Rediscovering an interest in art and letting go of long-held assumptions to redefine one's identity
Back in my day, when you turn 15 in Malaysia, the education system shoves you into one out of 2 categories: the Science stream or the Art stream*. Sometimes you had the privilege of choosing which one, but more often than not, the decision was made based on your grades, and the subjects you excelled or didn’t excel in.
It was very clear early on that I was going to be placed in the Science stream. Part of that was because my science grades weren’t too shabby. But mostly, it was because I was deemed hopeless at art.
Art as a subject was mandatory on everyone for the first 3 years of secondary school prior to the ‘Sorting’, and as luck would have had it, my first-year Art teacher turned out to be a crabby, grumpy soul who found pleasure in flinging students’ notebooks out the window in disgust (from the third floor, mind you).
Up until that point, I had actually enjoyed art and the process of making it, just like a kid when given free reign with glue and too much glitter. That being said, my enjoyment didn’t necessarily translate into good results.
My art teacher disliked everything I drew, painted or made, and my average grade was a lowly ‘C’ (though I believe I once scored an all-time high of ‘B-‘ for a logo I made shaped like a tortoise - oooooooh). To be fair to her, my artwork were indeed terrible. While my classmates had evolved techniques and skills to paint the most realistic and artsy sun-dappled trees, my green blobs revealed a severe lack of progress since my days as a crayon-wielding 5-year old.
Still true at 13 years old
One fine day, after watching me fumble around with no rhyme or reason, my art teacher finally and completely gave up on me. “Just stop,” she sighed heavily, “you’re just not cut out for art.”
Looking at my messed-up watercolour paper, I had to agree with her. She’s the expert after all. And from then on, the remaining 2 years of Art classes became a pain in my butt, to be borne miserably like a prisoner enduring jailtime. I no longer enjoyed it, no longer saw the point of it.
In my 3rd and last year of mandatory Art classses, I had an Art teacher who was the complete opposite of the previous notebook-flinging one. She was kind and encouraging, and though she never managed to bring herself to praise my artwork (for they were still as horrible as ever), she never condemned me.
One fine day, in a very similar scene to the one before, she watched as I listlessly painted some vague shapes to fulfill the minimum requirements of our latest art assignment. After a while, she tapped me on the shoulder. “You can do this,” she said rather optimistically, “You just need to try.”
I thought she was incredibly sweet, but by then, the seed that had been planted in me a few years ago had already taken root. I was not an artist. Why try to be something I’m not?
In my 4th year, I was ‘sorted’ into the Science stream, dropped Art as a subject for good, and never looked back.
I lied, I actually did look back a few times to when art had been fun.
As I progressed through my science subjects, eventually enrolling in Biological Sciences in college, I had to admit that there were times when the numbers and the experiments got too dry, and I found myself wishing I had just a drop of talent to make something just a tiny bit beautiful.
I was often envious of my artistic friends who, with a flick of their hands and a dollop of their imagination, produced such beautiful things that made other people happy. I wanted to be able to do that too – make something pretty that would put a smile on someone’s face.
But well, I was a scientist, not an artist.
Sometime in between school and college, I decided to try again. In the safe confines of my room, sans the art teachers and art critics, I played around with pencils, watercolours and crayons. What I produced didn’t seem good, but at least they weren’t terrible. Right? I never showed them to anyone, so I never found out.
Drawn in 2004, with my then pet cat as the muse
Another one in 2004, before I stopped altogether
After spending a decent amount on art materials and not really getting much out of my artwork other than trashcan filler, I concluded once again that my first art teacher had been right. I was not cut out for art.
I reverted back to my scientific classes and my scientific research and my scientific literature. These, I was reasonably good at. I was analytical, methodical and organized.
Upon graduation, I could solve any analytical problems you throw at me, but I still couldn’t make anything pretty to save my life. I was a scientist, not an artist.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself with a lot of time on my hands and not many options on how to spend it.
I had recently downloaded a nifty notebook app on my tablet, with the purpose of taking notes or drawing diagrams, and I realised belatedly that the same tools could also be used for less technical and more artistic purposes.
Theoretically, using the app, I could practice my drawing and painting skills without incurring a lot of expenses (art materials are crazy expensive) and without having to worry about where to store the finished artwork (assuming I didn’t trash them first, that is). I could also fail ten million times at no additional cost! (Trust me, there are few things as painful as burning a hole in your wallet to buy canvas, paint and brushes only to end up with a piece of artwork that you wouldn’t even show your mother out of shame.)
Because I was methodical, I started to methodically paint one thing a week in my spare time, slowly but surely rediscovering the fun and pleasure in playing with lines and colours. My first ever digital painting was that of my stuffed killer whale, a rudimentary work of just black and white blobs.
I got braver and took on some colours with two orange-yellow goldfish.
And I continued moving on to the next challenge, and then the next, taking baby steps.
One fine day, a friend caught me in the middle of painting a zebra, and told me she really liked it. That prompted me to take on the biggest challenge yet: sharing my paintings in public.
Sharing something you made in public can be a little daunting, because in a way, you’re putting a part of yourself out there too, to be scrutinised and criticised by people who may not even know you.
And here I was, putting up something I was explicitly told to stop doing because I was so awful at it.
Things turned out fine, people didn’t hate my artwork too much, and the world didn’t end.
Once I overcame that hurdle, it seemed ridiculous that I had waited so long to challenge my own self-limiting belief and prove my crabby teacher wrong. It’s amazing how a few words could cause you to see yourself in a certain way for more than a decade before you finally make the effort to redefine yourself.
The first time someone ever called me an ‘artist’, we were seated in the dining room talking about fried banana balls.
Putting a picture of what they are in case you're giggling for all the the wrong reasons.
More specifically, we were making a comparison between a friend’s beautifully rounded banana balls versus my smushed ones that looked like I’d splattered the dough against the wall and fried them there.
“She’s an engineer,” he explained, referring to the beautiful-round-banana-balls-producer, “so her banana balls have to be structurally sound."
"But you!" he continued, "You’re an artist! That’s why your banana balls take up a multitude of shapes!”
Despite the ridiculousness of the conversation, what he didn’t know was that he had just unwittingly shattered the wall of self-limiting belief I’d built years ago: I was a scientist, not an artist.
Nowadays, people easily and almost carelessly label me as an ‘artist’, not knowing that for most of my life, I had never dreamed that the term would ever apply to me. I still don't think I'm a full-fledged artist, but every time someone calls me that, I am reminded to question all the things I’ve always thought or been told I couldn’t do, and to challenge that assumption head on.
Older and wiser, I now know that the world isn’t binary like it was in secondary school. I was, and still am, a scientist, but I’m also an artist. In fact, I figure if I decide one day that I wanted to be a scientist-cum-artist-cum-sumo-wrestler... well, I most definitely could.
What about you? What beliefs about your own self do you want to challenge?
Also, hey, you can now buy a print of my paintings! If you've ever thought: "Ooh, that's gonna look good on my wall", then here's your chance to actually hang it on your wall! Or even better, commission a unique one for yourself!
*The Art stream didn't just involve pure art subjects, but also included accounting and literature.