The room smelled like paint, ambition, and terror. Our final projects waited judgment on the stage, hidden beneath sheets and drop cloths.
Just before she pulled the sheet from her sculpture, Lisa said “I want this to be anthemic.”
Dr. Alverez, the head of our program, dressed as always in a dark suit with a checked tie, cocked an eyebrow.
The rest of us pushed forward. Up on our heels and eager to see.
We were in a building renamed six times over the past 50 years for different university benefactors, but we all called the place Polychromal Hall (after the five long hallways, each painted a different bright color).
We huddled together off the Red Hallway in room 23, which had a curved entryway, a stage on the room’s far side, and walls containing cross-hatched lines that made me feel like I was in an egg carton. Only we were all constantly jostled and dropped and told to toughen up because it wasn’t acceptable that any of us might break.
We were mocked by our professors, non-working artists who ate and drank everything at weekly departmental wine-and-cheese parties and would admit after four or five drinks that they took their jobs primarily for the health insurance.
We walked down the Blue Hallway of Polychromal Hall three days a week to sit in a dark auditorium with insanely comfy chairs watching art-history slides in a class scheduled far too early at 8:00 a.m. I’d dozed off more than once. I think we all did.
We’d spend most afternoons in studio classes along the Yellow Hallway. Sketching, drawing, painting, and sculpting.
Everything building to this moment when we revealed our final projects.
In our program, Lisa was our natural leader. In classes, she was always the first to ask questions or challenge assumptions. She was feral in her focus, tall and gangly, with the grace of a dancer. Her hair was polychromal and she could lock onto you with her deep green eyes until you’d sense the world collapsing into a singularity around you. Every one of the guys (and half the women) made a play for her at some point. She shot us all down (politely for the most part, but firmly so there was no question about where she stood).
Lisa seemingly put her own physical desires aside, pouring all her passion into her work.
Which was, without exception, jaw-droppingly great.
You’d look at her art and realize you know nothing of technique or texture or content. And she could extemporaneously give you a mini-Ted Talk explaining every iota of historical and emotional context behind all of her work – and most of yours.
It was joyous.
That all changed when Dr. Alverez arrived in mid-term, brought in to be the savior of our program, fully armed with data and analytics.
Lisa fought openly and loudly with Dr. Alverez. Some days they’d scream at each other in the corner of a classroom while tour groups of prospective students hovered nearby, too afraid to approach but too terrified to leave. Lisa hated Dr. Alverez’s insistence that we needed to grow the department and do everything in our power to make our program more popular.
Lisa hated everything about that and hated how proud Dr. Alverez was of always wearing socks that matched. So, she retreated to her room and hid out in her studio. She stopped speaking in class. Stopped asking questions.
She grew gaunt and the circles under her eyes darkened significantly.
You wanted to go up and hug her. Or feed her a sandwich. But that’s not the type of relationship any of us had with her.
My own final project was a cow with intricate tunnels dug through it to represent the big business and supply chain issues of modern food production. Like most pieces of conceptual art, it seemed brilliant at three a.m., but far less so in the light of day. I worried that everything I did lacked depth and heart.
I glanced over at Dr. Alverez, who’d made two members of the program cry in the past week. He was the type of artist who developed a set of arbitrary rules for himself and wanted everything to follow those rules. The students who worked with him produced art that was safe and homogenized.
When Dr. Alverez asked for volunteers to present first, I looked away. I knew he’d hate my project. Or even worse, he’d like it and I’d know for sure it was shit.
But Lisa didn’t hesitate. She didn’t care what Dr. Alverez thought. She didn’t care what anyone thought. She jumped up onstage and approached her sculpture. “I want this to be anthemic,” she said loudly.
She yanked the sheet off, revealing four pieces of wood affixed to a stool and sticking up in the air. “Is that it?” I wondered. It seemed like there should be more, so we pressed forward to see.
It was Lisa, so of course there was more. There were always layers in her work. Sure enough, Lisa had painted four words on the seat of the stool: “Art does not scale.”
Dr. Alverez sputtered and turned red at the sight. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.
She looked at him for a long moment, then smiled. And I realized I hadn’t seen her smile in weeks. Then she walked over to Dr. Alverez, pulled a pair of scissors from her pocket, and snipped off the last five inches of his checkered tie. She calmly placed the scissors on the stool and turned towards the door.
Dr. Alverez was silent for a few seconds before he started screaming. Lisa did not turn around, but she held the missing five inches of his tie aloft in triumph before she left Room 23, turned right to walk the long red hallway, and left Polychromal Hall forever.