All of the friendships that I have preserved from my summer at nerd camp have done me well, because these people who were awesome in high school continue to be awesome to this very day. One of them was so awesome that I just gave up on ever finding anyone awesomer and married him. It was easy to pick which was the awesomest for this purpose, because the others were all female.
I hung out with the art kids, even though I was there to study math. I think every single subject was represented in our little social group, but somehow most of the kids came from the art department. Some of them, like the orchestra and English students, were artists themselves, so it makes sense that they would seek out the visual artists. I have no explanation for the math kids.
Art kids are weirdos. The theatre kids were weirdos, too, but I think they were extroverted or something.
Anyway, of the art kids, the only one I have kept up with is Helena. Many times in our friendship, I have wondered how on earth I came to be friends with someone like her. Like, I am not that surprised that people like her exist, as I've seen all kinds of crazy people and I've seen even more crazy art, and so I understand that some people were assigned a different kind of brain than mine. But the fact that I even know a person like that blows my mind. When you talk to her, she seems like a perfectly normal person, until she starts talking about things she has done. One thing I remember in particular is that she has hopped trains. Who does that?
I cannot comprehend her decision-making. If we were both reading the same Choose Your Own Adventure book, we would end up in completely opposite endings. I suspect that if I did make those decisions, I wouldn't be able to get away with it. It works out for her, but she's Helena. I'm not, and there is nothing I can do about that.
Helena lives in Amsterdam now. How did she get to Amsterdam? She went over there for her grandmother's funeral, decided she didn't like how her life was going back in Chicago, and just picked up and moved to the Netherlands. At that point in my Choose Your Own Adventure, I probably would've stayed home, maybe started taking a different route home or something.
When we were planning our European trip, Helena said she could put us up for the night. Are there sweeter words in the English language? Yes, let's go to Amsterdam, we won't even have to pay to sleep somewhere. After a day of wandering around the city, we followed her directions, got lost, but eventually wound up at her studio. You go down a street that is named something very similar to the street next to it, walk through a courtyard full of bicycles and picnic tables and yard art before winding up at a barn.
The studio reminded me a lot of the art room back at nerd camp. Books, art, and art supplies, like you'd expect, but then just a whole bunch of stuff that may or may not be art. She shares the studio with a couple of other ladies. One of them is really into making body parts out of glass, and so there were noses and brains and hearts lying around. The other seems to be working mostly with fabrics, so she had mannequins and dresses made out of some kind of weird shiny stuff. Helena paints, and her current project, four giant canvases, was in progress. There was a small kitchen, which was stocked with tea and stroopwafels, but not much else. The bathroom was found by going through a door that connected to the back-end of a bar. It was pretty gross, and the door didn't lock properly.
Aside from her painting space, Helena had a little office set up underneath a loft. She had shelves full of books, ranging from novels and poetry and diaries of creative types to artisan craft manuals. She had anthologies of Foxfire, and I was fascinated to see the pages she had marked - welding, glass-blowing. You can make art out of anything.
Up in the loft, there was a tent with a mattress inside, where Helena slept when she was working all night at the studio. Otherwise, she stayed at her boyfriend's. Helena has no official residence. Apparently, they are actually squatting in the barn studio, but squatting is legal in Amsterdam, because Amsterdam is a ridiculous place. She said she questions her life choices sometimes, thirty years old and living in a tent in a barn. Well, when you put it like that...
I don't pretend to know Helena well enough to say whether her life choices have been good ones, but the funny thing is, it seems like the right kind of life for her. Yes, she lives in a tent. But she is an artist for a living, which, as far as I can tell, was her goal. She does not have a day job to support her art. She lives very frugally and has help from friends, but she is a professional artist. Artistic success looks very different from other kinds.
I snuck a peak at Helena's calendar. Later that month, she would be leaving to go on tour on the west coast with some musician friends. Her upcoming week was marked PAINTING. The next week, INSTALLATION, when she would be putting up her paintings at an exhibit. I was struck with the discipline and organization of it. Helena is definitely a problem creator, but perhaps she is also a problem solver. Maybe that is the difference. As a problem solver, I had to marry a problem creator to get some spark in my life, and the conflicts in our personalities and outlooks sometimes drive me batty. I can't imagine having that conflict internally.
Once upon a time, I was going to grow up to be a writer. My sensible mother gave me the speech that all concerned mothers everywhere give budding artists, which was that making it as an artist is statistically unlikely, so get a college degree and a real job, you know, just as a backup. I don't know if anyone ever becomes a professional artist with that route. Being a teenager, my reaction was to rebel and to insist all the more vehemently that I was going to be a writer, GEEZ MOM. But that was brief. By the time I went to college, I was perfectly content with the idea of being a computer programmer, which probably indicates that my mom could have saved her speech.
What did Helena's mother tell her? What kind of parents does a Helena come from, anyway? For the record, she did go to college. Art college.
I would not say that my mom was wrong to mercilessly crush my dreams. I wonder sometimes what I would say to my own children (seeing who I've married, it is likely to come up). I don't want to downplay their ambition or their inspiration. I am totally supportive of them going for a career in the arts, but I want them to go with their eyes open. I wonder if a slice of Helena's life would be the right response. She gets to live the romantic, bohemian, artist's life - paint for a living, go on tour with musicians, work in a barn studio. But she lives in a tent and her bathroom is really nasty. Possibly the stuff we saw in the studio is the extent of her possessions. So the difference between being an artist and not is less about the statistical likelihood of fame and more about how much you want it. If you are comfortable with instability and uncertainty and really all you want to do is paint, then yeah! If you can't not make art, then go out there and make some art. Maybe even in Amsterdam, because squatting is legal, and there is socialized healthcare.
I dunno why I'm even worrying about it, dang kids won't listen to me anyways.
Staying in Helena's tent was a way for me to see a life I might have had. I've also gone on tour for a couple of days with a band, and honestly, there is very little sleeping or bathing, and the food is terrible. I like my comforts. And I am able to write, without having to rely on it for food. I can do it for the sake of doing it. And I have my in-house problem creator, who is able to work a job that leaves him time to create and still sleep in a nice bed. I suppose that makes me a patron. I am okay with that. I am happy with the gifts I have, even though sometimes my creative friends make me feel like a robot. Mostly, though, I feel lucky to know them and to get to see just where the art comes from.