Justin Kane Elder
Failed post graduate
Looking back on life’s design can bring clarity to moments that seemed hopeless. It is often years or decades later that we realize our lowest points shape what then becomes our definition of happiness. Early in my life, there was a down period That lasted years, which secretly gave me a foundation of joy and lasting peace.
After graduating from college, I quickly realized Art wasn’t going to cover the bills. So I turned to carpentry to make a living. It was a natural choice since I had grown up around it. Most of my family were either carpenters or in the trades somehow. I figured that I could do art on the weekends or evenings after work. Boy, was I wrong. It was hard to understand how much everyday carpentry takes a toll both physically and mentally. Not that the work wasn’t rewarding and challenging. It just swallows up all the gas you have in the tank, leaving one exhausted and unmotivated to create art. Within a few years, I had all but given up my lifelong dream of becoming an artist.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, I devoted myself to carpentry, vowing to learn everything I could to become the best possible woodworker. In a short time, I went from a broom pushing, shovel wielding grunt to a lead finish carpenter working on multi-million dollar estates. After achieving my goal, it wasn’t long before the emptiness crept back in and the familiar feeling of suffocation. It was time for a system reboot, and after much consideration, a master's degree seemed to be my only way out. I knew that if you had one, you could become a college professor, which would bring me back to the creative community and give me summers off—allowing me to make art in the summer.
So over the next few years, I applied to multiple schools across the country. Every single one rejected me. Heartbroken and confused, I began to lose faith in my dream. Then by chance, I was able to have a face-to-face with an art professor from a major university. I wanted to find out what I was doing wrong and gain insight into being a better applicant. After showing him my portfolio, he complimented me on my craft and technique but pointed out a significant flaw in my approach. My body of work was too widespread; there were landscapes, portraits, illustrations, and abstract pieces. He explained how he would review thousands of images from prospective students, and only the ones who had a singular methodology to their work would stand out. He said to me, “pick one thing and do it, do it until you’re sick of it, then keep doing it until you can’t stop.”
This advice was puzzling and counterintuitive to how I created work, but I thanked him for his help and went back to the drawing board. After much consideration, I chose portraiture as my “one thing” and began making a new body of work. The plan was to submit that body of work to the coming year's graduate applications. However, plans don’t always go according to plan. The strangest thing happened after the paintings were complete. Even though my friends and family were always encouraging me to show my work, I never thought it was good enough and had resolved to become a teacher instead. Someone saw a photo of the work and asked if I was interested in showing it in their space. Confused and excited, I quickly accepted, not overthinking it since it was a small coffee shop in a quiet part of town.
The show was not a success, nothing sold, and very few people came. But soon after, another opportunity came my way, which led to another, and another, and so on. Before I knew it, my whole year was booked up, and I was suddenly making a living with Art! Years went by with many successes until I realized that I never remembered to apply to graduate school. At that point, I understood that being a failed postgraduate was one of my greatest triumphs, and dedicating my work to “one thing” has given me a world of endless possibilities.
May those who seek find only that which they need.