What happens when you try on a new life and realize it’s a mistake?
It is the first day of graduate school in the Fiber Arts Department at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and I am having a panic attack. I feel sick to my stomach, dizzy, warm…and more than a little bit undone by my own ambition.
I had a nice, predictable life up until now as a successful freelance writer. But I was bored, and I would avidly read “reinvent yourself” stories in magazines to find a way forward. I wanted a change, I wanted to be around other people more. Why not get a masters of fine arts (MFA) in fibers, I thought, a true love of mine dating back to childhood? (I’ve been a quilter, a knitter, a collager, a sewer, a stamper and a painter. I wouldn’t call myself an artist…at least not yet.) So I have spent the past year and a half preparing for this day: working on my art portfolio, compiling my transcripts from 30 years ago, taking prerequisite art history courses and applying to graduate schools. With my acceptance to UMass, I have put my two-bedroom condo up for sale and moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts.
And now, a tad dramatically, I admit, I feel like I have made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
My condo hasn’t sold in six months despite 33 showings and two miserably low rent-to-own offers. The train has left the station, but I am dragging the $2,000 a month mortgage caboose with me, along with rent on an apartment and tuition bills. I had hoped to pull back on my work while in school, and use the funds from the sale of my condo to pay the tuition, ultimately emerging with a new career direction as an artist/writer/teacher.
But life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, or so John Lennon said.
Friends and acquaintances tell me that everything happens for a reason. Really? I hate it when people say that. I don’t believe that when the best of things happens and certainly not when the worst happens, nor do I believe that God is orchestrating my life. At the height of my stress, one of my neighbors says it’s not a religious thing, and I may not see why things are going this way until a long time in the future. That explanation, maybe, I can buy. At least it gives me something to hang onto. (That, and the eight pounds I’ve lost thanks to my “anxiety diet.”)
I meet a first-year MFA student who tells me that the school’s locale, New Bedford, in south coastal Massachusetts near Cape Cod, is more than just a city in transition—it’s actually more dangerous in places than her home country of Syria. I am incredulous, not to mention worried. Then I watch as this student mounts a rectangle of smooth, gray fabric dotted with tufts of pink wool on a wall and spends half an hour in a room with two professors explaining her concept. Conceptual art? I just want to make stuff. Plus, I am completely overwhelmed by the 15 credits a semester I’m supposed to handle along with my still full-time writing load. Fiber art studio classes, plus art history and theory classes, teaching practicums plus completed art works and exhibits. I’m a perfectionist and I definitely want all “As.” How will I manage all of this without losing my mind?
I peek in on a weaving class. The classroom is stifling, and sweat pours down the instructor’s face as she teaches. I am looking for a challenge, and to shake my life up, but in the face of reality—it is hot, sticky and uncomfortable—rather than the fantasy in my head, I begin to question whether I really want to pursue an MFA.
I talk with the girl from Syria and she mentions she went through the post-baccalaureate certificate program in fibers first before going on to the MFA. What’s that, I wonder, and investigate. It sounds idyllic: A single year of building your portfolio, working on your art not only in fiber, but other disciplines that interest you like metals, ceramics, illustration, painting. No academics, no teaching. Four and a half credits per semester instead of 15, and the credits can be applied toward an MFA. A plan formulates, and I email my advisor asking if I can switch to the post-bac program—and the answer, surprisingly, is yes. (There is only one other graduate student in the department, so I guess they figure they should hang on to me however they can.)
I quickly change course, and instantly feel relief.
I begin week two with a whole new attitude and vigor. The post-bac program is so much more appropriate for where I am emotionally, technically, creatively and financially. I wouldn’t have moved just for a year, but I am grateful to be here.
From that “A-ha” moment of decision, my year proceeds smoothly and so quickly. Days of bliss, experimentation and learning. I write for six hours a day and then go to my studio for four hours, plus attend classes twice a week. I’m creatively and intellectually stimulated at every turn, and the facilities allow me to do messy things I can’t do at home, like dyeing fabric, batiking and marbling. I find my tribe—a group of women who love to play with fabric, paper, yarn and thread as much as I do. The graduate studio becomes a safe haven for me, while many of the undergrads who populate the department are sweet and welcoming.
In my studio (a cubicle really, but it sounds so much better to call it a studio), I pass the time creating large wall-hangings and fiber vessels, and talking with my fellow artists: Denise, a lovely woman in her early 60s who is now an artist in residence after going through both the post-bac and MFA programs. We share a similar color sensibility and I look on her work with awe and appreciation. Suzi, an Earth Mother in her 50s who creates sumptuously beautiful weavings, and has enthusiasm for all things fiber. Her laughter is infectious and fills the studio. Kat, a young painter who is experimenting in knitting and crocheting. (Yes, you can experiment in crafts like that in college!) And Charlotte, our tireless leader, who spends time with each of us giving feedback and encouragement, and who makes me stretch way beyond my comfort zone.
Most days, I leave my studio feeling elated. My time is packed with challenges and presentations of my work—something I’ve shied away from in the past, but I’ve promised myself that I will be open to this experience and try not to take criticism too personally. I gain back the weight I lost (oh, anxiety diet, where have you gone?), and the tension and stress I felt last fall seem very far away now.
And suddenly the year is over. The experience ends, peters out with a whimper as I am asked to clean out my studio and say goodbye, but I feel altered in ways both subtle and profound. And I see that it all did pan out this way for a reason—so I could go home again with a new perspective on my very good life in Connecticut. And so I could realize that I can handle pretty much anything that life puts in my path. I’ll rebound, even if it means changing courses.
Back home now, I’ve commandeered the dining room as my studio and I spend dedicated time each week creating my artwork. I don’t care if I make money from it or not, if I exhibit or not, or if it leads to a new career or not. It just feels good to say I’m an artist—and believe it.