How I got here

I am an artist.

It’s taken me many, many years to realize that and to come to terms with it. And nobody is more surprised than myself.

When I was growing up, I knew, as sure as the sky is blue, that I would be a scientist. Probably an astronomer. The first books I remember reading were about the stars and planets; later on, I branched out into dinosaurs, archaeology, math, and the history of science. My heroes were people like Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Carl Sagan.

I did play around with art, like all kids do. I tried painting, drawing, wood carving, collage. But I never quite saw the point, and I never cared enough about it to improve my techniques. And because I felt I wasn’t any good at it, I found it boring. So it fell by the wayside.

The world of science made so much more sense. It was concrete, there were clear answers, and it served a purpose. What could be more useful — and more noble — than figuring out how the universe worked? And I was good at math, good at performing experiments, good at explaining my findings. I never questioned that this was what I would do with my life.

When I got to college, and it came time to pick a major, this was the sum total of my thought process:

  1. The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is astronomy. I’ll do that.
  2. Oh, I need a bachelor’s in physics first?
  3. Okay, then. I’m a physics major.

And that was that, for two and a half years. If I took anything outside of math or physics, it was only because I was required to have x number of other credits.

My first year or two was one of the happiest times in my life. There I was, at a university, taking classes heavy with math and fundamental forces and the inner workings of the universe. Performing experiments with rolling ball bearings and air tracks and prisms, writing papers with lots of equations. Working in the physics department, hanging out with real live scientists, doing electronics and programming. It was perfect.

I had no goals whatsoever other than proceeding along the well-trodden path of bachelor’s, master’s, Ph.D., research, teaching, and finally tenure. It was all I’d ever wanted, or thought I needed.

So, of course, life had other ideas.

It started with the math. I had been a straight-A student — until I hit calculus. I got my first B in Calc 1, my first C in Calc 2. I’d never been so challenged. I rallied, and things did get better for awhile, but not any easier.

And, if you know anything about the hard sciences, you know that calculus is the beginning of the math you need. When I got to the twin nightmares of differential equations and linear algebra, and had my first upper-division physics courses on top of those (seriously, to hell with Hamiltonians), it was all I could do just to keep from drowning entirely.

Finally, it came home to me that I would probably not be able to finish my physics degree. I loved the subject and everything about it, but I simply did not have the skills to be successful at it.

It’s hard to convey just how devastating this was. The only thing I’d ever wanted to do had turned out to be beyond my capabilities. I was adrift, and I stayed that way for many years to come.

My point in recounting my academic history isn’t to whine about how hard math can be. My point is to show how strongly I had attached myself to one particular concept of what my life would be, to the point that I had no idea at all what to do otherwise.

But I was still in college, and I needed to get something out of it. So I stayed. I branched out. I studied English, and history, and anthropology. I started to get some sense of the world outside the sciences.

And I took a little bit of art, too — digital art. I took it on a lark, mainly because it was another way to work with computers; but it also led to my first stirrings of real creativity. I had my first exposure to Photoshop and made collages from photos of galaxies and industrial ruins. I edited video, mixing Madonna and Muybridge together into strange black-and-white sequences. I scanned my student ID and made a long series of bizarrely altered self-portraits, which I hung in the hallway outside the lab and contemplated with amazement. I even managed to sell a small piece in a local show — to one of the judges.

But it didn’t stick. I moved on to other things.

Eventually I graduated with a general studies degree and no idea what I wanted to do. I worked for a while, then went back for a master’s in anthropology, with the vague idea of going into linguistics. I was still focused on staying in academics, cobbling together whatever kind of career I could from what I had. I told myself I was happy.

Life finally intervened again and shoved me out of my self-imposed bubble. I met a girl and dropped out of my master’s program to move away with her. Broke up, moved again, ended up working as a file clerk for a law firm. And finally found a little bit of stability in my tiny bachelor pad.

Gradually, I started to get interested in art again, through film and video and weird music. And in about 2002 — probably inspired by the film Pollock — I started painting.

I worked fairly furiously for a couple of years, producing dozens of weird, disjointed canvases, flicking two- and three-colored streams of paint across harshly contrasting geometric shapes. I had no idea what I was doing. And, for the first time in my life, that was okay.

Then I met another girl, and we moved in together. It was wonderful, with one exception: I had no place to paint. And for eight years, I produced nothing.

Until, in 2013, our landlord allowed me the use of an empty storage shed at the back of the property. Finally, I had a studio, a place where I could throw paint around without worry.

And everything else has followed from there.

I’ve spent a great deal of time lately reflecting on the path that has led me to this point. And what I’ve concluded is this:

All the twists and turns, all the confusion and despair that I’ve been through, has been the result of my inability to imagine any future for myself other than the one I chose before I was ten years old. My obstinate refusal to consider the possibility that I was wrong about myself.

Today, when I sit down in the studio and resume work on a painting, when I lose myself in the mixing and flowing of paint from the knife to the canvas, something incredible happens. Something that continues to be utterly astonishing to me.

I’m happy.

I’m satisfied and fulfilled, in a way that I never was before.

Not when I was doing science, not when I’m playing with computers, not when I spend hours in the library researching some bit of history, not when I’m reading or traveling or doing anything else.

And what that tells me is that I would never have been truly happy as a scientist. I only pursued it because I’d never really tried anything else.

It’s taken me far too long to figure this out, and I’ve lost a lot of time. My goal now is to make up for it, and to arrange my life so this newfound satisfaction can continue.

And to never, ever again shut myself off from possibilities.

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