Recto: On Becoming an Artist by Karen Walrond
I am an artist.
This is the first time I’ve ever typed that sentence. I
am an artist. It feels strange to do so, even as my fingers rapidly
tap the letters on my keyboard to form the statement. While my intellect
can comprehend this statement, it’s taking a bit longer for my soul to
understand its meaning.
Oddly enough, I’ve never had a problem declaring my former
professions. I am an engineer. I am a lawyer. But then, I’ve
been conditioned to believe that I could be an engineer. Or a
lawyer. Or anything non-artistic.
When I was a child, well-meaning parents and teachers told
me that anything art-related wouldn’t be a realistic profession for me to
follow. “You won’t make any money,” they said. “Besides, you’re
good at math.” Since I was a child, I believed them. I’m not an
artist, I would tell myself. But I’m good at math. When
I was a teenager, I happened to find a report card from kindergarten in my
father’s files. “Karen is excellent at math and English,” the card
said. “However, she does not show an aptitude for art.” See?
I thought to myself as I looked at the document with a sinking heart. I’m
not an artist. But I’m good at math.
Every now and then, I’d test this theory with my
parents. One day, when I was about 15 and our family was living in
Houston, I approached my mother. “Mom,” I said, “I think when I go
to university, I’d like to study architecture.”
“Really?” she replied, amused. Then, she became
more serious. “But architecture requires artistic talent. You’re
not that artistic, honey,” she added gently. She
brightened. “But you’re good at math! Maybe you
could be an engineer, like your father. He’d be so proud.”
Resigned, I enrolled in Texas A&M University, in the
college of civil engineering on an academic scholarship. I became a
structural engineer (as close to architecture as I could get – you know,
without having any artistic talent). By the time I graduated, I had used
every single elective to take architecture classes – 30 credits in all – and I
loved them. I became passionate about art history, purchasing texts over
and above those required for my courses, and read them voraciously. I
began going to museums. I became obsessed.
Predictably, after graduation, I hated every day I worked as
an engineer. The truth was, I found the constant equations and
calculations mind-numbingly boring. This won’t do, I
thought. I need to go to graduate school. I can’t be an engineer
for the rest of my life. However, while I looked around at other
career options, that familiar nagging voice kept whispering: I’m not
an artist. But I have an analytical mind. So instead of exploring
more artistic options, I went to law school. Upon graduation, I practiced
law for 10 years, quite successfully. I can honestly say I truly hated
it. But I did it, all the time resenting the effort it took for me to
make it through the day, and the amount of time it robbed me from my husband
and our new baby daughter, Alex.
Then one day, an opportunity arose for my husband in my
native Trinidad & Tobago, and he approached me about the possibility of
moving. “Would you open to it?” he asked. “You’ve been saying how
miserable you are practicing law. This would give you an opportunity to
spend some time at home with Alex, and figure out what you want to do next.”
I didn’t even
hesitate. I quit my job, and we moved to Trinidad. With my newfound
freedom, I dusted off my camera (a hobby I had begun about 10 years earlier),
and started shooting in earnest. I began writing. People started
purchasing my words and my images. And before I knew it, people didn’t
refer to me as a “lawyer” anymore. I became a “writer” and a
This transformation has been quite a shock. It’s taken me
all these years to begin to suspect that perhaps, just maybe, I am an artist.
I’m starting to believe in the possibility that it’s not that I’m not artistic
– it’s that my definition of being an “artist” has been far too
narrow. That’s not to say my parents and teachers were necessarily wrong
– I can’t draw anything more complicated than stick figures, or sculpt
anything more intricate than a rudimentary ashtray — but perhaps artistry and
creativity are more than just pastels and moulding clay. It’s about using
your imagination to express yourself – no matter what the medium.
So, I am an artist – despite the fact that I have
been an engineer and a lawyer. I have a mathematical mind, I have an
analytical mind – but I also have an artistic mind. I create
images with my camera, and people respond. I create images with my words,
and people respond. And my fervent hope, in raising my young
daughter, is that I remember to teach her not only can she be whatever she
wants to be, but, even more powerfully, that her talents my lie in unexpected
niches that will allow her to be whatever she desires, or is passionate about.
In the meantime, however, I’m loving exploring my newfound creative side. I
hope the journey never ends.
I am an artist.
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- March 27, 2006 / 3:40 am