Tuesday, September 9, 2008

the self-taught artist.

For the first time in my life my lack of a formal education is somehow impressive.

Quite mind blowing for me right now.

My story has always been one that I have been somewhat ashamed to tell in certain circles, especially when work or career is involved. I grew up in an uneducated, low income family. I dropped out of college. I couldn't afford it. I was completely on my own and just couldn't front it. I also had a ridiculously wonderful job at the time which is a great story of it's own. Since it's a cold rainy day, I'll tell it that one first.

I moved to VT in 1991 on a big whim. I had been waitressing in PA, where I grew up, sometimes taking classes at the community college, but basically making a ton (a TON) of cash and having a lot of fun. In VT, I went to Trinity College, where I majored in Elementary Education. I thought that I wanted to be a teacher, but eventually realized that I just wanted summers off, but stayed in it anyway. While going to school, I waitressed at Carbur's, but needed and wanted something else. I was a typical Burlington chick circa 1992 -- groovin' to Blues Traveler, riding my mountain bike, living for those wings at the restaurant that is now Bueno Y Santo... jeez what was the name of that place... anyway, add to that brewing my own beer. Cooking up coffee porter on the stove, fermenting in big glass carboys. It was a grand old age. So, I needed a job, saw one in the paper, "Part time sales rep needed for Vermont Specialty Foods Company." I thought, cheese. Maybe syrup? I sent my app, and got a call one day from Phil Gentile. I remember him telling me he was calling from Catamount, and I felt like Ed McMahon was knocking at my door with the big ass check. "OH MY GOD I LOVE BEER I BREW MY OWN BEER I LOVE CATAMOUNT!!" Got the job, sold beer in Burlington part time at a time when the only brown beer on tap was Harp.

So in time it was clear that I could work statewide, selling hooch, giving out free tshirts at ski lodges. I was making a ton of money because they brilliantly decided to offer me a full-time 100% commission position, at $5 for every keg and $.50 for every case sold in the state. Yeehaw! I weighed it out, dropped out of school, and the rest became my life, my story, and at times, my bane.

Despite the great experience that I got at Catamount and the trajectory it put me on for the years following, I wore a badge that I hated. I didn't have a college degree. I wouldn't come up often, but when it did I could actually feel the shame cooking in my cells as the conversation at the dinner party eventually worked it's way toward, "So when did you graduate?" "What's your degree in?" I doubt that there was much judgment swirling behind it or after it, really, but in my little soul I cringed and collapsed in a squirming heap, like the wicked witch in Wizard of Oz when I had to give my answer, "I didn't." "I don't have a degree." Their response that would follow would always be something like this: "oh." What else can you say?

The lack of a degree hurt at times during the job search, of course, but for the most part I was able to learn everything I needed by myself or through well-thought positioning over the years. If I didn't know how to do something well, I'd do it for free for someone until I got better at it. I got my hands on a bootleg copy of Illustrator and basically 'figured it out.' In order to get freelance graphic design clients, I donated services to non-profits and social causes in order to build my resume'. It all fell into place. Still, the shame, oh lordy, the shame of not having a degreeeeee!

Friday night, Art Hop. The question came up again and again, "So where did you study?" "Where did you go to art school?" And the answer.... "I didn't. I'm self-taught." And for the very first time in my life, people were actually impressed with my lack of education. Interesting! (and wonderful, I may add). What a shift in my life. I'm still scratching my head a bit. It's funny how, when I was receiving a national award for my work with people with disabilities, the fact that I could do so much without a formal education wasn't impressive. I could organize, implement, and deliver stunning services, but couldn't shout, "And I'm self-taught!" (( silence from the audience)). But hey, no complaints here at all, not a single single one. This is lovely. For the first time in my life, I feel that I can tell my story, where I'm from (very coal-miner's daughter, I tell ya), and know that it's ok, I'm here, I have my place, and I finally fit in. I'm and artist. I'm self-taught.

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