I did not think that my return to Drake University last week would be such an emotional experience, but it was. I just assumed I’d go back for my show, do my stuff, spend a bit of time with my old colleagues, and jet back home, but no. Something very different happened.
First off, seeing my quilts hanging in the gallery really hit me. It’s not that it was the first time I’ve shown them publicly; heck, just last month they were hanging in the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, clearly a much bigger deal. But seeing them there in an art gallery, out of the context of the quilt world, something sunk in. They work just as well there, speak just as meaningfully, but that wasn’t the important thing. Eight years ago when I first fell catastrophically ill I largely assumed that my life in the art world was over, that I would have to move on to something new if my body ever recovered. Even as I developed I practice and reputation in the quilt world, it still felt somehow separate from my previous life in art; the move from experimental new media to quilts just seemed so complete that I could not really see how they might ever merge. But then, in just a moment, it became clear; not only did I believe in my quilts as quilts, but they were also the best work I have made in my art life. As I stood there during the opening with the assembled crowd awaiting my short gallery talk it struck me, that divide in my life (pre-illness/post-illness) had been crossed. I am pretty sure that the degree to which I was overwhelmed was obviously as I tried to makes sense of what I was experiencing in a matter of minutes for those standing around me. What I thought was going to be just another show, one among the many I have done over my career, was transformed into a gift.
It may not seem important to others, but that moment, that gift is still resonating. For these past eight years I have been in one way or another grieving over all that had been stripped away by illness: my dignity (illness is unbelievably humbling), my aspirations, and my vocation (the dream of being a professor began early in my childhood). But in a matter of two days so much of that loss was wiped away, or at least assuaged, smoothed over. And for that I cannot thank you enough.
It is hard to believe that it was fourteen years ago that I first arrived on campus. I still remember moments of my on-campus interview. I remember the incredulous expressions as I started my job talk (a talk for students and faculty explaining my practice) with a solid fifteen minutes on professional wrestling, expressions that gradually shifted toward acceptance as I folded those issues into a larger discussion of the importance of design. I remember arguing with a senior faculty member during my interview as I asserted that the menus at Waffle House and those Odd Lots newspaper adverts were better examples of good design that the persistent use of Modernist design tropes, something I still stand by. As I look back I still find it remarkable that you hired me, especially as I had little to no experience with graphic design, let alone teaching it. But it was a fit, and you welcomed me with open arms, offered support and mentorship as I tried to figure out just what my practice as a design professor would be. You gave me space to experiment as both a teacher and an artist, even as both practices at times seems entirely incoherent. But you saw the bigger picture and trusted that I would somehow bring it all together, just as I had with that job talk. And for that I am eternally grateful.
My few days back were as much a reminder of who I am as it was a validation of what I do. As I stood in the auditorium giving my public lecture I once again felt that natural joy of speaking for an academic audience, theorizing the implications of things. And yet again you all stuck with me as I started off with professional wrestling before bouncing around to Ikea bookshelves, the Sistine Chapel, and Marcel Duchamp. While I love speaking to quilters, you reminded me that the academic in me is still alive and well. As I performed a series of semiotic analyses you were right there with me, interrogating the world of things by my side as I wound my way to the subject of quilts. Again, you trusted me to reveal a bigger picture, reminding me just how much I love that space.
But perhaps the greatest gift was allowing me to once more invade your classroom. In returning to the design studio to conduct a critique I was immediately hit with a radical sense of déjà vu. The fact that the space has changed very little since I left nine years ago was certainly part of it; seeing the same old issues of ArtForum on the magazine rack and that sole, reluctant painting I made for a show at the Des Moines Art Center absolutely added to the effect. But more than anything it was the fluidity with which I dropped right back into professor mode that felt so extraordinary. With so many years gone by since I last ran a critique I could not know whether I still had it in me. Yes, critique has always been the strongest part of my teaching, but like any skill it can become rusty through disuse. But there it was, flowing through and around me, your students’ hesitancy turning into enthusiasm as all of the ideas and concerns fell right back into place.
One might think that these experiences would just reignite my longing, that sense of loss that accompanies no longer practicing one’s vocation, but that is not the case here (which surprises me a bit). I have come to terms with the fact that I shan’t be returning to academia (at least mostly) due to both health and geographic realities. But just sliding back into it for that brief time truly has been an extraordinary gift. Even if I won’t be teaching full time again, it is deeply meaningful to know that I still can, that those dormant parts of me are still thriving beneath the surface, that I can still ignite the passions and minds of students with my words. Those moments of dawning recognition and insight spreading across the faces of the arrayed students was an experience I thought I would never again have. But there it was, and once more I saw myself, the person I remember, that totality of me.
In truth, that has been one of the greatest horrors of my continuing illness, the sense that part of me had been severed, my past hanging limp like a phantom limb. In just two days I saw that past returned to me; the knowledge that I am still me despite circumstances is a powerful experience. No, it is not the same as having all of that back, but sometimes the knowledge alone is enough. I will likely remain enormously frustrated as I deal with the business side of my practice, trying to explain those things that seem self-evident to my academic self to the assemblage of marketing and sales departments that consume so much of my reality. I will likely never quite settle into the reality that my practice is also a business with economic concerns, but seeing myself again, knowing that I still reflect my own self-image, means a lot. It is easy to no longer feel like oneself as the vicissitudes of change recast the realities of life. But in my visit you granted me a glimpse of who I still am, and for that more than anything else, I owe you a debt of gratitude.
The time there may have pushed my body to its breaking point (and even a bit beyond), but it remains a gift nonetheless. An old would has been soothed, a bit of the baggage has been sloughed off, a piece of the sorrow has been lifted away. So, thank you Drake for the chance to see myself in the mirror, even if just briefly.