Introduction to Sketch was held in Prebble Hall, a building Professor McIntosh called “Ballister’s dirtiest secret” during our first class. Prebble was an ancient, pipe-clanking fortress on the edge of campus with heating problems, leaky ceilings, and those 1930s wall radiators we used to melt crayons on in grade school. “You pay fifty thousand dollars a year to attend this institution,” he said, “and they stick you in a hovel for four years. It’s because they hate art.”
The tuition comment didn’t hold much weight for me. I was on scholarship. My peers talked about skiing in Aspen and summers in the Hamptons. Ballister was their safety school when Stanford and Duke eluded them. They spoke with the opaque, offhand world knowledge of the privileged. My first weekend there, I watched a girl at a party barf into a five-hundred-dollar Coach purse. Terrified of the cafeteria’s clamor, I had taken to eating three meals of ramen noodles a day in my dorm room.
I went to Ballister because of the visual arts program, because they’d given me their Poor Appalachian Kid scholarship, and because it was as far away from home as I could manage. I had chosen art because I needed something to make use of the bright lights that had existed in my head for as long as I could remember, my fervent, neon wish to be someone else. In high school, I sampled my way up and down the artistic spectrum methodically, like the good student I was, hoping I’d land on something that sparked me: I sketched, I constructed shadowboxes, I threw some rudimentary pots, trying a little of everything, committing seriously to nothing. Too scared, at that point, to put myself at stake for fear of failure. The revelation, maybe, that I had nothing to give. I had yet to encounter anything that made the risk seem worthwhile. I came to Ballister hoping that being there would put an end to my floundering. That I would finally buckle down and find what I was supposed to make, and that it would mean something.
I had taken the Amtrak train twenty-two hours out of Maysville, Kentucky, to the tiny upstate New York town in which Ballister was located. Ballister was, I was surprised to learn, not too terribly removed from Canada. My parents’ geographic sense of the north wasn’t much better than mine. They didn’t believe me at first, when I told them I was five hours from New York City and hence out of harm’s reach. Before I left, my father cleared his throat and thumped me on the back like I was another man. My mother gave me a fierce hug, something with a degree of pain to it, and said with her chin hooked over my shoulder, “Don’t you come back pregnant.”
My parents met working in a factory that made lawnmower parts. The brand’s claim to fame: George Jones had once drunkenly straddled its luxury model while pursued by the Texas State Police. They were resigned to their jobs, to each other, and to us, their children, who had all the fish sticks and Nintendo we needed. They watched Wheel of Fortune with three feet of space between them on the couch. They fought often, and loudly. Neither had gone to college; they hoped I would become something useful, like a CPA.
The closest I had come to finding something that lit me up was in a summer gifted-and-talented program, just before my senior year. In an art course there, I made a graphic novella of the night my mom threw an ottoman at my dad, laboring over how the glass patio door shattered, shards tumbling in an arc of beauty into the green holler bottom below. I painted a textured oil backdrop to simulate the night air wadding itself into a tornado: the Horror of ’89, which touched down that very night in regions of East Kentucky, West Virginia, and the golden triangle of Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol, Tennessee. The instructor, upon seeing it, complimented me but grimaced. Said, “I like the little cartoons, but how about we fit your skills into a more serious framework?” And pushed a pamphlet for architecture school at me.
McIntosh scared me as much as the rest of Ballister did. He was a serious artist, or had been at one point—a sort of eighties gallery darling whose decline had acted as a chute into teaching, a profession for which he had no real passion. “Oh yah, McIntosh is intense,” said the senior VA major who’d given me a tour at orientation. But McIntosh was more than just intense. He was a carnivore who loved to eviscerate freshmen, a real crinkle of joy seaming his mouth as he did. We were instructed to bring a sketch to the first class for discussion, and McIntosh made a blonde with perfect posture, daughter of a D.C. diplomat, tear up when he put her sketch of a woman striding down a crosswalk on the projector. “I want you to pay attention here,” he told us. “This is a case in point as to the importance of exactness in your line work, and the price paid when you become sloppy.” He took his laser pointer, made circles around the figure’s smudged face. “What a deeply confusing expression. This woman looks constipated. Was that your intention, Margaret?” He put his laser pointer down as she began to sniffle. “Well, don’t feel discouraged. This is Ballister. There’s always room for one more prelaw student.” I felt lucky when he glanced at my sketch—an old lady who’d ridden the train with me until Charlottesville, Virginia, asleep with an opened bag of Planters in her hand—wrinkled his nose, and said only, “In bad need of discipline.”
During the third class, McIntosh put another one of my assignments up on the projector. It was a sketch I’d done of a dog chained to a stake in a yard. I didn’t realize it until it was on the wall, but the yard appeared to be on the side of a mountain. It took me the distance from my chair to the screen to realize it: I had drawn Kentucky. I looked at what I’d done, glowing large in front of the class, and felt homesickness wrapping itself around my throat, my eyes growing hot until McIntosh said, “Good. Some rather inspired pencil work here, and here.”
It would be the only nice thing he would say about me all semester. I was shocked out of crying. Everyone turned, subtly, to look.
The only person I’d spoken to on campus for more than fifteen minutes was a boy from Kansas named Zack. Zack was also a VA major and was obsessed with M. C. Escher. Accordingly, I was in love with him. I incorporated his form into the bright lights of what I supposed my future would be, staking all my hopes on him. My drug of choice at eighteen: the quiet devouring of boys in my head. In the secret back pages of my sketchbook, I had even drawn him.
Zack was also in McIntosh’s class. My eyes automatically drifted to the left, where he sat at a neighboring table. If I hadn’t looked in that direction, I might not have seen Mel.
She was perched at a high table with her upper body craned over the desk, wiry arms and legs folded like a praying mantis, looking at me through frayed blond bangs. One dirty Chuck Taylor pressed the floor, bouncing nervously. She looked sleep-deprived—rumpled clothes, an evident ink stain on the knee of her jeans, little lines around her eyes the rest of us didn’t have yet. This was the girl over whom McIntosh went into raptures the first couple of classes—she was, apparently, his sole exception to inhaling freshmen. Session one, she brought in a sketch of a man on a front porch, raising what looked like a mug in the shape of a cowboy boot to his lips, and there was this look the man was giving, so salty you could almost eat it. Funny and sly and even, in the cocked eyebrow, a little angry that someone thought they could spy on him like that. “Expression,” McIntosh trilled, rocking on his heels. And we could see it, too, even if we didn’t know how to say it—it was excellent. Steady, confident lines, delicate shading. It was work that had a good enough idea of itself to be playful.
Her second sketch was a color-smeared cluster of kids in torn T-shirts, safety pins, snarls, all collectively clobbering the hell out of each other. Punks, genuine enough to make me lean away in awe. The look was harsh yet soft, dreamy and glazed, curves creamy. The group fought as a cloud of dust, the result of their scuffling, rose above their shoes. “A little overboard with the blending,” McIntosh said, “but the look of it is really something. And there’s a degree of fun here, too, yes? Some daring? Who were these people, Ms. Vaught?”
“Just some kids I hung around with this summer.” She had a funny voice, deep with the puncture of broken glass. It made me look up for a second before I went back to my sketchbook.
In my first weeks at Ballister, I kept my ambition secret. I wanted so badly to be more than what I felt. I wanted to be good. I wanted to be great, even. But I was cowed by the knowledge that everyone else here did, too—people who’d come from bigger places and better schools than I had, people who’d traveled and had training and experiences and seemed, in a strange way, more like people out in the world than I’d ever been or, I feared, ever would be. Seeing their work—good, bad, comparable to mine—only ever made me think of what I could do, if I could do it better, and not with a sense of confidence or competitiveness, but fear.
When I looked at Mel’s stuff, I felt something different. I didn’t know how to quantify what I was seeing in words, but I could feel it. She was naturally, easily good, and when I saw things she had done, I felt a curiously pleasurable pressure at my middle. It was an expansive, generous feeling. Before I saw her, even, I saw what she did.
Class ended. I watched Zack pick up his backpack and head out the door in the direction of the dorms, and saw one of the girls in class who did work I called, in my head, Hallmark crap—beatific faces, brave seascapes—catch up to him, blond hair bouncing against her coat.
Then I heard that broken-glass voice next to me. “Nice work up there today.”