Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Me Too?

Me too.

I was sexually assaulted by my high school art teacher.

It's taken 40 years to admit that to myself or anyone else, to say it out loud. To call it assault. To accept that I was manipulated in the worst, most selfish way possible by a man three times my age. And even now, the memory of that time is complicated. Because of that experience, for most of my adult life, art has been a double-edged sword; torturous and joyful.

Making art is all I ever wanted to do.

As a child, the sense of pure pleasure from drawing images on paper is one of my earliest memories. In a time when parents didn't often spend hard earned money on art supplies for small children, I coveted those pieces of white cardboard that came with my Father's new dress shirts. My Mother would tear open the packages, hand me the blank white paper with rounded corners, so filled with possibility, and I would find photos of people and animals to draw with a number two pencil. By grade school I was quite good for my age, always the class artist, winning art awards and contests, and enjoying both the process and the attention it brought.

By high school, art was what defined me. I could no more not draw and paint
than I could not breathe. It was like oxygen. When the chance came along to spend half my day studying Commercial Art at the technical school adjacent to the high school, I jumped at it.

My art teacher was a charismatic man in his late 40's, beloved by most of his students and respected in the community. And owing to my artistic ability (or so I assumed) I pretty quickly became a cliche; the other kids called me "teacher's pet".

Courted (today, we'd call it "groomed") by this man I so admired, he approached me on the first day of my junior year with the proposition that our relationship become "something more." If it didn't, he said, he would resign his teaching position. He couldn't bear to see me every day, and "not have me". If he stayed, he "WOULD have me". Pretty heady stuff for a girl who'd just turned sixteen. Flattered and terrified, I remember shaking uncontrollably for most of that morning at school - teeth chattering, trembling. And I remember him laughing and saying I was probably in shock. 

What followed was a two-and-a-half-year Svengali like relationship where making art became hopelessly tangled up in this new personal relationship. He mentored and encouraged me, and before long I was no longer making art for the pleasure of the process, or the sense of achievement it gave, but for his approval, his attention. It - and he - became all consuming. With the excuse of doing photo shoots, or working on community art projects, we spent a lot of time together outside of school, which involved increasing physical intimacy. On one occasion when things were progressing far too fast, I stopped him, saying I didn't think I was ready yet; not in that setting, not there, not then. His reaction was a mix of hurt and anger, and the expectation that I should be grateful he didn't force me, because he was "a gentleman". It was my first experience with a man feeling entitled to a woman's body, and while I thought his irritation was unfair, it worked. I actually felt bad. 

One evening during my senior year, after we'd both consumed several glasses of scotch at a local bar, he pulled the car over on a deserted road, and I gave in. The rest of the year was filled with drama and deception. While my classmates were going to football games and prom, I was going to dark restaurants and motels with a man 32 years my senior. In my teenage naïveté and inexperience, I found it romantic and dangerous and exciting. And he knew how to play that. The control he had over me was absolute. I would have willingly and happily walked into a burning building had he asked me.

Soon after graduation,
everything came crashing down. Faced with warnings from several sources, including school administrators who could no longer ignore the situation (some of whom had known all along, reacting initially with an envious nudge-wink, and a cautionary "be careful"), he ended it. Feeling very much the fool, and unable to face the thought of life in the same small town as this man, I moved 3000 miles away.

It was many years before I picked up a pencil or paintbrush again.

I fell in love with a good man, married him, had a child, and threw myself into home and family. Years passed - I worked a few part time jobs, and eventually found a job doing crystal engraving. It was enough like making art to make me want more. College enrollment followed, and I began taking art electives. I'll never forget the moment in a well-known watercolorist's life drawing class when I thought, "Yes! This is it! I remember this now!"  

Making art felt good again. And it didn't hurt when this new teacher, someone I respected and whose work and process I greatly admired (and still do), quietly told me one day as we all drew from the model, "You have talent. You can go as far as you want with this." I'm sure he had no idea how much those words of encouragement meant. I'm happy to say that while I haven't gone nearly as far as I'd like, I haven't looked back. 

More classes followed, more art related jobs, more drawing, more painting, just – moreI was back at that point where I wanted to absorb it all, soak it all in. The best way to describe the process is like awakening from a very deep sleep, or rising to the surface after years underwater. And today, I make a very modest, if uncertain, living as a contemporary folk artist.

I'm sure a therapist could have a field day with all this, but to be honest, I prefer the therapy the creative process provides. Art is a long-lost friend with whom I've been reunited. It listens. It heals old wounds. It's my happiness, my refuge, my solace, my prayer, and my hope for the future. 

With that rather complicated back story, here's my small contribution to the "Me Too" movement. It was cathartic and empowering to paint. The message is presented in different languages, because sexual assault is universal. There is a crowd of women, because solidarity matters. The sunrise represents hope. And I chose to use a photo of a dear friend's 11 year old daughter as reference; a child who, like my own, I care a great deal about. A child who I hope and pray will never in her life have to say "me too".