On Painting With Toddlers and Post Traumatic Art School Disorder

“No, I’m interested in the reason we, the reason you and me need to make things.”

Jessica and I were sitting at a long picnic table on the patio of a neighborhood bar. We hadn’t seen each other in ages, and we’d chosen this spot hoping for a quiet place to share a drink and catch up. But it happened to be the bar’s one-year-anniversary, so we leaned close to listen over uneaten cubes of free birthday cake and strained our voices over the band.

“For me it was a coping mechanism. It was a means to escape. I didn’t just draw pictures of horses running in the jungle, I was with horses running in the jungle.”

“Ah, yea, but what about before that? There’s a reason we learned to draw, when other kids didn’t.”

Last week was my mom’s birthday. The day before we were to go out for a birthday dinner with her, my not-quite-two-year-old son and I sat down on the porch with a grey flower pot and a small jar of white paint. He watched impatiently while I outlined a small heart with masking tape on the grey surface of the pot. Then I handed him a paintbrush with a long red handle and set the shallow lid of the paint jar on the table.

He gripped the handle as best he could with his puffy baby hand, carefully plopped the bristles into the paint, and after a moment of study, lowered the brush to the surface of the pot. It made a bright mark on the smooth dark grey. He gasped in delight and looked up at me, asking with his look, “Ah! Did you see?”

“Yea, I saw that bub. That was great. Do you want to do it again?”

Time stretched in the sun as he painted, occasionally instructing me in his babble to rotate the pot one way or another, experimenting with different patterns and ways of making marks, all the while completely absorbed in the experiment and enamored with his results.

Leaning across the table to Jessica, still shouting over the band and with a half-empty glass tying my tongue, I said, “We love making art as kids because there’s joy in just making a mark on a blank page, you know…” [I gestured mark-making] “You know…putting the thing on the thing.”

“Ah….putting the thing on the thing. You’re so right! That is it. But what happens when we grow up?”

“We go to art school.”

We both laughed. Jessica and I both went to school for Art – she earned a degree in Graphic Design shortly before I earned mine in Painting and Drawing, and we both experience symptoms of what we’ve dubbed Post Traumatic Art School Disorder, including but not limited to: severe nausea while overhearing bystander discussions during gallery openings, excessive eye-rolling when the Institutions of Art come up in conversation, especial avoidance of any intellectual propositions tangential or directly connecting to Art, making things but specifically refusing to discuss their meaning, context, or implications, and crippling ennui.

The world was an overwhelming and unwelcoming place for the sensitive and shy little girl that I was. Drawing was the way I made it through Elementary school, though I didn’t know it at the time: in conversation with the doodles in the margins of my worksheets, safe in the alternate world I could create and continually remake.

Mostly by happenstance I developed skill at drawing. That I was able to draw became the fact that proceeded me into a room, and while I rarely had someone to play with at recess, my classmates began to commission drawings and were always pleased with the results. While I wasn’t often included socially, I began to see my drawings hung in the back of cubbies or slipped under the plastic of my classmates’ binders. In this way, by the time I left Sequoyah Elementary School I understood that drawing was both my way to create a refuge from society and also the safest way to interact with it.

After quitting twice and changing majors at least as many times, I re-enrolled at UT as Studio Art/Art Education double major. While my time engaged with the institutions of higher education was transformative in many ways and catalyzed magnitudes of positive growth, I also found myself watching helplessly while, as my level of critical and intellectual engagement with the work increased, the simple and joyful experience of making a mark on a page slipped farther and farther from my grasp.

This is not an argument against Art School, Art Theory, Art Professors, Art Museums, or any of the rest of it. But it is an argument against anything that stops us from making, and it can’t be named the number of ideas that have not been allowed to take form for fear that they would not stand up under critical inspection.

I’m grateful that at any moment I can sit down with my toddler, the best teacher of joyful, expressive, uninhibited making that there is. When I watch him draw I feel both the safety of the un-self-conscious process that he loses himself in, as well a sense of mourning because I know that it can’t last forever for him, either.

But we learn together. It’s been two years since I finished the degree, and some nights now I can sit down at my desk and draw without adverse effect. We’ve started a gallery in our house where Joseph’s paintings hang for admiration, and bit by bit my drawings gain their own ground.

A few days after our conversation, Jessica texted me: “Ok, I’m over it. Graphic design can be fun too.”

And I wrote back, only: “Yesssssss!”