For 40 minutes every day I got to forget everything outside his classroom. It smelled like so many projects I wanted to plunge my hands into—damp clay, turpentine, gesso, sawdust, fumes from soldering stained glass. While his invariable claim was that whatever I was making wasn’t finished yet, it was his encouragement that helped me decide to continue to study art. I effortlessly soaked up facts in American Government, spilled out speeches in English, and picked apart the insides of a fetal pig with freakish zeal. But making art was the only thing that quieted my mind, and it still is. I was sensible, I wanted stability, and I thought of college as preparation for a degree, which would result in a job, which would result in making money. I would have followed that route if he hadn’t repeatedly pulled me aside and insisted I could paint instead.
Skip ahead a few years to find me having some serious doubts about that choice. A senior in a level II painting class, I considered calling it quits. I had almost started to define myself as a painter, and was wrestling with the thought that maybe I wasn’t fit to be called one. I asked John, a soft-spoken professor who had agreed to advise my senior project, for a meeting. I’ll never forget what he said, because it came as such a shock. “You know I’ve always taken a special interest in your work.”
I almost laughed, but I did keep going. It was that support which pushed me through my final semester—hours upon hours every week alone in the studio, listening to Jack Johnson and Modest Mouse, still finding calm in the smell of turpentine and pencil shavings. John told me about the Grinnell Artist Residency, where I applied and spent a month that sealed my decision to pursue an MFA. He invited me into his studio, where he introduced me to his cat and, get this, let me PAINT ON HIS CANVAS. (About 15 of his canvasses, I think, but that’s another story.)
I never considered teaching, but lately it seems like the best possible way to go forward. Now, as I research grad programs and continue to work, these two are still writing and calling and offering their insights. Without John Dilg and George Killian, I would have called painting a hobby and done it in a basement in my retirement. That probably wouldn’t be a loss to the rest of the world, but it would certainly have changed things for me. If I can encourage or even inspire someone else to keep painting, then that's exactly what I want to do. There's no better way to give back, and no better gift than the courage to pursue happiness.