The first time I failed out of art school was at the Art Institute Of Philadelphia, an advertising trade school that advertised on late night TV that I could have a career “ in just 18 months” I knew the career part was just a bullshit start on the bottom rung of the ladder, but I was in a hurry to start, and 18 months was already too long to wait after wasting 18 years. So I went to learn from wise men who taught at Art Institute after getting used up and spit out by the Philly advertising world. These teachers were all happy to have survived and grateful to no longer be on deadline. They would say things like “If you wash your hands in really hot water and then switch to really cold water you wont sweat on your artwork for an hour!” and I would write this down as if it was the 11th commandment from Moses. To this day it’s all the information I retained from my classes. When I realized the school was only preparing me to get yelled at by clients and bosses alike until I was broken down enough to return to Art Institute to teach the youth to wash their hands, I bailed.
I spent a bunch of months painting graffiti, while also fulfilling the portfolio requirements needed to apply to University Of The Arts. UArts is a reknowned school that was beyond my budget and probably my abilities, but I pulled together a portfolio filled with 59 shots of graffiti and a spray painted self portrait, and I went to meet an admissions officer. She cracked open my portfolio to the middle, pointed to a trackside graffiti wall I painted and said “I see this every day from the train, you’re in”. I started to tell her about my motivations in using Cherry-Red spray paint and what inspired my ultra-flat black musings, but she waved me out of her office, “Don’t tell, show”. It was the best advice I ever got, and I didn’t even have to go to school to get it.
The second time I failed out of art school was a lot like the first, I started finding futility in all the work that was asked of me. This is a bad thing to happen to you in the foundation year of UArts, where the very point of the year is to bury you in pointless work and see if you can dig yourself out. I spent months overwhelmed to the point of not doing anything, especially not going to class to get buried in more pointless work. One bright May morning the phone woke me up and a crisp voice, like a warble from a polite but firm spring robin, told me that I was expelled from school, and if there were extenuating circumstances I wanted to share, I could present my case to the department chairs and the school president the next day, 10 am sharp. Immediately I snapped out of my depression and took stock of my situation. All I ever wanted was to be an artist, but I was focused on all the wrong parts of art. I wanted the success and not the work. I wanted the fame but not the discovery. I was trying to be at the top of the ladder without making climb. As simple as that epiphany was, it took 13 months and $15,000 of my own cash to realize it. Looking back, it was a bargain, mainly financed through comic book sales (a whole other story). I went into UArts the next day to speak my peace to the firing squad, and I found I was 33rd on the list of people begging for a pardon, dead last in the pity parade. I sat and watched the room of the doomed drain out, each student going into a room and then emerging a minute or five later, shot out and in need of a casket. I merrily counted them off until I got to 32 and it was my turn on the gallows, and with a deep exhale I skipped to my execution, grateful that it would soon be over.
The brown box of a room was packed tight with all the department heads and the UArts president, gathered glumly around a long slab of wood. I sat down and before anyone could ask me, got right down to the gristle, “My name is Stephen Powers and I am a fuck up. When I look behind me, all I see is a series of burnt bridges, up to and including the one that Im standing on today. I’m only asking to stop here, put out this fire and make good on the promise I know I have. Thanks for your time”. Every department head stared at the table, but the president alone, at the furthest end of the table, locked eyes with me and smiled. I would be the only exception granted that summer, and I made up a years worth of studio work in 6 weeks. Work is easy if you love to work. Having finally, finally, learned discipline, I acquired the tool I needed to go forth and make me happen. I returned to school in the fall just to see the stunned look on my classmates faces when they saw me back in black. Then I dropped out.
At Art Basel this year my alma (didn’t) mater UArts has graciously invited me to participate in an alumni group show at The National Hotel in South Beach. I have designed an animated neon sign that is installed at the top of the hotel facing the beach. A mother on a ladder pulls the moon out of the sky and hands it to her kid. The kid reaches up as if to say “ this is cool, but I wanted an xbox”. It’s titled “Anything For You” and its no coincidence that it is visible from the path in South Beach where Drake was filmed passing out cake as part of “God’s Plan”. I wanted to make something for South Beach that felt generous, but it wasn’t until now, in seat 27D on the flight down to Miami that I realize the generosity Im depicting is also the generosity that has made me.
30 years ago I met Maryanne and told her I was going to apply to UArts, and having said it, she pressed me to follow through. What came along with the encouragement was acceptance, not only into school but her life, which included a mother who was a master potter and a serial entrepreneur. Dorothy was my art mom, she valued creativity, especially if it was pragmatic and beautiful, which is the essence of pottery. She gave me a job helping her in her pottery studio, teaching me the basics of business and allowing me to find a connection between her late 18th century Pennsylvanian German redware pottery and my late 20th century American Graffiti (spoiler; its sgraffito). I made a lot of art under her loving and anxious gaze. I was equally responsible for the love and the anxiety, calling her art mom for starters. She hated me calling her art mom, the coin of praise I tossed her also came with flip side of blame if it didn’t work out for me. And she sure didn’t need an art son, she had a real one, Charles, who graduated UArtsand Yale. She had every reason to believe my graffiti-tagging ass was more arson than art son. Even still, when I dropped out of UArts, she offered to pick up my tuition if I would continue. It was a very generous offer that I refused immediately, not willing to upset the balance of love and anxiety. But true to her example I have worked hard on making beautiful pragmatic art, and her pottery stool graces my place of business; I sit on it and wonder, like she did, if I have done enough (the answer usually comes back NO). On her deathbed 10 years ago she told me, “Whatever happens, I know you’ll do the dishes” and I do, always. I also have written her love on the Miami Skyline. And I will be in the lobby of The National hot selling prints for 45 bucks a pop Thursday night. After all, I am my art mom’s son.