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'Poor Kids Don’t Do Art.' Poverty, Principles, and My Forty-Year Journey Back To Painting”

Updated: Jul 8

I've been looking though and following more art accounts on Instagram lately, and so IG is recommending more art accounts to me. A few day ago, a suggested follow post appeared in my feed that cause me to do something I rarely ever do: I felt sorry for myself.

The first slide of the carousel post showed a young woman in a college sweatshirt with her arm-wrapped around an older man. She held a painted canvas down at her side, the man was gesturing a thumb's up, and they were both beaming. I read the caption before flipping through the remaining images.

The woman just graduated college, art school more precisely, and her post was dedicated to the love and support she'd received from her parents over the course of her life as an artist. She credited them with her ability to open her own art studio at the age of 22 (her post-college plans) and said she wouldn't be the artist she was today without their support. I agree, or, at least she probably wouldn't be it at 22.

original image by Cyn Alexander

Aristotle is quoted as allegedly saying, "Give me a child until he is seven, and I'll show you the man." Forgive his gendered language; he was a product of his time, but his point stands. His idea was that, subconsciously, we are all only ever seven years old, perpetually living out the cycles of those first formative years. In part, this idea is supported by contemporary sociological research and what we understand about child development. Our most base frameworks, not to mention the structure of our brains, are formed in those earliest years of life.

Based on the caption of that Instagram post and the carousel of photos of a smiling young woman with her family, I'd guess her first formative years were fairly secure in that, in the very least, her parents supported the development of her artistic talents and had the financial resources to help foster them (she mentioned taking her first art lessons at age 8). I think that's wonderful for her, my feelings about that post had nothing to do with the well wishes I offer for her and her new art studio. It's not about her at all.

This is how it went. This is how it was.

The finger paints came in a box from my great-grandmother who lived in Pennsylvania. We'd get boxes from her occasionally in Tulsa, treasure chests filled with candy and cupcakes and other things we otherwise didn't have much of. Sometimes they'd have small toys in them for us (it was just my brother and I at that time), and they usually had a white, letter-sized envelope with some cash in it for my mother. One of those boxes, when I was around five, I know I wasn't in school yet, contained a set of finger paints for me––red, yellow, blue, and green.

original image by Cyn Alexander

You have to understand me as a kid, or me still today. I love to put my hands in things. I love textures, and I love messy things. Whether it's my hands in soil or my fingers in paint, I am happiest when I'm getting dirty. Needless to say, the finger paints called to me. But my mother was never going to spend money on paper, and Grandma hadn't thought to send any. Fortunately, the city of Tulsa threw out a free newspaper every week, delivered right to the doorstep of our trailer. That free newspaper was my first canvas.

Memories are a tricky thing when it comes to trauma. First, you don't have a lot of memories. There are huge gaps in my life where I have no memories, as though I never existed. And then moments within those gaps that are marked by memories so clear it's as though they happened yesterday. The bad memories, the traumatic memories, branded into my human hide. When the limbic system is running the brain show, the formation of new memories that aren't related to your survival isn't a priority. So what you get in place of memories are flashes, sensations. I can feel what it was like to have my hands in those paints. I can feel her, young me, sense of wonder and freedom as she covered over the newsprint with the brightest shade of fire-engine red she'd ever experienced.

Neither my mother nor my step-father rapist was going to spend money on paper. It would be a couple years or so before his tire business would see any kind of success. I don't remember much about his business except my mother fighting with him about how he wasn't very good at it. I guess he figured it out, though, because by the time we moved back to Illinois when I was eight, he started a new tire business that seemed to do well. We had money then, at least. My mother bought new furniture she never would take the plastic off of, and when she finally did, she covered it in bedsheets to keep it nice. We had Christmases, I got toys. But when I was nine, she left him.

We fled in the night, literally. She paid some guy in the neighborhood to move us out in his pickup truck. We moved into to some run-down quad-style apartment building owned by a cousin she didn't get along with, but who did her this favor because of us kids (there were three of us by this point). I don't know the details of what happened between her and my step-father. I remember sitting on the living room floor one night, her crying, my brother and the neighbor loading things into his truck to move, and she said (in reference to my step-father), "He's the kind of man who'll tear your clothes off and throw you on the floor." I remember that so clearly because I wanted to say, "yeah, I know." But I didn't. I didn't tell what was happening to me until about two months later when my mother informed us kids that she and the man who would tear her clothes off and throw her on the floor were reconciling. I don't know if the deep plunge back into poverty got to her or something else, but we were going back, and I couldn't allow that. So I told, just enough to keep us from going back, just enough to keep us living in severe poverty. And she never forgave me for it.

original image by Cyn Alexander

You might be wondering what happened to the art story at this point, but that is the point. Between the poverty and the chaos, the violence and the upheaval, no space existed for anyone to see, let alone support me, as a budding artist. We had a traveling art teacher when I was in the first grade, she made the rounds at all the local public schools, and she came once a week to teach us art. One time when we were painting (with brushes and everything!) she came behind my desk, picked up my painting, looked it over, and said, "We have a painter amongst us," with a smile.

I remember how it felt to hear that, to have paint and paper and someone to encourage me to explore what was inside me. I told my mother about her comment after school that day, and she said they (teachers) say that to all the kids to make them feel good. She said painting is expensive and no one makes any money from it. She said the same thing about writing. Even as I won awards for my writing in school, even as my teachers told her how talented I was, how creative I was, even as my sixth grade teacher offered to pay for art lessons for me, my mother said there's no money in art. And poor people have to make money.

So I went on to be a high schooler who worked full-time my junior and senior year at Hardees. I did so while I went to school full-time, maintaining a perfect GPA in all my honors classes and graduated eighth in my class of over 500 kids. I was the youngest person promoted to supervisor in our district Hardee's division. I went on to be a Registered Nurse, promoted in less than a year to charge nurse and eventually running a thirty-three bed critical care oncology unit. I worked full-time as a nurse while I went back to school full-time to earn a series of degrees, constantly trying to fill something inside me that felt so hollow. I went to grad school, and then I went again, each time by earning competitive scholarships and fellowships. I became an astrologer and life coach, spending years making money while helping other people achieve the goals I'd always wanted for myself. In short, I became an expert worker.

That might sound weird to you. As an adult, you might say, why didn't you pursue your art? Remember, "Give me a child until [she] is seven, and I'll show you the [woman]." Work hard for your money, be of service, earn what you need to get by, there's no money in art, and poor people have to make money––those were the principles etched in my subconscious. So even as I made $85,000 a year as a RN, I felt like a poor kid just trying to get by. I didn't know how to manage money, and the idea of growing wealth never occurred to me as something that exists in the universe. Sometimes I still feel like a poor kid. The poverty wounds run deep, and I have to regularly check in with myself to make sure I'm not operating from those old programs.

If I let myself, I feel shame at being so underdeveloped in so many ways at 46-years of age. When I see a young woman, 22 years old, graduating with an art degree and about to start her own studio, I can feel ashamed of my place in life. I can feel ashamed and overcome with grief, but I never feel bitter or resentful. Sometimes I wish I could, sometimes I wish I could generate enough anger at my mother to cleanse me of my grief, but I can't. Her life is too pitiful for me to hold that kind of rage for her. And objectively, I know I have nothing to be ashamed of. Lots of artists get later starts in life, and they don't even have the backstory I do. Plus, I've had three super successful careers. I've literally saved lives in my time as a nurse, and I have helped so many people achieve their dreams. I am proud of the work I've done, AND I'm ready to step into my new life as a professional artist.

original image by Cyn Alexander

It turns out, as she was about so many things, my mother was wrong in her assertion that there's no money in art. I now know I can be both an artist and a businesswoman. I can do what I love, I can put beautiful things in the world for people to enjoy, and I can make a lovely living doing it. To that end, I am happy to report, I have returned to painting. Over the past couple years, I've dabbled here and there. I've taken online instruction and one-off classes every now and again, and I've creates some original works I'm proud of. And just today, I enrolled in formal classes with a watercolor mentor I'm excited to work with. Today I invested money in my art, what would my mother say.

I share all of this for three main reasons:

  1. I need to get this out of me. I need to write it and speak it out of me.

  2. I want to leave something memorable for my daughter. I want her to have these stories and my working through them, my processing of all the stuff, my inner thoughts and my best guidance. I want to build a body of work for her to be able to look at and to show people and say, this was my mom. This is who she was. Not the trauma, not all the crap. This is who she was.

  3. I want to reach every and any person, regardless of age, who grew up or who is growing up like I did, and I want them to see that something else is possible for them. I want them to be able to look at me and say, if she can do it, I can do it. And then I want to leave them a roadmap for exactly how I did it. I can't teach my strength, my unwavering faith in the universe, or my survival instincts, but I can provide hope served alongside a detailed how-to.

I don't know what my art career holds. I just know I'm making things I love. I know I am now having an art career. And I think about five-year old me and those finger paints and that free newspaper every time I buy new art supplies. I know somewhere, in some dimension, in some inaccessible corner of me, she giggles in delight with each purchase.

**If you enjoy this content and you want to learn more about starting an art business or marketing your art or making your art or you just want to know me more, click here to subscribe to my free newsletter, Jupiter's Phantasy.

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