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.