Art at Harvard? by
(10 Stories)

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I always thought I had a knack for drawing.  Someone encouraged this when I was twelve, a year when my family was stationed in East Pakistan, and I came under the wing of an ex-pat Danish artist name Tova. She helped me do an oil painting for my parents, a still life with two yellow apples, a clay pitcher, and a green cloth.  I hadn’t expected the linseed oil, the turpentine, the tediousness. It was dutifully hung in obscure corners for years, and I think is somewhere in my garage even now, my inheritance.

When we moved to the Washington DC suburbs just before my junior year, I discovered they had art classes—a bright spot in the otherwise excruciating tedium of high school.  I signed up for all of them.  I was not Mr. Kozar’s favorite student, but got to play with clay, build pots, create figures.  He taught us how to make our hand follow our eye, do gesture drawings in mere seconds, and use light and shadow instead of line.  Mr. Wilson taught commercial art—graphic design, layout, fonts, calligraphy, and how to lead the eye where you want it to go. There may have been a trace of bitterness in his voice as he lamented making a living from art, warning us never to take a job laying out a double-page newspaper ad with scores of tiny products for sale, each vying for attention.

College was an opportunity to escape high school, but I had no specific academic ambitions.  I took Math 1 as a freshman, out of lack of imagination, astronomy (Nat Sci 9), and Introduction to Western Thought (Hum 5).  I looked for art classes.  Not art appreciation or criticism, but the kind of art you make yourself.  The closest thing I found was “VES”, Visual and Environmental Studies—and try explaining what that is.

Carpenter Center was the home of VES.  It was famously designed by LeCorbusier, a mass of gray concrete in geometric shapes of cylinders and angles.  It was kind of a pre-Graduate School of Design architecture and urban planning department, with a foundation of “The Art of Perception”. The faculty leaned heavily on German influences and professors, with a Bauhaus esthetic.  There was no drawing or painting class, rather “two-dimensional design”.  There was no sculpture, but “three-dimensional design”.  And no film and photography, but “light and communications”, which was ironically tucked into the lightless basement, which housed darkrooms with dim red lights, pans of chemicals, and lines for hanging up the emerging prints.

In “two-dimensional design”, we learned about the color wheel, and we had to obtain packs of the most wonderful array of multi-colored paper.  We were then tasked with cutting strips in different lengths and widths, creating an illusion of an undulating ribbon of color drama.  This was easy to over-think and under-create, much harder than you might expect.

In photography class, I had to buy a Pentax camera, and we were instructed on how to compose the picture within the frame, use a light meter, adjust f-stop aperture and shutter speed and ASA, then play in the darkroom chemicals to develop and print the final product.  I took moody shots of bicycles on rainy days in the Boston Commons, in an unconvincing attempt to be artistic.  Today everyone can take pictures with inconceivable ease on a phone, and I confess to having a folder on mine with “art shots”—light through the trees, reflections, piles of stones—but the pictures that I treasure are snapshots of friends and family.

When I had to choose a major, I applied to VES.  I hadn’t felt any encouragement, and so was surprised and elated when I was accepted.  Almost skipping down the alley behind Memorial Church in the dusk, filled with excitement, I passed by one of the faculty members and burbled out how happy I was to be in the department.  He paused and looked at me, maybe even asked my name, before retorting, “We chose YOU?”  Mumble mumble, on my way, deflated entirely.

By the end of sophomore year we had been through University Hall, The Strike, Cambodia, Vietnam and ROTC protests, political debates over capitalism, imperialism, civil rights and racism. Some might recall that Graduate School of Design members were responsible for some of the Strike demands about Harvard’s role in destroying poor and Black communities, in the name of redevelopment.  Harvard was on the wrong side of everything.

I took a leave.  Suddenly everything was fascinating, and knowledge exciting.  My art skills were manifested mostly on placards and banners, and I learned to silkscreen.  I signed up for a life drawing class in a “free university” where we took turns being the model, and volunteered at a women’s health collective, where I designed logos and drew yeast hyphae and trichomonads on patient handouts. Learning medicine seemed more concrete and useful, so, to my own surprise, I changed course to something I had never considered before.

When I returned, reluctantly, to college, all my class hours were filled with either pre-med or VES classes—I had the most credits there and may as well finish.  I played with animation and film.  Another surprising thing happened.  Without the burden of having to prove artistic worth or talent, without the pressure of finding a way to survive in the world of art and design, without trying so hard, creativity and even joy flourished.

I stuck with medicine, but still have a place in my life for “art”.  And there is still a place for making banners.






Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    What an interesting journey, Khati, to find your place in the world of art,

  2. Khati, your strong pull towards the arts throughout your schooling is fascinating to read, as is your decision to pursue medicine rather than art – I guess you followed Mr Wilson’s advice!

    My dad was a dedicated physician, in the days when GPs like him would deliver your baby, take out your appendix, and make house calls with a little black bag.

    But art was his avocation and it gave him great joy – he painted in oil and also made constructions out of found objects, exhibiting as an “outsider artist”! (A Renaissance man, my dad was raised on a farm, rode horses bare-back, and was also a self-taught classical pianist!)

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Dana, interesting comments about your father. He sounds like he had a very full life. In the past year I discovered the first life drawing class since those many years ago—this time I am not a model—and curiously, there are quite a few physicians and nurses there. Or were, before COVID shut us all down.

      • Yes Khati, my father led a full life and his art was certainly part of what fulfilled him. Like all families, ours certainly had our share of strife and depression and other ills, but somehow my dad was spared, and he was probably the happiest person I’ve ever known.

        During his final illness he told me that as a physician familiar with life and death, he was not afraid to die.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    So interesting to read how Harvard handled the arts in its curriculum, Khati, and what you were looking to get out of it; what “turned you on”, as it were. As the era turned, and your interests shifted, and you took those outside art classes (by the way, I modeled for life drawing classes while in college and a few years later…read “Posing in 3-D”), you came back to college with a different perspective, but also the freedom to pursue art for art’s sake and really find enjoyment from it, as it appears you do today. By the way, screw that professor who said that deflating remark to you all those years ago. You showed him up long ago. Good for you!

  4. Okay, you are my heroine! Huge fan of Bauhaus…and you learned everything I wish I had at an early age. (I’m trying to make up for lost time.) Perfect balance of right/left brain with creativity and medicine…wonderful story that really spoke to me. Thank you, Khati!

  5. Marian says:

    This story gave me a clear window into the “art” at Harvard, Khati. And what a moving conclusion, how your change in emphasis actually freed your creativity. A lot of food for thought here.

  6. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Khati! I am learning so many fascinating details about you, bit by bit, in your stories. Art lessons in East Pakistan with a Danish ex-pat – that’s the kind of experience one doesn’t hear about very often!

    My memory of the Graduate School of Design was that they were the ones who silkscreened all our posters and t-shirts during the Strike freshman year. I did not know that they were responsible for some of the demands. We should talk about that more via email.

    Glad that VES worked out for you, despite that annoying professor who expressed surprise that you got in. And that you still have a place in your life for art (with or without quotation marks) along with medicine.

  7. My favorite part is your paragraph about VES and the Carpenter Center–I think I looked on it as so exotic, and wondered in retrospect if I shouldn’t have been more adventurous and tried some of those classes instead of the standard history and lit, which were a continuation of what I had studied in high school. Your description captured some vivid details and gave me my first real glimpse of what lay beyond the exotic facade–and warned me of the insularity that no doubt would have made me feel i wasn’t “one of the club” if I ever had dared to set foot there. Oh, well.
    I am praising that paragraph but I thoroughly enjoyed the entire piece.

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