Portrait of an Artist

I signed onto the idea of a bridge year, sharing the sentiments of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He said “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight… I shall try to fly by those nets.” I hoped my temporary flight from academia might help me figure out what I want to do with my future. I didn’t expect to find that in my heart I, too, am an artist.

Throughout my high-school years I performed poems from street-corner stages, collaged most of the flat surfaces in my house, was rarely seen without a camera slung round my neck, and pretty well honed my rendition of the “Out damned spot…” bit from Macbeth.

Yet, despite all that, I never considered myself an artist. And I certainly never realistically thought of pursuing the humanities in college—indeed, a career as a writer, painter, sculptor, or thespian was sure to be financial suicide, and entirely too self-indulgent besides. Wouldn’t it?

That’s what I thought when the plane took off from San Francisco four months ago, but after I’d landed in Dakar, I slowly found myself craving modes of self-expression. My hand inadvertently doodled sketches of the other fellows’ faces in French class. I lay down in the middle of a Dakar alley to get the right angle for a photo. After I’d settled into my rural homestay in Leona, I began having odd dreams (perhaps induced by my malaria medicine) that showed me vivid images of abstractly sculpted women, which I have subsequently begun to create using found materials like flexible vines, fabric scraps, and discarded school papers.

In lieu of college, I’m living in Senegal, working in international development, and speaking Wolof—but it is precisely this vast change of scenery that clarified my yearning for self-expression. In high school I felt tugged in a million directions by my connections to this club, that AP class, some extracurricular activity or another. Had I plunged into college last fall, I’m sure I would have thrived, in a kid-in-the-candy-store sort of way. But would I have been able to discern my true curiosities and passions in that environment? My hunch is that it would have been considerably more difficult.

When I chose to take a year before college, all those ropes of obligation I’d felt in high school fell away. I was free to let the reconnection of those ties be dictated by what truly excites me; in the coming months (and years) I aim to do as Mary Oliver advises, and simply let the soft animal of my body love what it loves.