I was a brunette heathen / by Deborah Clague

I remember using art as escapism even when I was a child. I could spend hours adding life to colouring books or, the older I got, into creating my own rudimentary masterpieces with various hues of Crayola. I liked crayons better than markers because I could build the medium up and use the natural oils on my fingertips as a blending stump of sorts. This resulted in new, accidental colours and arrangements that made me feel as though I was playing God and giving birth to a two dimensional universe of which I would rule. I was five and already an egomaniac. But part of my id understood that great art doesn't cloak imperfections; it embraces them.  

In school, I would do much of the same from elementary through senior year. I recall spending a good portion of Grade 1 developing a style that was partially mimicking the Archie Comics that I loved to read. Each drawing I created was outlined in bold black. I liked the contrast. I appreciated the depth of field the differing weight of strokes could imply. I was pretty proud of myself and the creations that my mother lovingly hung on the fridge…that is, until a fellow pupil told me bluntly one day that my drawings sucked and I should quit doing them. I never forgot how that made me feel. I spent the entire 15 minute recess afterwards crying behind the janitor's shed. Her name was Elaine. At a young age, she had developed a remarkably steely gaze which she employed to let everyone else know they were inferior. Perhaps we were. She was a pretty blonde girl from a conservative, rural background. I was a brunette heathen. Throughout elementary school, I grew to believe that she was my arch nemesis although I never actively instigated the feud with her. We shared a birthdate (April 5) and perhaps somewhere in the alignment of the cosmos that day, our destiny was pre-determined. I may not have been able to articulate what I was trying to communicate back then with my drawings, but I was intelligent enough to know that Elaine was a bitch. I continued, both out of spite and delusion. 

High school was a different beast altogether. I was an artist. I was THE artist (at least for my 500 student collegiate). I was "commissioned" to create custom pieces that incorporated popular band names and symbolism of whatever low-level drug was de rigueur for the day.  I was paid with bags of Doritos or packs of gum, my own narcotics of choice. I even created a few tattoo illustrations and it amuses me today to picture someone walking around with one of my high school notebook doodles permanently etched into their flesh. I never actually considered a career in the fine arts though. I always envisioned myself getting a degree in Philosophy and obviously subsequently working at Tim Hortons for the remainder of days. But encouragement from several people during this period changed my life. First off, there was my father. No matter what I wanted to do or become, he supported me. I felt as though I could (and still can!) become President of Mars with him backing me. Secondly, I had some great teachers. Specifically my English instructors who informed me of various art shows in the city or when the University of Manitoba School of Art was having an open house. Every student deserves to have a teacher help them realize their potential. To have someone get them to "think bigger and beyond" what is in the standardized text books. Without having these people believe in me and the talents I displayed, I would very likely be that coffee shop philosopher asking people if they'd like some Confucious with their cruller. 

Getting a push will only take one so far though. I recall visiting those U of M open house student shows and realizing that fine art - or rather the pretensions that follow it - weren't my cup of tea. I can't paint. I can't sculpt. I can't handle criticism on things that I put my heart into. It's too personal. I'm too sensitive. I also realized that this would probably land me nothing more than that job at Tim Hortons. I wanted a career. Something that could fund my love of travel and high thread count sheet sets. This is when I was introduced to the dark side of 'advertising art' (which is the specific name of the program I took before it was changed to 'graphic design' a few years later). I wouldn't have to expose my soul in developing a typographic treatment for a car dealership but it was a path that I could still utilize my skills in and, most importantly, make money. I enrolled in a local college.

My first day of classes was the fall of 1998. I was 18. Nearly everyone in my class was in their mid- to late-20s and had much more life - and computer - experience than I. They have become such extensions of ourselves that it's hard to imagine a time when they weren't as omnipresent, but back in high school the introduction to computers course was optional. I didn't even own one in 1998. The learning curve was overwhelming. My naive confidence soon withered. In the context of it all, I was an infant.

As a coping mechanism and distraction, I started to spend as much time studying my classmates as I did on my assignments. There was the odd guy who turned his chair to face and stare at everyone else in the classroom while the instructor was giving their lesson. I'm sure he went on to become a successful serial killer. There was the former teenage model who spent her time flirting with the young Brad Pitt lookalike. They were the Brangelina of Red River, regaling in their collective beauty and "coolness". There was also the quiet girl with the glasses that reminded me of myself. She was a symbolic infant in the grand scheme of things too. I never got to know her well though as we were both too shy.  

My favourite person was a 27-year-old male who sat in front of me. He was taking the program for the third time after life's distractions kept calling him away. This included typical college partying and the subsequent poor grades that followed, as well as the birth of his daughter (which I partially suspected was also subsequently from the partying). I greatly admired his tenacity and desired the quality for myself. He always told interesting stories and I enjoyed listening to them as I felt I could drink upon his fountain of knowledge and somehow develop his traits by-proxy. One tale I will always recall is how he self-treated an immense toothache by stabbing a knife into his gums. Yes, it's shocking and barbaric (not to mention unsafe, unsanitary and unhealthy). But it soothed his initial pain. Despite medical evidence to the contrary, bloodletting can be an effective way of dealing with one's ills.

Especially by using a pen. Or crayons. Or computer. 

12-year-old me in class with Elaine sitting behind me. 

12-year-old me in class with Elaine sitting behind me.