Sophie Treppendahl, a senior at the College of Charleston, hopes to put her studio art major and painting concentration to use in the graphic design or marketing field.
Twenty years removed from her college graduation, Mary Hamilton never would have predicted that she would leave her lucrative job in finance to pursue painting full time.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” she said of her college years. “I only knew two things: I wanted to move to New York City after I graduated and I needed to make money to do this. So I chose to be a business major.”
“I was working so hard, everyone at the firm was, but I wasn’t happy,” she said. “The difference was they all really loved what they did. But I knew what I loved to do and felt it was time. I wasn’t married and did not have children so it was much easier for me to quit my job and say, ‘Hey, I’ll try this.’ It still felt like I was jumping off a cliff.”
In doing so, Hamilton defied what voices everywhere — parents, Forbes rankings, politicians — tell us is the successful life. It’s a life of financial security, expensive vacations and for Hamilton, a “beautiful shoe habit.” But this vision of success mistakenly uses a bank account as its measuring stick.
Take the ubiquitous “useless majors” rankings. Last spring, The Daily Beast released its take, adapting a Georgetown University survey, which, by measuring levels of unemployment, earnings and projected job growth, placed fine art in the No. 1 spot followed by architecture, graphic design, philosophy, journalism and English. Not long after, Salary.com and Forbes released similar rankings.
“What society rewards in economic terms has moved away from the softer majors. It’s become about how much math you do,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education in the Workforce, to Forbes.
In other words, if your goal is to earn as much money as possible, you better be good with numbers. Education in the STEM fields (science, technology, math and engineering) will be heralded as a more profitable investment as long as the average business major makes more money than the average philosophy major, which is to say, indefinitely. But it is also safe to say that our society needs graduates who can think critically and creatively, who can write analytically, engaging themselves and their communities deeper into whatever subject and critical approach to learning they find themselves most absorbed in. Because when learning becomes meaningful, so can the profession to which one’s education inevitably leads.
Hamilton did not major in fine art as an undergraduate. Nor did she regret the years she worked in finance. But ultimately, her necessity to make art outweighed her need for a heavy paycheck.
Because it is when Hamilton is painting and drawing that she said she is most engaged with the world around her. Painting is both an imaginative, creative process and a mode of visual inquiry; it energizes her in the same way solving equations does for math geeks. It is the same reason political science majors thrive on after-hours debates around American foreign policy. Hamilton’s colleagues at the entrepreneurial firm loved their work because it engaged them in a certain way particular to their work ethic and way of thinking. And it is a good qualifier for how valuable an education can be to the individual.
It is also why I’m an art major.
My decision to study painting, drawing and photography did not come without a good bit of hesitation. I arrived at my university as an intended communications major with a penchant for international studies and photojournalism, priding myself for my now ambiguous career goals and practicality. While that practical voice still occupies a reserved parking spot in my left brain, I’ve made room for the disinterested growth of my creative imagination and for the innumerable critical-thinking skills that I have absorbed through the study and practice of the fine arts.
By pursuing something that I enjoy, my education has become not only useful but essential to the way I connect with the world around me. That particular sense of connectedness, shared among fine-arts students, is often a by-product of a deep engagement in the modes of thinking that creation entails, beyond the technical concerns of each medium. Although I often wish I had more patience to grasp political theories or statistics, the fact is that few things excite me more than talking about paintings and nothing captures my attention quite like drawing.
In fact, attention is one of the most important qualities that a study of art can foster, a habit that inevitably leads to a determined work ethic and openness to truth.
“Art is reason in making,” celebrated short-story writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote. In order for that to happen, artists have to give their subjects their full attention, without the interference of their own theories or preconceptions about what they see. For the artist, attention involves making connections between elements that work together to make the work of art whole. This is the basis for creating but it is also essential to discerning how elements of vision, language and even architecture interconnect. It’s a kind of thinking we use when writing academic papers, writing poetry, evaluating information and making persuasive arguments. Not to mention in any form of visual communication.
So here is my advice to fellow students: Study something that makes you feel more alive because of it. If you find a subject that is worth your blood, sweat, tears and lack of sleep, then you may well find an approach to work that will build the foundation for a life and career that is meaningful.
It just might involve risk.
“I went through a period of six months after quitting my job in total shock,” Hamilton said. “What had I done? Why? Really? How am I going to do this? Why couldn’t I just work at a ‘real job’ and paint on the side? Then I got into my groove again. One thing led to another and I now live in a place that inspires me creatively.
“I feel so lucky every day that this is my life.”
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