of the passers-by, I began to notice their body cues and their eyes. One of my favorite moments was seeing people walk by, then suddenly stop, backtrack, and spend a few minutes out of their busy schedules to pore over my installation – their expressions telling me all that I needed to know.
In the end, this residency humbled me greatly, and confirmed for me that I was meant for this. Being an artist isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, but you have to take advantage of those ups and maximize their influence on your life. I could not have ask for a better confirmation of my decision, and I hope the positive vibes from this residency guide me in my future endeavors in art, and lift me up when obstacles inevitably present themselves again.
This residency also reaffirmed for me the importance of organizations like the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers that recognize our nation’s emerging creative youths. There are thousands of young artists and writers hidden under a shell of insecurity. Awarding these creative youths instills the confidence they need to cultivate and grow their visions. I am thankful and honored that the Alliance selected me to be the inaugural artist in their Pop-Up residency. They have given me more confidence in myself, and I am excited for what the future holds!