There is one question all college students dread hearing: “So what do you want to do with your life?”
In that moment, the real question we are faced with is, “Who are you?” The only answer that has ever come easily to me is simply, “I’m an artist.” It wasn’t until very recently that my answer has come into question.
My passions in life have always been somewhat ephemeral. I have been a high jumper, a brown belt in karate, a harpist, a flutist, a painter, a poet and a soccer player. None of these titles lasted very long, except for one – artist.
I cannot remember a time when my hands were not stained with vibrant inks of all shades, or when I left the house without at least two Rapidograph pens and three watercolor brushes in my bag. I think I would be hard-pressed to find a pair of jeans without paint smudges on them. Art is the one area of my life in which I have always felt comfortable. What I create as an artist is uniquely mine. It is an extension of myself and a chance to exert control in a way that is absent in other aspects of my life. The emotions and the meanings of my work are in a language that only I can speak, and so I can choose which part to share with others. When I find that the English language fails me, I always have my own to fall back on.
As integral as art is to my life, when it came time to seriously decide on a path of higher education, I didn’t apply to the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. Instead, I am a first-year political science student – for now, at least. I believed that by not majoring in art, I would be able to explore both my love of art and my other academic passions freely. However, my experience attempting to integrate into the art community on campus has been disheartening and frustrating.
The UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture opens some lower-division courses to nonmajors – but they’re lectures, not hands-on studio classes.
For nonmajors like me, the process to get into upper-division and studio courses that are only open to majors can require students to contact the department or the professor to request permission. Because of class size restrictions, there’s no guarantee I can enroll – I once observed about a dozen non-art students visit a professor in person to try to request this special access. I’ve yet to get into an art class at UCLA.
UCLA’s art school understandably prioritizes the enrollment of art students, so they can complete their coursework on time. A statement from the school explained that the in-demand studio courses are kept small because they require a lot of space and equipment, and are meant for students who have been accepted into the selective major. The school encourages nonmajors to get involved through research or by attending public events like exhibitions and performances.
With this limited access to studio art courses, I searched for an extracurricular that might fill the space. At the Enormous Activities Fair in fall quarter, I scoured through the different booths and found the illustrations department of the Daily Bruin. Finding an organization that encourages me in the actual creation of art, rather than just exploring theory, was a huge relief. Being an illustrator reminds me how important it is as an artist to be surrounded by other creators who challenge you. Just as there are echo chambers in politics, so too there are in art.
Juliette Le Saint, the Illustrations director of the Daily Bruin, has pushed me to consider new techniques and skills in my work, which I am incredibly grateful for. Before this year, I was solely a traditional artist, meaning I had never touched digital media. I have since learned to incorporate digital elements into what I create. Having a community of artists with different styles and aesthetics has helped me become inspired to grow again, even without a class setting. There are, however, some gaps that illustrating for the Daily Bruin cannot fill. My primary medium has always been oil paint, but the materials required for oil painting, such as turpentine, are often toxic and should not be used in a dorm room. They produce fumes, so ventilation is always a concern in a space that is not meant for oil painting. And setting up an easel, a canvas, brushes, Liquin, turpentine, a palette and an array of paints is difficult, to say the least, in a small room with two other roommates.
UCLA’s art department grants its studio space to art students, so there isn’t space available for artists like me. It is heartbreaking to be inspired to paint, but not have the means to do so. While it is understandable art students should be given priority in these studios, I feel there aren’t any other viable places to set up materials, which is frustrating.
I never imagined that the presence of art in my life would be uncertain, and especially not because of my transition to UCLA. It is particularly ironic considering that, as college students, we are supposed to be discovering ourselves and exploring our passions.
These emotions and frustrations are by no means unique to my own experience. First-year undeclared life sciences student Fudda Ababseh’s interest in art started when she was very young, inspired by her artistic family members.
“At first, I never thought I was good at art,” she said. “It was just something I liked to do casually, but my teachers in middle school and high school started saying ‘You have a talent and we really believe in you.’”
Art became vital for her peace of mind. One of Ababseh’s pieces from her time in high school depicts an eye with a waterfall flowing from it, exploring the need to express emotions freely without containing them too harshly.
At UCLA, Ababseh often finds herself in need of an outlet to express herself and relax. Art provides a medium for her to move away from the stresses of everyday life.
“I like to focus on emotion and nature,” Ababseh said. “I use art to express how I’m feeling when I’m not able to with words. … It’s a lot of natural feelings and figures.”
Ababseh searched for the same outlet she had experienced in AP Studio Art in high school, but was unable to find it when she first arrived at UCLA.
“I don’t have an art class that can bring me down to earth and calm me down and relieve my stress,” Ababseh said. “I don’t really see an art community. I feel like it’s very secluded. … You have to go through a lot of work on campus to actually physically create art.”
Ababseh looked for a general art club to help her find a community, but mainly found clubs with specific focuses, such as animation, that didn’t fit her interest in painting and drawing.
The struggle that Ababseh and I have gone through parallels the experiences of first-year undeclared humanities student Mateo Cameron. When Cameron sat down to speak with me under the dappled sunlight of Kerckhoff patio, the well-loved camera he carried with him never left his sight.
Cameron couldn’t recall what initially inspired him to begin making art, but he has a distinct memory of his first experience with it. Late one night while he was in sixth grade, he drew his own hand in pencil, not expecting anything extraordinary. When he was done, however, he was fascinated with what he had created. He sketched out his hand over and over, experimenting with different positions and lighting, captivated by the work he never knew he had the skill to execute. By the time he was done, his hands were covered in smudges of graphite, and he had found a path to a new world.
“Art is central to being human,” Cameron said. “And I feel it’s very necessary.”
He explained that he has learned so much, both about himself and the world around him, by viewing life through the lens of an artist. With art, he is able to see meaning in things that would otherwise be overlooked.
“It’s like another plane of existence,” Cameron said. “I feel like I couldn’t live without it.”
Since his first experiments, Cameron has expanded his artistic interest to photography. One of his favorite photos he has taken was from two summers ago, shot from the top of Mount Tamalpais near San Francisco. It depicts a misty peak and two figures partially hidden by grass, with the whole image framed by branches and leaves. The photograph captures how carefree he was in that moment and the majesty of the nature around him.
After coming to UCLA, Cameron found he was unhappy with the lack of access to some sort of art community.
“I didn’t know of any groups that (don’t) have a very specialized purpose,” Cameron said.
Without a group of artists to collaborate with, Cameron felt isolated and unmotivated.
“So much of art is community and creating with people while bouncing ideas off each other,” Cameron said. “Being held accountable by other people is a way to keep myself motivated when I’m connected to all these other people.”
One option is applying to the School of the Arts and Architecture. However, in the past five years, all five art majors combined have only admitted about 35 changes of majors per year, according to a statement from the school.
Cameron plans to apply. He feels it is the only way to remain connected to his passion. Julia Feng, a fourth-year physiological science student, uses art as an emotional outlet and a method of communication. In high school, Feng created a portfolio of paintings and drawings in AP Studio Art that delved into the emotions of growing up and the disillusionment so many face as they grow older.
“Art is the most honest form of history,” Feng said. “Any type of art is a reflection of the politics or whatever social issue is happening during that period of time. Even more than that, art is how you express and show what you care about.”
When she first came to UCLA, Feng was interested in minoring in art, but discovered that there is no art minor offered. The limited access to resources for non-art students means that Feng has not been able to stay as connected to art as she would have liked. The lack of studio space on the Hill hindered her ability to paint. Feng has since moved into an apartment, and is able to paint again.
UCLA provides an incredible environment for its students, but there are times when I have felt that exploring multiple paths or attempting to create my own is not encouraged. Humans are messy and complicated creatures; none of us can claim to have only one passion in our lives. Our multifaceted nature is something that should be supported by UCLA.
I appreciate the many opportunities UCLA has opened up for me and the other students here, but there are also some limitations that need to be addressed. We are all trying to find what we truly love to do, which is difficult enough as it is. Regardless of the classes we take or the words on our diplomas, we are all artists, and we deserve a chance to develop our skills freely.