They Said Engineers Don’t Give Birth to Artists. They Were Wrong.
“We decided yours should be first,” the curator tells me. “We are all in love with it.”
The opening of the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art Academy alumni exhibition is just beginning when I arrive, panting after finally finding a parking spot some five blocks away. My oil on canvas, a dream-like piece, occupies the prime entrance spot. In it: two Earths, seemingly on a collision course with one another, and a red ladder with street lanterns piercing the dark blue sky raised above them. One Earth is lit up and playful, a cord stretching to power the lanterns. The other is dry, repressed, and illuminated only by a dim lamp hanging off the ladder.
“What do you think this means?” someone in the crowd asks their companion.
Six months ago, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean passed my window frame as I stared at my laptop screen and lingered over the pay button. Ten weeks and $350. I could spare the time but the money kept me thinking.
The Fort Lauderdale Art Academy bulletin had been sitting on my desk for five weeks. I’d browsed the website enough times for my computer to fill in the destination the moment I typed the first letter into the address bar. I even unpacked a never-opened easel I’d bought years before. Clearly I wanted this and, at 42 with several personal growth workshops behind me, I knew spending money on my dream was a good investment. Yet signing up for an “Introduction to Oil Painting” class seemed a frivolity. And I grew up in a family that didn’t believe in frivolities.
“You copy well,” my mother once said after she saw my near-perfect replica of Titian’s “Venus With a Mirror.” I was fifteen and spent hours with a pencil sketching everything from St. Petersburg’s Admiralty building to a portrait of Wham!, my teenage musical obsession. I loved creating shapes on paper and, despite the lack of formal instruction, my proportions and shading stood up against the originals. But neither my parents nor I thought of art as my future.
For that, I’d have to have been raised in another family.
I grew up in the 1980s Soviet Union, a society that didn’t encourage experimentation. Our higher education divvied into two tracks, sciences or humanities. The wall between them was mightier than the Iron Curtain separating us from the West. We, the young people, didn’t make our choices based on what we were good at or what we wanted to do. Instead we followed the lineage and expectations of our kin. Because my family prided itself on three generations of engineers and math Olympians, I knew that following my high school graduation, I’d enroll at an engineering university, not an art school. My place wasn’t among the creatives; that would be a frivolity. Engineers didn’t give birth to artists.
For three years, I toiled at the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas, the alma mater of my father, my grandfather, my grandmother, and my uncle. Thermodynamics, physics, and mechanical drawing filled my days. I hated them all and only passed my exams because my crib note craftsmanship had long ago eclipsed my knowledge of those subjects.
Then the opportunity to move to the United States surfaced. America’s celebrated freedom seeped through the cracks in the Iron Curtain on backs of bootleg movies, static-filled shortwave VOA broadcasts, and Bruce Springsteen lyrics. It’s now or never, I decided. I could escape engineering and sciences, bid farewell to the rigid ideas of parental expectations, and taste some independence. I convinced my family to emigrate.
When we arrived, I poured over the course catalogue from the local liberal arts college in southern New Hampshire. But my parents had other ideas.
“You’ll become a doctor?” They pushed rather than asked as soon as we arrived. “Doctors make a good living.” For them, émigrés in their 40s, learning a skill that guaranteed employment at the highest echelons of an economic ladder trumped all other aspirations. Immigration was not the time for frivolities.
I felt as if the tulip bulb that was about to open inside me suddenly died.
“Besides, you’d be following in the footsteps of your grandmother,” my mother said. “Babushka would have been so proud.”
My grandmother Betya, the sole physician in a family of engineers, had died 10 days before we left the Soviet Union. Even if I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, how could I not honor my grandmother’s memory?
The old indoctrination won. I caved and applied to study pre-med. My “Introduction to Writing” class was the only bright spot in otherwise dull collection of petri dishes and graduated cylinders. When, during an endocrinology class, I realized that despite my fluent English I understood little of what the professor said, it dawned on me that I really didn’t have to do this. My American classmates were following their dreams. Why was I following someone else’s? This wasn’t Moscow. I walked out, dropped the class, and told my parents that medical school wasn’t going to be part of my future.
Their displeasure radiated Chernobyl-style all the way to New Hampshire from Ohio, where they had moved for my father’s first job.
“How could you decide this without consulting with us first?” my mother asked, her voice deflated on the other side of the line. My decision to forego a career in medicine didn’t only break with the tradition of following into your family’s footsteps. It also threatened the one belief from the old world they still held dear: the expectation of an obedient daughter.
Stuck in a perpetual ennui, I realized it was time to sweep away the last remnants of the Iron Curtain.
The same belief also held me. Discarding it took several careers, each one chosen with the careful consideration of my parents’ reactions. I wanted to make them proud, if not through my profession then at least through the size of my paycheck. There was no time for frivolities.
Yet they were never satisfied. Stuck in a perpetual ennui, I realized it was time to sweep away the last remnants of the Iron Curtain. Maybe engineers could give birth to artists? I’d never know if I didn’t try.
I pressed Pay.
My parents walk in when the opening is in its second hour. The exhibition hall is abuzz with excitement and exclamation points.
“It’s pretty,” my mother says.
My father tilts his head to the side, a barely perceptible nod the only indication of his tepid approval. A familiar sinkhole of “never enough” opens in the pit of my stomach.
“Inner Child,” my mother reads the name of the piece aloud and then continues reading the plaque next to it: “This piece is meant to highlight how important our inner child is in our adult lives and how the light of this inner child can illuminate our decisions and ideas… only if we let it.”
The sinkhole stops growing and begins to shrink. When it closes completely, I know I am done with other people’s expectations for good.
Becoming your own person is never a frivolity.