Happy Mother's Day, Mom
Dear Mom, Happy Mother’s Day. I miss you and I think about you all the time. Especially times like this, when holidays and special occasions come up. I’ll be graduating this month and it won’t be quite the same without out. I started this MFA in September of 2011, not long after you left, and it’s been one heck of a ride.
My first two semesters I took classes on campus. At 40, I felt old on campus. Everyone there was much younger and I didn’t quite fit in or make friends like I thought I would. I bet you felt the same way at University of Delaware. It’s funny how we both did such similar things at the same age.
The first semester was really hard. I took three classes—one online (history) and the other two on campus and it was overwhelming. Most of the time it felt like I wasn’t as good as the other students and I thought about dropping out a lot. It didn’t help that I didn’t have any support from those around me. You-know-who was in my life at the time and he questioned my decision to get this degree. In his mind, there wasn’t anything new they could teach him in school. I think as he saw my work improve he realized how wrong he was and he was probably jealous. When I look back on that now I realize not only how incredibly arrogant that comment was but also what it said about him as a person.
As the first anniversary of your passing came closer, my sadness got worse and my pain got stronger. I channeled that pain into one of my final projects that term and what I created in the end was something I was very proud of. Using the pain to inspire me is something I’ve done quite a bit in my studies—it’s been both good and bad. Good because it helped me express my feelings and let go of some of the hurt. Bad because I ultimately wish I didn’t have that pain to inspire me. I would much rather have you here, to be able to show you my work and get your feedback and share ideas.
For my second semester I got smart and only took two classes. I was starting to feel more confident and less like an imposter but still totally out of place at my age. It didn’t help that I lived in American Canyon and it took me an hour to come and go from school. But I carried on. That semester one of my classes was about concepts; illustrating ideas like isolation with just a photo. I found the professor to be very inspiring. He really got me thinking and in that semester I began photographing food.
The calm, methodical task of arranging food was something I really enjoyed. My apartment at the time improved my food photos because it had such beautiful natural light. In the afternoon, the sun would shine on the building across the courtyard and reflect the warm beige of the exterior into my space. Creating well-lit images was relatively easy then.
The following semester I had to begin taking classes online in order to go back to work full time. Taking two classes then was really challenging and I had to find time during nights and weekends to do everything. The good thing about being online was that the people were around my age. Finally I wasn’t old anymore! Online also allowed me to be home with The Fuzz—something that was good for both of us. My job quickly became unbearable and that apartment was a refuge where I could study, meditate and love The Fuzz.
I’ll never forget the day I got the email about selling my work at Pottery Barn. At first I thought it was a scam but thanks to the magic of Google I learned that the woman emailing me was, in fact, a buyer, and that the offer was very real. Some might say that licensing to Pottery Barn isn’t an achievement for a photographer. After all, it’s not real art, it’s decorator art. Well, the experience has been great for my career and the royalty payments are very real. That was another milestone I wish you could have celebrated with me.
During that same year I took a self-portrait class which was completely outside my comfort zone. I knew it would be and that’s why I chose it. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something like that, even if it was simply to push my creative limits. That semester I did another project where I explored my grief. The only people that saw it were my professor and classmates. I don’t think anyone else will ever see it and that’s okay. It was meant to express my feelings, and it did.
Another highlight of that year was the photography I did for a travel website. I had the chance to participate in (and photograph) activities that I wouldn’t have otherwise. The assignment I enjoyed the most was photographing a tour over Napa on a hot air balloon. It was amazing and now it’s on my list of best experiences of my life.
In the summer of 2013 I presented my Midpoint Review. That’s when I proposed my final thesis project—the one I would work on until now. Part of the reason I chose food photography was because since I had to shoot on the weekends and I was gone all day Monday through Friday, I didn’t want to be gone on the weekends, too. Being home in that beautiful place with The Fuzz was important to my sanity. It was what kept me in one piece during that difficult year. It was the only way I found to cope with the despair I felt in that awful job, the grief of the second anniversary of losing you, and the crushing news that The Fuzz had a tumor that could not be operated. One of the good things about pain, if there is such a thing, is the power it has to motivate. All of those things combined were the catalyst I needed to make a change. I couldn’t bear the thought of spending another year in that terrible work environment. I couldn’t bear the thought of not spending as much time as possible with my sweet Fuzz. Something had to give so I came up with a plan and counted the days. I came “home” to San Diego that fall and it was the best thing I ever did.
For the spring 2014 semester I signed up for a portrait class thinking I would enjoy the challenge the same way I had before. I was wrong. Taking portraits of others requires connecting with people in a way that I couldn’t anymore. That semester was extremely hard. I took portraiture and commercial photography and was frustrated in both. Dealing with depression while keeping up with the 15 week class schedule was tough at every step. I questioned my work, I questioned my goals, and I questioned what I was doing with my life. But I got through it and I’m stronger for doing so.
After that semester I knew I would never do portraits again and since then I have been perfectly comfortable saying no when the request is made. Portraiture requires something which I am no longer able to give. I can’t specifically point to what that is, but I know I can’t do it. It’s no longer a part of who I am as a photographer and I’m fine with that. Other people think it’s weird. If you’re a photographer why don’t you take pictures of people? I don’t. That’s that.
Studio lighting was another point of conflict that term. The professor was adamant about how I should be working and I fought him the entire time. Complicated studio lighting wasn’t me. It still isn’t. I think that’s one of the most important lessons I have learned in school: I am who I am and I make no apologies. Regardless of what others may think I should be. All of the things I’ve been through since you’ve been gone have taught me a lot about myself. That semester I eventually found a way to do studio lighting “my way”. Something simple that didn’t take hours to set up and a formula that I could easily adjust for each setup. Something that creates the effect that I want, that looks good, and that doesn’t require spending a ton of money on fancy equipment.
At some point during this time I began another project inspired by you. I called it “The Things We Leave Behind”. You left me so many wonderful things: my entrepreneurial drive, my artistic skills, my creativity and sense of design, to name a few. You also left me many beautiful objects; fabrics, ceramics, jewelry, and with all those things I am creating this project. It honors your legacy—both tangible and otherwise. I discovered I have a skill for still life and the ability to arrange objects in balanced compositions. I also discovered how it relates to my floral designs, something I know you would have agreed with and been excited about.
Fall of 2014 and Spring of 2015 were two very good ones in terms of what I learned and how my work improved. The professors were supportive and they taught me a great deal. I got to work on my pier project which was so rewarding. I’m looking forward to working on it again after classes end. I also learned what’s involved in teaching and got some great ideas for creating courses. There’s definitely a need for what I can teach.
Then came summer and everything fell apart. I never thought Mr. Bear would die that day and I still carry the pain and guilt for everything that happened. Instead of taking refuge in my photography and using it to express my pain, I turned to drawing. Something new I discovered as an outlet for my creativity.
The following semester started and one of my classes was a business class. I loved it! The entrepreneur in me was thrilled to write a business plan and a marketing plan, and even happier to be implementing it. There was a portfolio class, too, in preparation for the final review presentation.
Now I’m on my last semester, writing to you as if you were here. I wish you could have seen what I have done and how much I have grown both as an artist and as a person. Getting an MFA has been a challenge and it’s been full of questions about what I want to do with the rest of my life. But I am so glad I did it and I only wish we could celebrate it together with some cake and ice cream. I miss you so much. You were my biggest supporter, my number one fan. I’m not sure how I managed to complete this degree without you at my side. While I know you’ve been with me, in spirit, it’s not the same. I am proud and I know I’ve made you proud.
Happy Mother’s Day, mom, I love you.