On Becoming an Artist

I have been drawn to art since childhood. My parents were not college graduates nor wealthy, but they appreciated the arts and encouraged their children to find their own path in life. I always had paper and paints. When I was suffering with adolescent angst, my mother would buy me clay and send me to my room to sculpt. She had a small portfolio of reproductions of the great masters. I often studied them and noticed that not one was a woman. So, I assumed that I could not be a great artist and would choose another career. A close friend of my family, Helen Page, graduated from Pratt Institute and was a serious painter. I always looked forward to visiting Helen’s studio. Her work had a surreal quality. The delicacy of her brushwork still impresses me. My mother commissioned her to paint portraits of my three siblings and myself. Watching her deftly build form revealed many secrets of painting. She taught me to paint with watercolors while sitting at her kitchen table. When I mentioned to her that I wanted to study medicine in college she became visibly upset and said, “Anyone with your talent should be making art.” Helen continues to inspire me. I can see her influence in my paintings. At age ninety-one she is still creating beautiful work. I took the advice of Helen Page and chose to attend Pratt Institute. At Pratt I found a very different approach to art than when Helen attended some 30 years before me. Our teachers were modern artists. They espoused the ideas of the Bauhaus. Cézanne was their idol. Herbert Berman taught me to see the world like an artist. I had never considered the idea of negative space. The space between the branches became as important as the tree. Mercedes Matter taught me to draw the figure. She only used the natural illumination from skylights. Often we would work into dusk seeing only what is essential to form as details faded from sight. Sidney Geist had the same reverence for natural light. In a room lit only by a row of windows he gave us our first sculpture lesson. He told the students to make a cube from terracotta. We were instructed to find the true surface of the cube. It should not look inflated like a balloon ready to pop. It should not look flimsy as if the air around it could cause it to collapse. We worked diligently in silence. Sidney moved about the room criticizing the students’ efforts. He had an impressive appearance. I thought he looked like a handsome Abraham Lincoln. He was a gentle man but his voice was filled with frustration and anger. The students had not understood. I listened as he corrected them. I was nervous. Was I doing it right? Sidney approached my table. His demeanor changed. He studied my cube from all angles. Then he pronounced as if God Himself had spoken, ”You are a sculptor.” A few weeks later I came into class with a small figure sculpture, which I had made on my own. I proudly presented it to him. This time his anger was directed at me. “Linda, this is not a sculpture. This is a little doll.” And so it was that Sidney Geist taught me to be a sculptor. In my junior year I studied painting with Alex Katz. He had a down to earth demeanor. He said, “The guys who are making it today are the guys who are working hard.” What we painted was important to him. He showed us wonderful things like how to make light travel around forms. On the day Kennedy was shot, he said calmly, “Just keep painting.” Most of us were horrified and left class. Years later I understand what he meant. No matter how difficult life gets, an artist must keep making art. Linda Smith June 2001