Art History 101: Imposter Syndrome

(posted 05/26/2022)

I thought I’d share some of my history just to let you know where I’ve been. I think it also helps me close the chapters for good and continue forward into my next art phase. In my last blog I told the story of how I spent a lot of time in the art room in high school and why. The art teacher had suggested I could get a scholarship to Cleveland Institute of Art but I looked at him like he was crazy thinking my grades were too good to “waste” on art school. So, I was not intending on being an art major when I applied to Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. I wanted to be an art therapist. Looking back I clearly see I didn’t pick the right college, but at the time I had no clue how to pick the best school for my intended major. It was a good “liberal arts” college so I was assured no matter what I majored in I’d be guaranteed a career in whatever I wanted to do after I earned a Bachelor’s. I’m not sure if I was mislead or had no common sense at the time, but that’s how I perceived my options. The campus was pretty, the tour guide seemed friendly, and they gave me hefty grants based on my grades. I was wait listed at Oberlin and Dickinson, so I accepted my fate and matriculated at Allegheny in the fall of 1988.

College was difficult for me to say the least. They expected me to show up early in the morning, do lots of reading, participate in class and spend hours studying. I will let you in on a secret, I didn’t do much of that in high school at all. I would study the night before tests since the teachers usually told us what would be on them. I did like to read a lot, but was more interested in Anne Rice and Stephen King novels than Immanuel Kant or Thomas Merton books. Then there was my new social life. I went from talking to literally two people in high school to having a nice group of friends in college based on our mutual love of loud keg parties and drinking any form of schnapps we could get our hands on.

At Allegheny I felt some support of my new friends, but did not have any connection with my advisor or my professors. I avoided them as much as possible, certainly because of the shame I felt in not attending classes and not doing well on tests. I had never struggled in school so I didn’t realize I should have reached out to them for help. I didn’t even know a tutor was an option. It did not improve either when I spoke with my advisor in the middle of my Freshman year and she said “Maybe Allegheny isn’t the place for you.” I’m still angry about that after all these years, but writing this does help get it off my chest. She was probably right, but she never offered me help or ways to improve my situation. I think that’s when I first developed my tendencies of imposter syndrome.

I spent the next three years feeling like I wasn’t good enough to be there. I went through some very tough emotional and financial struggles my junior year and considered dropping out after I failed an 8 am class I rarely attended – Geology. Quite honestly college was boring me too. It just seemed like work, and I was having too much fun with my new friends for that. With encouragement from my good friend and roommate, I decided to bite the bullet and take an extra course my senior year to finish my degree. By that time I had a few art courses under my belt including a multimedia class where I hand built this clay piece modeled after a glass bottle with candle wax dripping off the sides. It was about 18 inches tall.

I thought my choice of majors was between English and Studio Art based on the classes I had done well in and felt encouragement from the professors when I did show up and do the work. I learned to mix the clay and glazes and how to fire pieces in an enormous gas kiln. I can’t say I felt like an expert after those classes, but I knew I loved it and enjoyed the process more than anything else. Here is a piece I did in beginning ceramics course when we had to depict the fortune after opening a fortune cookie in class.

I never felt connected with the other art majors. They seemed weird to me ha ha. Now I realize I would have fit in perfectly with my own weirdness if I had just accepted my differences rather than try to hide them. I did not spend a lot of time at art events, but I do vividly recall when the art gallery receptionist bought a raku fired cup and saucer I had made. I was in shock since I had always given my pieces away for free to family and friends.

Here are a couple of the pieces that were part of my senior year project. Some lost soul broke off the points of the yellow triangles in the top piece, so I had to just go with it when I discovered the damage in the studio the next day. The platters are about 20 inches wide and I still have some of them.

That senior project was another experience that added to my imposter syndrome. We were supposed to find an artist that inspired our work and I had settled on Wassily Kandinsky. I read a little about his work and was inspired by the bold shapes, colors, and lines. His use of the abstract to transcend the physical world resonated with me. I was not able to convey this to the art history professor though – he quickly shot me down and said my work was no comparison to Kandinsky. True, but I don’t know where these professors come off being so mean to young people.

Fast forward to early 2000s when I enrolled in pottery courses at Lakeland Community College. Once again I was in my element spending hours in the studio each week. Throwing pottery was very fun and was something I was ok at, but never mastered it. I lacked a lot of the strength needed in my hands and it is very hard on your skin. Hand building came much easier to me. Here are some of the pieces I made at Lakeland. The teacher was very good, and I loved the classes. He showed us the technical nuances but let us run free with our own ideas and projects.

I have not done ceramics or pottery for roughly twenty years now. I don’t really miss it since I found encaustic to be very satisfying, inspiring, and full of possibilities. If you’ve read this far, thank you so much for your interest. I don’t spend too much of my time looking back, but I needed to chronicle and appreciate the learning experiences that brought me to where I am right now.