Losing the Artist Within

When I was twelve years old, I thought I would be an art teacher when I grew up. Perhaps I would illustrate children’s stories, maybe create great paintings. I loved to draw and thought that whatever I did, it would involve art.

I was always drawing, doodling and creating. I filled notebooks with images. I would draw pictures and sell them to my classmates for twenty-five cents (unknowingly filling the stereotype of the struggling artist.)  With a good friend I co-wrote and illustrated a “magazine” or two that may or may not have included less than kind fictional stories about a fellow classmate (which may or may not have landed me in Sister Patriciana’s office, shaking in my boots).

People told me I was an excellent artist. I believed them.

Until I started to have my doubts.

I was asked to illustrate the cover for our high school yearbook. I was given a pressed board meant for oils and asked to do it in a black pastel crayon  – a difficult medium on an unforgiving surface. I was miserable and embarrassed with the result (and to this day, that yearbook is tucked away in a box. It remains torturous to look at.

I did go to college as an art major, where I received a blow to my self-confidence in the form of a two-dimensional design teacher who honestly felt that one couldn’t create art if one hadn’t suffered. There I was, a middle-class firstborn kid who didn’t  have everything in the world but who also hadn’t suffered any great hardships other than teasing in school. His expectations proved impossible to meet. I was losing the artist within and I began to doubt whether I could suffer another year under his tutelage and come out with any confidence at all.

Actually, I didn’t.

To this day I’m still a bit affected by that experience.  When I was single and living downtown Chicago, I enrolled in a children’s storybook illustration course at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was an evening class, so I would be with other part-time students and hoped it wouldn’t be as intimidating. Walking the halls, the smells of paints and plaster dust in the air, I was transported to my freshman year.

However, my teacher nailed my problem with my second illustration: I was drawing too tightly. Gone was my lose, confident flow. In its place was a death grip on the charcoal pencil, a physical manifestation of the tightly wound control that pretty much sums up my personality.

It became my goal to re-learn to draw more loosely.

So far, I haven’t been successful.

I don’t doodle much any more. When my daughter asks me to draw something for her, I don’t know who gets more frustrated by the attempts – me, or her.  A blank sheet of paper can still strike panic.

I mourn the loss – of my self-confidence, of the ability to just let go.

And some days I wish – I just wish – I could go back to my freshman year, and push on. I wish that I could grab that twelve-year-old and tell her to go for it, and don’t give up for anything.

Did you have a childhood passion that you fought for and succeeded at?
Do you have a love or goal that you gave up on and wish you had persevered at?


This post was inspired by Marie-Helene Bertino’s 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas, an enchanting and original debut novel about hope, love, and music in snow-covered streets of Philadelphia.  Madeleine Altimari is a smart-mouthed, rebellious nine-year-old who also happens to be an aspiring jazz singer. Still mourning the recent death of her mother, and caring for her grief-stricken father, she doesn’t realize that on the eve of Christmas Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day—and night—of her life. Join From Left to Write on August 28 we discuss 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes. All opinions expressed are entirely my own.



  • Janaki Kuruppu

    It’s never too late to recover your passion!! I hate that teacher who stole your confidence. What a horrible thing Doubt is. Shake it, express yourself. What a silly thing to instill in a young person, that you must suffer to make true art. Ridiculous!!

    • Jenn

      One of those things that a naive young girl doesn’t know but learned the hard way: there ARE such things as bad teachers. This one was a doozy. I recognize this now, but then? I just didn’t get it.

  • Char

    My childhood passions were children and reading. I guess I succeeded in following those since I’ve worked as a Nanny for over 13 years, am pregnant with my 4th child, and still LOVE and crave reading. LOL!!

    • Jenn

      Well, my OTHER passion was reading as well – that I still do.

      If only I could find a way to get PAID to do it, well, then I’d find my dream job, lol!!!

  • thienkimlam

    I’m sorry that those people stole your dream to be an artist. It’s not too late. Draw every chance you get. i highly recommend you check out Danny Gregory’s work and books. His drawing philosophy resonated with me–even though I mostly doodle these days.

    • Jenn

      I’ll have to check out his books. Its not so much that my dream was stolen but my self confidence. Picking up a pencil, I just tense up and I’m too critical, so its hard to find the fun. *sighs* I keep picking up the pencil, but I just feel like I lost something along the way.

  • HonestAndTruly

    I so feel your pain. My house is decorated with paintings that my grandmother made. My dad is an amazing artist. And I have always felt that I can’t draw a straight line. Or a crooked one when I want to. My 9th grade teacher who would erase what I’d drawn and redraw it for my probably didn’t help. The teachers who – potentially unintentionally – destroy our confidence is awful. I can only hope that my children never have that experience. And that they find their loves.

  • Erin

    I obviously didn’t go to school with you but reading this made me feel so sad for you. I can definitely relate to getting really good at something and then having the passion for it obliterated by something on the outside. I agree with Mimi…start over in another class and keep at it. If you can find the right teacher and the right class, the will and the passion will return to you. This is what happened to me with dancing — I loved it so much and was good at it, and then I fell victim to favoritism (I didn’t care that I wasn’t the favorite, I cared that the teachers were showing preference at all)…stopped doing it for years….and then rediscovered it through Dancing with the Stars and Zumba, and now I love it again! Now if only I’d stuck to writing like I should have, I’d be golden.

  • Mimi

    New starts next January. Look for another art class. AND you did get in trouble with Sister Pat. Only time I had to fight for you in 8 years at St. Patricks. The kid deserved what you did to him in your book. (And I don’t think he got into trouble.)

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