Friday, December 25, 2009

A Major Change

"I'm changing my major to art."

Look up these five words and you'll find they roughly translate into "I'm going to make no money."

Just what every parent with a kid in college wants to hear.

"It doesn't matter- just so long as they're happy, healthy, have ten fingers and ten toes..."

Yeah, but couldn't five of those fingers be pushing around numbers on a spread sheet instead of paint on a canvas? Wouldn't six figures bring you closer to health and happiness?

My parents silently accepted my proclamation, although I'm certain these questions, among others, were swirling around in their heads. I had entered Penn State as a pre-veterinary major, and here I was, in the middle of my first term, being lured by the sirens of the art world. You can count on a siren for a romantic notion or two, but you won't see too many of them forking over the rent money. My education, room and board were being completely subsidized at the time so I didn't understand the satisfaction of security, nor was I planning on worrying about it anytime soon. Tomorrow was another day, and frankly, my dear, I didn't give a damn about the details.

As a child, when asked what I wanted to be when I would grow up, I would answer, "A ballerina or a veterinarian." Considering that there are more than six degrees of separation between toe shoes and a terrier's testicles, you could say that I hadn't as yet made up my mind. Careful not to be blatantly discouraging, but doubting my commitment to the veterinary cause, my mother would say, "You know, Joan - you have to do more than love them. You have to clean up after them, too."

You also have to make it through your first term of classes.

Penn State's sprawling campus and enrollment of 40,000 did not intimidate the small town girl, but disappointing test grades and a handful of teeth-baring pre-veterinary majors proved to be more than an annoyance. They were driven and ruthless right out of the gate; I now admire their single-minded passion, but I was not up for the fight at the time. This particular dog-eat-dog world would not work for me.

An elective course in graphic art led me to the dark side. My Darth Vader came in the form of a charismatic printmaking instructor I met while struggling through the land of press type and cut and paste. Looking to increase his own enrollment, he convinced me to take a course in "intaglio" or metal plate printmaking. I took the bait and entered the print shop...

... and left four years later with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in printmaking. Armed with academic idealism and a reasonable amount of artistic knowledge, I landed back at my parents' home. My own collegiate experience had been quite the bipolar ride; I had spent hours laboring over lithographic stones and zinc plates yet managed to shape my social persona as well. It was not all work and no play for Joan, and she did not emerge a dull girl. Who better to light the fires of future students? A position as a printmaking professor at a university my objective, I set about applying to graduate schools in pursuit of a Master's degree. Giving in to immature confidence, I targeted only two schools and was accepted by neither. On to Plan B.

Plan B was intended to be implemented for the short term; I never imagined it could span two decades. I took a job as a hostess in "Wanda's on the Park", a restaurant in the Wilkes-Barre Sheraton Hotel, looking forward to saving some money and reapplying to graduate schools the following year. Waitressing at a favorite lunch spot followed and soon I was up to my neck in dishes and double shifts. By chance, I encountered a Penn State alumnus on her way to New York and in need of a roommate, so off I went to the Big Apple, with my Master's Degree a dot in the rear view mirror.

Sharing a duplex with four other women, I secured a server position at the Plaza Hotel's Palm Court. Although more glamorous than a luncheonette, I'm sure that my parents had doubts about their four year college investment being used to artfully place a piece of cake on a plate. How about that dollop of whipped cream with three strawberries as a garnish? Now, that was worth something.

Twelve years passed in the big city, and I found myself married and looking for a house. Once settled in upstate New York, I began to look for waitressing work. Though kept alive, my creative pursuits had never generated much income. "Good evening. Would you care for something to drink?"

My skills in the hospitality business, though not my vision of a career, have served me well. (Get it?) These days my plate-toting is limited to my own dinner and a few private parties. I have yet to stumble upon my big artistic break or institute the mechanism to make it happen and I'm sorry to say that my parents will never see an artistic economic return on their tuition dollars. House portraits and pet portraits have generated a lot of interest and little cash flow. "She's so talented; if only she could find her niche.", my father would say.

Though Mom and Dad may have had reservations about my choices, they rarely voiced negative opinions. They listened as I ran on about the exquisite nature of lithography limestones quarried from a singular source in France. My ink-stained hands were the color of a mechanic's, yet it was unlikely that they would earn me as much. Keeping quiet, my parents let me find my own unconventional way.

Easter of 2005 was the last time they visited my home; two months later my mother would enter a nursing home with dementia. As I prepared dinner in the kitchen, my father surfed through the televison channels and landed on a religious drama. When the image of a young boy hammering hieroglyphics into a stone appeared, Dad casually remarked, "There's Joan in college."


  1. Hello Joan,

    Found your blog via Norman Plankey on Facebook. I caught a bit of Too Blue at the Columbia County Land Conservancy picnic this past summer. Great stuff, keep it coming.

    Happy 2010 - Peter Jung, Hudson, NY

  2. Hey Joan,
    very, very insightful.... you are oh so witty and your style is humourous, but this piece, THIS makes me feel. I'll leave it at that, atleast here. Thank you Joan, for sharing so much of yourself. Well done!

  3. Loved this have a wonderful way with words. I am there with you and enjoying what I read while feeling it with heart. Nice!