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How Do You Quit Sculpture?

January 29, 2014

The disciplinary review board was in the SAC. The student activity center would have been a big sack indeed, given the size of the phallic clock tower outside it. I entered via the rear of the building, avoiding the long ramp out front.

My sculpture professor, Scott, had called the meeting. He didn’t want me in his class, and this was a way he could have it on record: the problem was me. This much I knew.

He took over a department that had come unmoored with the abrupt departure of the previous professor. He had big plans. We would have a foundry and we would have it soon.

He seemed to be a gentle-tempered man. You could imagine him doing yoga clumsily. He was thick-framed and thick-lipped and overly concerned. He easily slipped into a fatherly role, nodded a little too hard, pursing his lips when you talked about your ideas: a kind of forced affability many men have. There was something under the show of empathy, and I was about to see what it was.

I was on my way up the stairs, fattened and sluggish from the medication I hated but took every day during that time and the excess food I’d taken in during this last hospitalization. I felt my cheeks heavy as they bounced with each step up until I entered the luminous main floor to turn down a yellow-looking hallway lined with colorful team-spirited decor in red and black. I looked and looked again at the numbers by the doors as I walked, sick from nerves. I held a paper in my fingers with the room number on it. I was a little early. The door was closed.

I occupied myself walking down the hall a ways, looking at the posters with smiling, hardbodied students posed in lights so the planes of their limbs and faces glowed in tawny triangles and bars. I heard the door open and saw a white-haired, slight man with wire rimmed glasses. “Katherine? Come on in.”

Scott was already seated there facing the guy’s desk in his everyday wear: a black t-shirt that hugged his barrel chest and round belly, and faded jeans with work boots. He remained seated, ankle on knee, casual, and smiled at me and asked me if I was feeling better. I hated his face. I felt his false pity as an assault.

I said I was okay.

I resented the meeting and didn’t know what it could be about. I’d had my moments, but the psychosis from the latest breakdown had happened off campus property. He hadn’t seen me really crazy and I hadn’t done anything that bad.

I knew going in to the meeting that he was not going to let me repeat my half-completed semester of Sculpture V. He told me in the studio when I went to get my enrollment approved: if I wanted to stay in the sculpture program, I would have to start over at Sculpture I. The previous work I had documented was mostly done in plaster, which was limited, he said. I argued that there were welded frames, that the work was mixed media, but he said that wasn’t adequate. The casting I’d done in a rubber mold, a process I was so eager to try in metal with the new foundry, apparently didn’t count because the forms had been made from plaster.

I’d used the materials the department had been limited to and my budget had made it so I used a lot of plaster. I guess the A’s I’d earned from the previous professor weren’t worth anything either. I was incensed, felt like I’d been punched in the solar plexus and was humiliated by the few tears that escaped in his presence, my voice husky with emotion, feeling the craft I loved pulled away from me. I wrestled with the choice of starting over.

More than the principle of the thing — going back to the professor who invalidated my record and a former faculty member’s assessment of my work — I could not imagine pretending to be learning from this guy anymore. He’d sabotaged my project, insisting I work under his compromised vision of it during the one interrupted semester I’d had with him. It was probably mostly for the sake of saving class materials, though there was no real need as there was enough fiberglass and I’d negotiated my use of the majority with the student I was sharing the bucket with.

His insistence that I do the work his way resulted in a series of problems with materials I paid for out-of-pocket when I could scarcely afford gas or groceries.

The project was an oversized fiberglass woman’s ass and legs, the 3-d element at the front of a soda-sized vending machine. There was a turn-knob that said “Beaver” on it where the vulva would show through beneath the ass. He’d insisted that rather than cast the piece as a unit custom-fit to the front of the box I was building (in other words, instead of making a huge mold to create a large, rectangular front piece), that I attach the 3-d legs to plexiglass.

The surface of the legs was unfinished-looking, wavy and imperfect. Their shine angered me more than anything because in order to get the smooth look I wanted, I would have to spend hours grinding at the piece with a power sander and would never achieve the clean shine I’d have gotten with the mold I’d wanted to build.

The plexi needed a hole cut out for the legs’ knob mechanism. The gears that formed it surpassed the legs’ flat rear plane. When, following his advice, I attempted to cut a hole in a second piece of thicker plexiglass that cost more than $60, and it also broke, I had an outburst in the studio. I threw the small piece that had broken off in my hand on the floor and pronounced his plan for my project idiotic.

“This motherfucking piece of plexi cost me $60. I hope I have enough gas to get home, ‘cause I don’t have enough money left to buy more. Fucking piece of shit!” I kicked the bowed and broken piece that hung off the sawhorse. “What the fuck was he thinking, telling me to build it this way? It looks like shit. I’m going to have to grind all this shit off. I’ll never have a smooth surface on this god damn piece of shit.”

If I’d done the project my way, it wouldn’t have had any plexiglass at all.

The professor wasn’t there for my outburst. He heard about it secondhand from students who were.

Now in the dim, windowless room, it was explained by the man behind the desk that he was going to read the complaint. The first charge was a concealed weapons charge.

“What? I never brought any weapons in.”

“Please allow me to finish reading,” he said and continued that the weapon in question was a hunting knife and that I continued to have it in the studio even after Scott had told me not to.

“That’s crazy,” I said. I’d brought a dull hunting knife in to cut the inordinate amount of plasticine I was building the initial form with. Scott had warned me that it was dull and that I might cut myself with it. I said I was fine and that was the end of it. I continued to use it and he said nothing else to me. This, in a studio with bandsaws with which you could decapitate a person. I looked at Scott frequently as I explained this, and he looked a little sad, his head cocked in an attitude of sympathy for my warped perception of events as he listened to me counter his lies.

The man behind the desk listened, but when I was done he said there wasn’t any point in my rebutting things from the report. There was a complaint, but there was to be no counter complaint. Since no legal action was being filed, my perspective was irrelevant. The complaint was just that: a complaint.

He continued reading how the other students were frightened and intimidated by my behavior, that I had caused the atmosphere in the studio to feel unsafe. The threat the other students felt, the man continued, could be addressed by my promise that should I ever feel unstable, I would take advantage of the student counseling center and seek help.

In my medicated state, I didn’t feel the fury that would have come naturally. The anger was more like an itch in my skull, fuzzy and unfixed in location, a cloud threatening something that buzzed and tickled out of reach. I absorbed the wrong being done to me. I felt my powerlessness like a sponge might feel chemicals in the water, gradually deepening in absorbtion until the lowness I felt was a resonance inside me. I was nothing. What I said meant nothing. I trudged out of the building, unable to feel this feeling completely. There was no sting. Just a dense regret and sense of injustice my mind couldn’t form into words.

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