Today was a special day. It marked two years since my Escapist solo show, The Platform, and fifteen years since my Ph.D. dissertation defense in Binghamton, NY. I still can’t believe I pulled that one off! I was not your most passionate Ph.D. student, to say the least. But my chair supported me because I didn’t give up and actually did all the work, emailed him each and every day for months – while I was teaching a full course load – bugged him about what to do next, and did absolutely all the things he suggested, including learning factor analysis (which is not something my mind lends itself to easily). Anyway, after years of suffering, my dissertation defense was a huge success. I felt confident that day, something that had never happened to me before in the presence of my committee members.
I wore uncomfortable pink shoes because I was very young and didn’t know better. I also drank the whole carafe of water sitting in front of me, which made me kind of resent the last handful of people who asked questions and prolonged the ordeal. But I spoke about my work knowledgeably and even with a modicum of interest. Except at the very end when I just wanted the thing to be over so I could go pee. Overall, I think there were only two moments when I felt like a deer in the headlights and I overcame my anxiety and talked my way out of those situations.
But back to my committee, I remember one time, years before my defense, during an oral exam that was extremely intimidating they said something like, “We’re afraid you’re not going to be happy waking up each day of your life to do your research.” Well, duh! I am ecstatic to wake up each day and know that I absolutely do not have to do Political Science research ever again. In fact, this is making even the pandemic so much easier to deal with. I wake up, we’re still in a pandemic, I’m facing a new day in isolation, but then I tell myself, you do not have to write your Ph.D. dissertation or even a conference paper, and that instantly cheers me up!
Years before my defense, my committee members also said, “You don’t seem to like playing with ideas.” Well, guys, 20 years after the fact, I will admit: I hate playing with ideas! I love playing with paint! I also love playing with words and imaginary people and their emotions. There are so many things I love, but contributing to the extant body of knowledge is not one of them!
So, here goes, a note of appreciation, all these years later, to my dissertation committee for giving me lots of grief, for knowing I wasn’t that into it, but pushing me to do good work anyway because they would accept nothing less. My dissertation (which I don’t own a copy of, but the library at Binghamton does) was actually pretty darn good. It had to be, because my chair said he wouldn’t sign off on it otherwise. It’s still definitely the most boring of all the books I wrote, and I highly recommend you read my novels instead, but I learned a lot in the process of making it worthy of my chair’s signature. I mostly learned that with hard work and patience you can accomplish more than you thought possible. And it was nice that my chair was proud of me in the end. He went on to be very supportive of everything I did in my career: tenure, research stays at various European universities, grant applications, and lots of complicated bureaucratic stuff I won’t bore you with. Letters of support arrived from Cornell and Oxford, the places where his own career as a Political Science superstar took him.
What’s nice though, is not just that I had such support in my academic career but that it didn’t stop when I decided to quit a tenured position in order to open my own art gallery in Houston. My chair was genuinely excited for me, and commissioned a portrait of his dog. She turned out absolutely stunning, and I packed her and shipped her to London. It was a very good moment, in which I realized I was on the right track.
But sometimes one needs more positive reinforcement to have these things truly sink in. I am approaching an important turning point in my new life and career where I am more confident in my abilities not just to make art but to run a business. Tonight I hosted an online auction via Zoom, and it was such fun and so successful! I’m amazed that even in the middle of a pandemic, I have wonderful support from my collectors and am selling so much art! So yes, my committee was entirely right. I was not a happy academic, but I’m a very happy artist and writer!