It’s a strange phenomenon, attending an art school. SCAD students are, as the great Fitzgerald would say, both “within and without,” of the world. In it and, yet, apart from it. SCAD students straddled the chasm of uniformity and originality – mostly getting lost somewhere in the middle.
At times, I still can’t believe I’m here, – strolling down the hallways with future painters, novelists, screen-writers, fashion designers and the like. I see them cradling their MacBook Pros and wide canvases, pass by their hipster vans, patchwork jeans, and their multicolored hair wondering ‘what the hell am I doing here?’
SCAD’s a far cry from law school, the creme de la creme of occupations as far as my family was concerned. Not a single one of them graduated high school, so when I devoted my undergrad free time to memorizing the dissenting opinions of Thurgood Marshall – they cheered, thinking someone would finally bring in some money. At my college graduation, I could practically see their outstretched hands, caressing the Benjamins that would ensue after passing my bar exam. Aunts, Uncles, cousins, even grandparents … all of them assumed the free-flowing income would inevitably trickle into their needy, debt-ridden pockets – buying them new TVs, paying for their opioids (strictly used for pain management, of course). They were family, after all. According to them, they were entitled.
Needless to say, when I veered off course and decided to pursue the cinephilia that traced back to the days where a talking candlestick and the anthem ‘Be Our Guest’ played on repeat, the cheers came to an abrupt end. If you think their ambitions went gently into that good night, you don’t know my family. Every family reunion was just another excuse for them to remind me that I was throwing my life away, throwing away their opportunity to line their wallets and, of course, to point out I that wasn’t eating enough. If your dress size was under 12, you were clearly anorexic.
“What do you do with a film studies degree? So, you just watch movies? How are you going to get a job? What kinda job would it be? Does this mean you’ll be famous? Are you gonna be some big director?” Each question casually dropped in between slicing Aunt Sandra’s lemon pound cake, I always ended up with the biggest piece. I didn’t complain – Frisky, grandma’s plump chihuahua, followed me around for a reason. Trust me, he ate very well, and no one was the wiser.
I dodged their questions with a grace befitting Michael Jordan on the basketball court. Space Jam had nothing on me. ‘Law school will always be there,” I said, grasping a menthol light, the only family habit that I managed to pick up, a vice that proved I was, indeed, one of them. “My LSAT scores will last ten years.” I lied, but they weren’t smart to know the difference. They could have googled it, but that would mean putting forth an effort, something most of them avoided at all costs; it would mean cutting into their time adding to their cherished Budlight collection and cashing their welfare checks.
Only my father, the Vietnam vet who unlike his siblings lacked the distinguished honor of a prison record, sat in my corner of the ring. “It’s your life. Do what you have to do,” he said with a half-smile. But I could tell the fact that he wouldn’t read: Ashley Counts Attorney At Law on a door plaque left him a bit disheartened. To make up for it, we struck a bargain. I exchange a J.D. for a Ph.D., and we were square. He doesn’t ask me about what I study. He says he wouldn’t understand it. He always sells himself short. He took me to my first movie, bought me my first comic, paid the SCAD enrollment fee.
Disappointing as I may be, I sometimes feel my relatives have a point. What will I do with an MA in Cinema Studies and MFA in Writing? Do I have the gumption to make it as an artist? Am I an artist? The thought seems too egotistical, to believe that I have a vision, something important to say and that in saying it, I will strike a chord with others that resonates so deep that their gratitude will be written in dollar signs.
My family’s philosophy: don’t stand out, don’t make waves, don’t think you’re better than anyone else. Armstrong University didn’t directly contradict this message. Any achievements you made are yours alone – no one needed to know you had a 3.8 GPA, that was your business. Serious academics are quiet, learning for the sake of learning. Aside from the occasional journal publication, glory is not in the cards. But in art school, if you don’t stand out, then you don’t get paid.
Academics was my way of getting out, of leaving behind the back country roads of Georgia where only churches and cows punctuated the horizon, where the closest movie theater was 45 minutes away and the closest Walmart was only 15 minutes closer than the theater. Then, I switched gears, traded my legal pads for faster internet and a subscription to MUBI. But certain mindsets are hard to shake. My fascination with history and politics remains, and, unfortunately, their impact is lost on students concerned only with their portfolios and not with the world around them.
*Naturally, I speak in the general sense. Once in a while, I run into the rare student who understands the importance of Judicial appointees and gravity of the Paris Accords – but these students are the diamonds in the rough and usually Dramatic Writers.*
With this Liberal Arts education, I often find myself at SCAD asking: Am I an academic masquerading as an artist or an artist masquerading as an academic. Perhaps, the answer is simply that I am both – but that doesn’t feel good enough; it doesn’t provide peace of mind.