Ninth grade. Geez, that was years ago. More specifically, it was the spring of 1998. I was a 13-year-old kid (almost 14) who had entered his first school-wide art competition. It was the culmination of everything I had learned over two semesters of art class.
I knew I would not win the 9th-grade competition — winners were decided on the grade level. Our entire class knew who that honor would fall too. And, it was well-deserved. The girl who rightfully won was years ahead in skill than anyone else, myself included. The competition was between those of us playing for second and third place. I was OK with that. By all the opinions of a couple of dozen or so 9th-grade art critics, I had a decent shot at least one of the coveted ribbons.
I could handle defeat. I had been a lifelong competitor and suffered my fair share of losses in football, basketball, baseball, and more. What pissed me off at the time was not being allowed to compete. On a mere technicality.
One of the pieces I created broke a rule of which I was unaware. We were not given any sort of official rulebook. The only requirements were that we must enter pieces for a set number of categories. One was a “Now This Is Art” drawing. Others included flower, pattern, color, and pencil works.
The judge walked up to me and asked, “Did you trace your hand in this drawing?” I answered in the affirmative, and was immediately disqualified from the entire competition. There was a rule for that category that every single thing must be drawn free-hand. I wasn’t asked to pack up my exhibit or anything of the sort. I simply was not allowed to compete. I asked the judge and my art teacher if I could replace it with another — I had backups on hand. But, I was not allowed.
I have all the respect in the world for my art teacher. I learned a lot from her in the couple of years I had her class.
However, that was a shitty thing to do to a 13-year-old kid. She could have absolutely overruled the judge. Heck, the judge could have waived this rule or let me enter another piece, especially since we were not given a rulebook before the competition. Adults in positions of power can break a kid’s confidence, cause them to lose their passion, and make them give up altogether when they do things like this.
As for me, it sucked, but I got over it. I learned a valuable lesson that day. My art would always be for me, and I would always do it my way.
The piece in question (third in the gallery below) was the closest thing to real artwork that I had placed in the competition. I put everything that I was feeling as a 13-year-old into that drawing. It may not have been the best work on a technical level. But, it was pain and angst and a heartbroken teen trying to find some sliver of hope in the world, and it was splattered across the page for all of the little podunk town of Highland Home, Alabama, to see.
As I was going through a few boxes the other day, I found most of my old stuff. It was a little worn. The charcoal and colors had been smudged. There was a little water damage on some pieces. But, for the most part, it was all still intact.
I tried to pull most of the pieces from that art show (I could tell by the tape residue on their backsides where they’d been hung). I think a few are missing. Sorry for the rough cropping via my computer.
I have recently taken up drawing again and even started dabbling in painting. I have no rules to follow or judges to please. That is not what art is about. If I want to trace my hand to get the real-world size, it does not make me any less of an artist than if I had drawn it free-hand.
In a recent drawing, I used a ruler for almost every line. It was a lesson in perspective with two vanishing points. The ruler was just a tool, much like a pencil or brush. I still had to put in the work to bring the entire piece together over three grueling nights.
While I did not let my disqualification bring me down, I am still worried about that other 13-year-old who might not be able to take that hit. That kid might just need someone to step up for them.
If you are an adult in this sort of position and just happen to be reading this blog post, my message is simple. Build kids up. Break the rules when it makes sense to break them. Don’t give me the “life’s not fair” or “rules are rules” line. Life is crap enough into adulthood. Kids need to dream big, and you have the power to help them dream even bigger.
If you are a kid who is being told what art is supposed to be, screw ‘em. You don’t need them anyway. You do you. Take it from someone who has made a career out of creating art of one form or another. You’ll find your way.