First Art Gallery Show - AN ARTSY JOURNEY # 19
My first solo art gallery opening was moments away. It was 1989. I was jittery from nerves, or was this excitement? I wanted everything to go just right. And so far, true to her word, Greta Johansson, the executive director of Bismarck Art and Gallery Association, BAGA, had pulled out all the stops.
Months ago she sent out invitations and numerous media press releases. She prepared an artist statement and descriptive tags for each painting. Today we hung a dozen framed watercolor-collage paintings and three large oil canvases. Then we adjusted the track lighting so the art glowed under the illuminating lens of this ornate 1907 residence home on 5th street in downtown that had become the Elan Gallery, home of BAGA, just a few short blocks from my cracker-box apartment, yet it seemed worlds away.
Almost mystical, a cut-crystal punch bowl glistened as lemon slices floated in a sparkling wine beverage on a white linen tablecloth. A luscious sampling of cheese and crackers sat to the side. A solo pianist caressed the ivory keys and an enchanting melody drifted through the gallery. As people mingled about, the room hummed. It was a class act.
I gazed at my artwork on the wall. To illustrate my artistic growth, I had included a variety of medias in the exhibit: watercolor, oils, and paper collage. I was known for watercolors, mostly landscapes and floral, but through my collegiate art classes, I had expanded into oil paints. My motto was: go big or go home, so I painted oversize, six-foot canvases. The massive pieces added energy to the room and my heart did a little tap dance.
Also included were framed paper collages which illustrated a contemporary flair. Layering textured papers with the watercolor images created an impressionistic feel. I enjoyed exploring the new media, mixing and matching shapes, implementing the color and design skills I had been taught.
Luckily, as this modern art style of mine emerged, it turned out that it separated me from the traditional Midwest painters who focused on realistic wildlife.
Now, forty minutes into the two hour show, three red dots appeared on the price tags. Sold! My heart danced. I waltzed around the room, glowing.
Among the crowd was a broad man with more gray than brown hair. His back was toward me as he studied a painting. I saw his head tilt up and slowly drift down as he eyed the art. He moved on to the next painting and lingered, finally taking a step to the following piece. He was moving clockwise around the exhibit.
In the shuffle of guests, I lost track of him until almost an hour later. He was at the last piece of his clockwise progression. My curiosity was peaked. I approached him from behind and tapped his shoulder.
He turned around and suddenly I was nose to nose with Clarence Berg, the head of the art department for North Dakota State University, NDSU, in Fargo. I recognized him from his photo in the campus directory. Now his piercing hawk-like eyes penetrated mine.
“I’m quite taken with your work, he said. “I don’t get to Bismarck often, but I’m delighted I was here to take in your exhibit. I'm impressed with your broken use of color."
I could only nod. The lump of emotion threatened to strangle me.
“I read you’re a student at BSC. You should come to my school,” he offered, squaring his shoulders with pride and extending a business card.
He didn’t remember me, or my application packet of slides requesting acceptance to his Department of Fine Arts.
I gasped and reeled it back in.
My application packet hadn’t matter to him. But it had mattered to me.
I knew exactly how long it had been since I had scheduled an appointment, drove four hours, discovered Mr. Berg wasn't available, got stranded in a snowstorm, slide off the road, took twice as long to drive home, then mailed art samples and letters of references . . . all to be rejected by this man who was now offering me acceptance into “his” school.
It had been three months, two weeks, and six days.
Around me, I was aware of hushed voices in the background, a distant buzz. I didn’t hear their words. All I could hear, all I could focus on, was this wheezing. Did the wheezing come from Mr. Berg? No, it was the whirring in my head from my blood pressure going up.
I knew what it felt like to want something, to desire it. And it was not Mr. Berg presenting me with my own personal invitation all these months later.
Suddenly, my mind raced, thinking how different my life would be if he had accepted my credentials. I would have committed to living two more years in North Dakota.
Instead, I stood in Elan Gallery, having my own art show. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another red dot tagged to a painting. I exploded with pride. Sold!
All at once, I realized I had moved on from the emotional need to use college as a crutch. At first, college was a safe place to grow and learn and be supported about trying something different. College supported my decision to leave the conventional path attached to nursing. College complimented my passion to pursue the arts and leave behind the comforts of a stable job and steady paycheck that so many people embraced, keeping them on the same track forever.
Presently, I was 292 days closer to my goal of moving back to Michigan. I still believed in learning and education, but If I went back to school now, I was determined it would be with Michigan residency.
I looked Mr. Berg square in the eye. “I applied to your school,” I said, locking my lips into a polite smile. “But I wasn’t accepted.”
He rubbed his hand over his chin. “Hmm,” he said.
I could tell he still didn’t remember me, or my thorough application packet.
After thanking him for the positive critique, I told him I had other plans for my future and turned on my heel. I let that hang in the air refusing to let my mood sour.
At the end of the evening, Greta, the small and mighty executive director of BAGA, had put on a big and mighty show for me, and the Bismarck community had supported me. I was elated.
Mentally, I added the sales. It was decent money. Enough for airline tickets to see my boys, and if I gave up new shoes, enough for two remote-control, turbo-charged race cars. Giving up shoes was easy. My heart was in love with battery-charged speed-mobiles.The difficult part was to stretch the money to include replacing the trusty Chevette. Somehow I had to figure out how to buy two toy cars for my sons and one mean-hauling machine for me by spring.