In my mid-twenties I found a challenging and exciting job in Paris, my hometown. I was the manager of a trade association and I reported directly to the Board of Directors. The goal was to build a trade fair for scientists and medical experts every two years. The position came with a wide variety of responsibilities: from choosing the color of the carpet to match the signage of the exhibition space, to strategizing ways to entice visitors and companies to attend.
I became good at problem solving, budgeting, even uniting the scientific community around the event. I was working long hours and traveling the world to promote the fair. It was exciting. But there was a little voice that was unsatisfied. I was praised by my Board of Directors. I liked my co-workers, especially my demanding assistant. The job was never boring, and yet I felt restless; something was missing.
A few years into this job I met my future husband. After dating him for a month, it became clear he wanted to go back to the USA to pursue his dream job. I had traveled to the States several times before we met. I felt a deep connection to New York and to the West Coast. So when he was offered to start a scientific laboratory in La Jolla, I didn’t hesitate and followed him to Southern California.
The first years were brutal. I had left behind my family, friends, as well as my network and clients. My skill set was excellent in French, but inadequate in English. I had a young daughter who needed constant care while her dad was traveling. I felt challenged, lost, exhausted. There was a nagging voice I couldn’t decipher. One day it came loud and clear. “You have the right to pursue your dreams.” Well that was easy to say, but what was I dreaming of?
It took me a lot of reading, questioning, trying different activities before I came to the conclusion: I wanted to make things with my hands that came from my heart. It sounded simplistic and childish. And yet, it was so abstract I didn’t know where to start. I felt stupid and selfish until I remembered my dad was a photographer in his youth and he’d taught me to develop films and photographs in our homemade darkroom under the staircase. And I remembered that I did pottery as an extra-curricular. I liked giving form to the soft clay, turning the mushy material into tea pots and vases. I’d even started a pottery club in high school.
The truth was that I missed creating with my hands.
Very slowly, and still not sure of what I wanted, I took one art class per week in a junior college close to home. As my daughter was growing up, I took two classes a week. Once she started school I took all the art classes I could find on campus and studied for my photography certificate.
While in a printmaking class the instructor* asked us to make an artist’s book. I had to invent a new way of telling a visual story by combining my photographs with a structure of my own choosing. I went home and started working on the project right away. After a while I felt tired. I was so immersed in my project I didn’t notice it was 5 am. Suddenly I was crying and couldn’t stop. Tears were washing away years of trying to conform to everybody’s expectations. And I felt light and whole.
A few years later, an art gallery held an artist’s book competition. Feeling hesitant, I sent one of my books. A week after, the owner** called me asking to see more of my work. She took me under her wing, and today my artist’s books are in more than 40 private and public collections, as well as museums.
I love to give presentations to inspire my audience to create their own art, because I know how it feels to repress one’s calling. I explain how hard and yet exciting the creative journey is. I share tips to stay focused and encourage listeners to think big.
My well-being and success depend on finding the right balance between my intuition and reason. One gives me permission to think outside the box, the other keeps me grounded. Although life is challenging, now I know how to reclaim my balance, to aim high, and stay true to my vision.
Thank you to *Donna Westerman and **Laura Russell