I was about 22 years old when I entered my first design studio. I felt like a baby. I had rarely taken an art class in school. When I say rarely, I mean there had been a few special days of art in grade school – nothing particularly formal, and certainly nothing recent. At that time, I didn’t think that I KNEW how to make. In that moment, those grade school classes and the lessons of my grandmothers in living arts didn’t seem to matter; I was scared of the entire process and frozen. The freedom that seemed to stretch before me was too much for my young mind to handle. As a young adult, my best friend was a budding artist. I remember her beautiful drawings so clearly and I began to think that that art was fascinating, but something that OTHER people did. Prints of Pinkie and The Blue Boy in gold foil frames, purchased at the local furniture store, were the only “art” that hung in our home.
It wasn’t until I graduated high school in 1979 that I remember hearing the word design used in the context of an actual PROFESSION. I was amazed. While my father was a builder and I saw him work with architects my entire life, it never occurred to me that they were “designers” too.
Fresh out of high school and still very naive, I enrolled at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. On the course schedule at UTC was a design class. I thought that I had reached nirvana. I signed up for the class and on the first day received a long list of supplies we were required to purchase for the class. I clearly remember going out to purchase all of those supplies and feeling like I was floating on air. Colored papers, drawing boards, special pencils, templates, the list went on and on (can you tell that my love for art and office supplies still remains?). I spent every penny I had that day and got a second job waiting tables at a restaurant that night so I could afford my living expenses.
The first official day of class, I was beside myself with excitement. I remember about 20 of us standing in a circle listening intently to the professor. He pulled out two brightly colored sheets of paper—one blue, one red—and asked us “Which color is hot and which color is cold?” Silence in the room. As he gazed around the room, he looked at me and asked again, “Which color is hot and which color is cold?” At this stage of my life, I was a painfully shy introvert who sometimes broke out in hives if I had to speak intimately with a stranger… anything above taking an order in the restaurant was beyond my capacity. Like a deer in the headlights, I looked at him and answered “The blue is hot and the red is cold.”
I remember clearly his look of disbelief as he asked, “Are you colorblind or just an idiot?” In general, red is considered to be a hot color and blue is considered a cold color.
I stopped going to class that afternoon and shortly thereafter just stopped attending the university altogether. To my father’s dismay, I never even dropped out of school. I just stopped going.
It took some phone calls and paperwork to remove the F’s from my transcripts (or perhaps they are still there). Never another word was mentioned of my being colorblind – which I’m not – and I would bet money that this professor (I can’t remember his name) wouldn’t even remember the incident.
It took me 4 years, a child (my son, Zach), and a bad marriage before I found my way back to a design class, this time at North Carolina State University School of Design. After applying to the school and being turned down, I enrolled in a Two-Dimensional Design class for non-design majors where I experienced a very different kind of design teacher. I learned in that class that there ARE indeed hot and cold colors, BUT that sometimes the color blue can be hot and the color red can be cold. I was relieved to understand that my perception of color was simply more sophisticated than a simple hot/cold relationship and that my eye could detect very subtle differences and personalities in each of the individual colors. Color remains one of my strengths as a designer.
After that class, I applied to the School of Design and was admitted to the program. The memory of that first day in the studio is so strong that I can remember it more clearly than things I did yesterday. My teacher, Michael Pause (who later became my mentor and helped changed my life), walked into the class with a sort of slow meander, coffee cup in hand, and a wry smile on his face. He sat down, welcomed us to design school and dove right in. I remember being given our first project: interview one of our new colleagues and then make a mask for them (from the materials of our choice) that would demonstrate to the class what we should know about that student. It was due at the beginning of class the next day.
My heart sank. I had no idea how to approach this project – no background or tools to feel confident in my work. I interviewed a classmate named Lena, perhaps broke out in hives, and headed to pick up my son from daycare.
That night might have been one of the worst of my life. How do you make a mask? I was frozen. In the end, I took some of my son’s construction paper, made a simple circle with two pieces of string attached, producing the kind of mask you might expect from a first grader. On the paper, I drew lines, wrote texts about Lena, and ended with two pink circles glued down for cheeks. (Lena was a very gregarious, fresh faced woman who had glowing pink cheeks.)
Hives and all, I arrived to class that next day with my mask and my life has never been the same. The purpose of the mask was not only to inform each of our classmates about one another, it was also to inform each of our classmates about OURSELVES. That day, my classmates talked about my simple little mask like it was a work of art. As a designer, they determined that I cared about words, pattern, and fine detail, for the little stripes I had meticulously drawn. They determined that I loved texture from the combinations of paper, pattern, and textile. They said that as a designer, I was simple yet complex.
Over the years, I have thought back so many times about that day. It was as if my colleagues (who became my friends) had described the entire trajectory of my career. I do love words and have come to love them more and more as the years progress.
We started our studio work at Penland with this same project—although I called them portraits rather than masks. The results were outstanding.
We forget sometimes that all the things we do and make say as much about ourselves as they do about the people we are making them for.
Thank you to our Penland Studio for allowing me to share their portraits…
P.S.: A BIG hug and thank you to my father, my son Zach, and my entire family, for continuing to believe in me through drop-outs, drop-ins, dropped dishes, and so much more… and for still believing today.