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12/23/2020 An A from the Master

As 2020 comes to a close, it would be easy for me to talk about how shitty this year has been on a global level. But there's enough negativity floating about, and to be honest my personal-level 2020 kicked ass. So this blog post is me taking the time to do a thing that often brings me inexplicable discomfort: acknowledging my achievements.

At the beginning of this year I wrote and illustrated a 36-page nonfiction comic for my undergraduate thesis, and I defended it with a high pass (and now have two professors who want to teach it in their classes--one of them a graduate-level course). In other words, I finally finished my English degree with minors in Graphic Design, Creative Writing, and Honors! I also entered into what has been easily the healthiest relationship of my life, and got to adventure with her to Moab and Shambhala--not to mention our little skydiving excursion and hikes in the Snowy Range. Apart from Alyssa, I summited the tallest mountain in Colorado with my little brother, wrote, directed, and edited my first short film, and later took my first solo roadtrip to Glacier National Park. Then I got a raise at my full-time job, where I designed an online class and taught myself the basics of 3D sculpting and animation. Additionally, I got a part-time position doing incredibly fulfilling work for the university's Black Studies Center, got paid to write scientific articles a CBD company, and made more money doing artistic commissions than any year prior. Among all of these accomplishments, however, one stands above the rest; I earned an A from Professor Doug Russell.

When it comes to Professor Russell, there's two things you need to know in order to understand this blog post:

  1. He's easily one of the best, most talented instructors at the University of Wyoming. Not only is he an absolute god at the craft of drawing, but he is equally talented at the craft of teaching. In my mind he ranks alongside Clifford Marks, Scott Henkle, Kate Northtrop, and Brandon Gellis as one of UW's top treasures/legends.

  2. Of the three Bs I received in college, Professor Russell gave me two of them--and I deserved both. The way he grades is by taking a very specific list of criteria and applying it to the entire body of work you produced over the course of the semester. Arguing your grade is nearly impossible, since the proof is in the artwork.

Now, let me back it up a bit by saying that the first day of Drawing 1 was the worst day of my college career (aside from getting arrested, perhaps, but you can read about that over in the nonfiction section of my website). I hadn't taken an art class since seventh grade, and our very first assignment was to draw a still life in the middle of class before the commencement of actual instruction in the weeks to come. Surrounded by insanely badass artists, I proceeded to produce what may have been the worst still life in the history of still lifes for all the class to see. When Professor Russell had us take a pause to walk around the room and consume our classmates' artwork, I felt like throwing myself through the drawing-room window and impaling myself on the glass that shattered onto the asphalt below--or at least like dropping the class, since I was still a Computer Science major at the time and didn't need drawing credits anyways. But, being the person I am, I decided to stick it out. Instead of being the top of the class like I was used to, I was by far the bottom of this one. The challenge both terrified and excited me.

Fast forward through the semester, and within a few weeks Professor Russell had me in love with drawing. It came to me less naturally than any other subject, and therefore challenged me in ways I wasn't used to. More than that, however, the process of drawing induced within me experiences of flow state that matched (and at times even exceeded) those brought on by creative writing. Never before had I been able to lose myself so completely in a task at hand; never before had I felt so immersed in my work for such long periods of time. Even though I finished Drawing 1 with what would be my lowest grade in all of college (a B-), I had developed a passion for artistic creation that would, in many ways, dictate the rest of my academic career. I had tasted my first bite of Art, from the guidance of a master artist.

Drawing 2 went much like drawing one, but again I worked my ass off. I drew constantly inside of class and out, working on as many things as my schedule would permit (homework or otherwise). I even managed to coax some commission work from good friends, who supported me enough to buy a few pieces in spite of their blaring shittiness (Donicio and Tre, if you're reading this I love you forever). By the end of this second class I no longer felt as though I was the worst drawer in the art building. Bottom three, probably, but at least not the worst. This time I earned a B plus.

Four years later, after finishing my degree and landing a job that would pay for one class a semester, I enrolled in Life Drawing 1. Having earned a minor in Graphic Design, as well as having created tons of commissions and personal projects, I felt for the first time like maybe I belonged in the drawing room with these other incredible artists (though admittedly I already felt at home in the design lab, as digital mediums came much easier to me). That being said, I knew that I was still nowhere near the top of the class, especially when it came to realistic drawing and charcoal. If I wanted to have any prayer of earning that coveted Professor-Russell A, I was going to have to draw my ass off. So that's what I did. Every single assignment I didn't get an A on I redrew and resubmitted (with the exception of 1 early in the semester), and every week I spent a minimum of four hours drawing nudes in charcoal. I read all about the human anatomy in my textbook, and watched and rewatched Professor Russell's online lectures. I made buttons with the different muscle groups and pinned them to my computer bag so I could sneakily study them at work. I took every bit of Professor Russell's advice to heart, trying to implement whatever criticism I received one week into the drawings that followed.

When it came time to grade my final portfolio, I ended up with an 89.63%, and for about twenty minutes I was devastated. I parsed through his criteria again and again, trying to find even a single score I could argue with him on. Of course I didn't find one; the proof is in the artwork. Just when I'd all but abandoned hope, I saw that Professor Russell had left a comment, letting me know that my records would reflect an A even though WyoCourses didn't round up. The sense of joy and accomplishment I felt at this news is difficult to overstate-- after all, it compelled me to compose my first blog post in months.

Anyways, if you've read this far I want to say thank you for supporting me enough to suffer through all of this bragging. (And if you're Professor Russell and you're reading this, I want to say thank you for taking my art seriously and for guiding me so much through my artistic journey--and thanks for rounding up to that 90 percent!) I'm sure I'll sink back to my default mode of self-deprecation the second I publish this, but for the moment I can say "I'm proud as fuck of myself."

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