Applying myself

For the last year or so, Jack has been applying to college. And so have I. Not literally (I wish) but I have agonized vicariously through every step of the way with him. I am proud of my boy and confident in his abilities but it is nerve-wracking nonetheless.

I described it to a friend recently: “It’s like hailing a cab to the airport for an important flight. As I settle into the back seat, I quickly realize that the driver is a recent immigrant who doesn’t know New York, has limited driving skills and not only doesn’t really know where the airport is but refuses to ask for directions. I can’t make him pull over and let me get in the driver’s seat and so can only sit on the edge of the back seat, hurling suggestions through the little window in the divider. Hopefully we’ll arrive before I miss my flight.”

Anyway, the basement of my building got mildly flooded a few months ago and my super has been urging me to go to the storage room and check on my stuff which may have gotten wet. As we were getting ready to set up our first Christmas tree since Patti left us, Jack and I finally went down there yesterday to look for all the decorations she’d stored and to pull all the rest of our stuff out. One box was a bit moldy but most of them were fine but, as the thought of all those things down in the basement has haunted my sleep for a while, we hauled them all up to our apartment. For a day or two, our Christmas tree is surrounded by cardboard boxes and plastic storage bins.

Rooting through the boxes, I came upon a folder containing the essays I’d written for my own college essays a million years ago, including my various letters of acceptance and rejection.   One essay seems apropos to share with you, so I reproduce it here, without all the XXXed out sections and marginalia (how the hell did we write on typewriters back in the day?). Bear in mind, this was written by a 17 year-old me, and yet it seems to foreshadow where I am today, 34 years later.

I find those activities that interest me the most deal with self-expression in one way or another.  In the past year or two, the fine arts have intrigued me as a form of self-expression and the bulk of my time is spent improving my drawing skills.

This summer I went to the pre-college program of the Rhode Island School of Design and there began a transition. My painting instructor revealed to me the great amount of literature on painters, their works and their environments, and I slowly realized, unconsciously at first, but eventually with greater clarity and understanding, that I was, in fact, getting a great deal more satisfaction from reading about the paintings than from looking at them. I believe it is easier for me to appreciate that which is more obvious in a form of expression and presented with the full awareness by the creator.

As an artist, I created things that had very little value other than an aesthetic one, for I did not understand much about the presentation of ideas in painting and the power of certain combinations of color, form, shapes, texture, and other techniques and dimensions. I found that in producing a meaningful piece of art, one had first to feel the force of the idea, then transcribe that force into another form, even another language, that of the colors and shapes that appear on the canvas.


On the other hand, the writer, I thought, does not go through that step, but simply records his ideas on paper in a one-to-one reproduction. He must be more specific than the painter, and his ideas more clear, so the writer appears to blatantly present the same message to every reader. The painter leaves his work to individual interpretation. This became a stumbling block. But as I began to read more, I realized that the written word too, has many levels of understanding, and a good writer must be able to be clear and unclear the same time, so his words evoke images which are purely personal for the reader.

The idea of being able to work on these many levels, to create work that makes the reader stop and wonder, outweighed the satisfaction of creating a painting that people could simply pass by. For when one reads, one ignores one’s immediate surroundings and enters a world of the author’s creation. It takes a certain commitment to read a book, a commitment to give that author a chance to persuade or entertain you. A painting, on the other hand, is hung among hundreds of others and does not have the same chance to grab the viewer and whisk them off into the creator’s world. One may go to a museum and look at all the paintings in one day, as so many people do, but who would consider reading all the books in a library one Sunday afternoon?

Thus I have begun to devote myself more to the creation of colorful words than of colorful colors, although I still return occasionally to my paints. I look forward to the day when I shall be able to find a proper balance to allow equal expression in words and paint.

Interesting that I have continued to slide back and forth across from expressing myself in words and pictures through all these subsequent years, finding as I have at last a happy meeting point in the art of the illustrated journal.

RISD will announce its decision on Jack’s application on the 15th of December. Till then, we wait with bated breath.







9 thoughts on “Applying myself”

  1. it was very eye opening; the comparison of books to paintings. I wish the best for you all! the writer Danny, the artist Danny and the student, Jack. ( no pressure mon)


  2. Danny, yes, I’ve often puzzled over the “all-at-onceness” of how we apprehend a painting, vs the linear line reading of written efforts. Writing demands time from the reader, so ideas are felt more deeply. Looking at a painting and teasing out the ideas, meanings, methods is a completely different set of skills in the viewer, and most people have no idea how to do it. Kenneth Clark and John Updike both opened my eyes regarding how to look at art.


  3. So true, I think our true self expresses itself in a similar manner at 17, 37, 67, 97 . I’m touched
    by your application Danny because it does reveal the soul of a real artist ( or rather a real
    self expressionist)


  4. that is a hilarious description of what it feels like to parent a 17 yr old applying to college… I am in that boat now (or, should I say “taxi”?)… Good luck with the RISD decision — if it’s a go, you will be DONE, unlike the rest of us poor souls waiting until March.


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