What I Learned at My Daughter’s Art Exhibition

Artwork Exhibit, CCS.

by Keith Yancy

Driving down to my daughter’s art exhibition this morning was more than just another errand for me, or another family activity for my wife and kids.

I’d been looking forward to seeing my daughter’s artwork since she began her summer classes at CCS — the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.  It’s a great school, one of the many, many “diamonds in the rough” that make up the tapestry of Detroit’s decaying downtown district.  Since the very first day, she’d been inspired, excited, and motivated more than I’d ever seen her before, and her enthusiasm for what she was learning, her teachers, and the experiences offered by the program had given her a renewed sense of purpose. 

But as much as she was excited about her experiences, I’m forced to admit that I was too.  Maybe that’s the true test of parenting: taking more pleasure from your kids’ happiness than your own.  But as happy as I was to see her artistic passion and creativity blooming, my concerns about an artistic career lingered in my mind like a fog.  A life devoted to art and creativity can be a lonely one, with many unknowns; creative people very rarely have the luxury of settling into a predictable or consistent “career.”  An artist’s career can often change and take many unexpected turns, with meteoric rises and plummeting falls, and abundant measures of both satisfaction and self-doubt.

This was on my mind as I drove my family downtown, from the suburbs to the inner city.  It’s a drive that in many ways is a mirror for some of my concerns.  It’s impossible to ignore the empty storefronts, the burned out homes, the waist-high weeds and the cracked, pock-marked asphalt that make up the trip into Detroit.  The stark reality of joblessness and broken dreams marks the journey, in a way few other places in America can equal.  The broken windows, boarded-up churches and weed-wild empty lots offer a silent, constant refrain: We were the dreams of yesterday, dreams based on work, dreams of prosperity, dreams of happiness… and we are gone.  How can I feel confident that my daughter will survive in the future ahead, much less thrive?  In a world where artists, musicians, and fine arts are increasingly seen as irrelevant — or worse?

I pulled into the parking garage near campus, and we walked inside the building where the exhibition was held.  We were ten minutes early, but there were people there already, teenage students like my daughter, curious parents, bored siblings, all waiting around outside the exhibition hall.  The walls are glass, and we could see inside and see some of the artwork, but no one went in.  Mentors and teachers came in and out, preparing punch and cookies and trying to pretend like the growing crowd was both not there and not starting to grow impatient.  We made small talk in low voices, the teenaged students trying not to look nervous.  Eventually, ten minutes later than advertised, the mentor students opened the glass doors, and the families poured in, most of whom resisted the urge to bolt straight to their own kid’s art display.  People begin to politely review whatever artwork was nearby, with polite and somewhat comic expressions.  It’s hard to look like a dignified art critic when you’re evaluating the shading on an eight-eyed, purple alien model figure set up on a small stand.

The artwork was surprisingly good, albeit uneven, and ranged from very, very rough drawings to 3D-animated graphics; futuristic models and a wide variety of self-made fashions were also well-represented.  The subjects reflect both classic objects and those of popular culture: impossibly aerodynamic car models and self-portraits, skulls, aliens, and soldiers next to still life scenes, tomb-raider-esque women with outrageously exaggerated curves (and wearing the requisite tiny outfits) next to drawings of bedroom furniture.

But the common element through all the art, from those with substantial talent to those with only marginal ability, was the passion and enthusiasm of the students who created it.  As I walked through the exhibition, trying (and failing) to ignore how old I looked and felt, I could see everywhere young adults showing off their creations, explaining their creative ideas and approaches, virtually radiating excitement and passion for what they’d done.  I found myself increasingly studying the artists rather than the artwork, and as I did so, I began to recognize that their enthusiasm, their incredible drive to express themselves and their ideas, was what was really on display.  The artwork was just a by-product of that collective power of self-expression.

And I found myself worrying less about my own daughter.  Her work clearly belonged there, her talents clearly focused in a place that molds and channels such talent and makes it useful to the artist and to the society in which the artist lives.  CCS has a strong reputation both for the rigor of their programs and their ability to find employment for their graduates, and though I know the road ahead won’t be easy for my daughter, that road would be far darker — and more harmful — if it led somewhere where her heart wasn’t.  As difficult as it may be for someone to pursue a career in the arts, to want to and NOT to do so is far more difficult, and ultimately, more destructive.

And so, I now know with absolute certainty that if that’s what she wants to do, then I’ll do everything I can to support her and help her realize her dreams.  

Nowadays, a career in the arts is, in some circles, considered frivolous, unnecessary, irrelevant.  This line of thinking argues, often very loudly, that “STEM” subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are where we should be guiding our children.  Perhaps.  But these same people are very often those who go to movies, listen to the radio, wear the latest fashions, send their children to dance classes and generally criticize those who pursue artistic careers — while being addicted to the very products those artists create.  While I hope that such critics eventually recognize this absurdity, I’m forced in the meantime to encourage my daughter to follow her dreams while ignoring such naysayers.

As virtually every culture in human history has shown, there will always be a need for artists and the arts.  Ultimately, I believe the many forms of artistic expression (music, literature, theater, design, etc) are what all of us enjoy most in life, artists and non-artists alike.  And while it may feel expedient and practical to steer a young adult toward a career in science, technology, or business, I can’t in good conscience push my daughter away from what she wants to do with her life.

I hope I’m right.

Until next time… 🙂


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