Portrait of an Art Student

Posted on: March 11th, 2016 by

I’ve always loved art.

I so enjoy getting lost in the reverie, the flow, that artistic expression brings about. I’d be happy living in art museums. And at my favorite art supply store, I want to purchase everything.

Yes, I’m an art glutton, easily seduced by pencils and brushes and easels and colors and the feel of brushing oil paint on canvas.

Art was important to me before cancer and my divorce, but it has become a lifeline after these major life tragedies. Art calms me like nothing else.

When I separated from my husband, I moved to an apartment that was literally next door to a Hobby Lobby arts and crafts store. In fact, my bedroom window overlooked the front of the store. So fitting.

Hungry to create art, I eventually ventured into the store. I bought a few oil paints and a few small canvases and did some rough paintings of cups and saucers, a vase of flowers, and so on. I loved the feeling that painting gave me.

Then, one day, the Hobby Lobby advertised weekly oil painting classes and posting the supplies needed. And it was only $10 for a 2-hour lesson, $35 in advance for four two-hour lessons. I called Hans, the art teacher, and he told me to bring a picture of a scene that inspires me.

My first painting, Smoky Mountain Snapshot

My first painting, Smoky Mountain Snapshot

I love the Smoky Mountains, so I brought a calendar with a picture of the Smokies to my first art lesson. And that was my very first oil painting under the guidance of an artist. I was his only student for a year, and I learned a lot – from how to properly hold a paintbrush to mixing colors to using various brushstrokes.

I painted continuously at home – from landscapes to animals such as predatory birds to vases of flowers to portraits.



When I painted, I felt a freedom I never felt before.

When I painted, cancer and divorce didn’t exist.

I couldn’t be happier.

Art Teachers Gone Bad

About a year after my first lesson, two other students joined, and they were quite talented. In fact, this is when things between me and Hans broke down. The students drew and painted better and faster than I did, and while I accepted that, I couldn’t accept Hans’ favoring them.

Teachers are not supposed to express partiality. As a writing teacher, I know to treat all students equally, find their strengths, and help each student feel more confident in his/her writing abilities. I am positive with my students, not harsh.

Unfortunately for me, Hans became enamored of these students’ artwork, and he became harsh with me. When I painted a Monet reproduction at home – for fun – and then brought it to art class to show Hans, he looked at it with disgust and said, “This is bad.” Not only did he hate Monet, he bullied me for trying to reproduce one of this artist’s works.

Although he apologized for what he said, his attitude toward me didn’t change. He overly praised the other two students and criticized me – for everything. He didn’t allow me to experiment with abstract art. He said I “ruined paintings.”

Vase of Flowers
I was caught in a whirlwind of despair and indecision: do I quit art class or stay? I didn’t even think to pursue other art classes.

Eventually, the decision was made for me. I would get “artist’s block.” I would sit at the easel and feel stifled. Hans made it seem that it was my fault I could no longer paint. So after two years of attending oil painting classes, I quit, feeling like I had no place in the art community.

Years later, I was excited to be taking a 6-hour intensive oil painting class, hosted by my favorite art supply store and taught by an outside artist.

The problem: the teacher was an asshole.

When I arrived, he insisted I didn’t belong in the class, even though my name was on the roster. He was used to only his “regulars,” the students who always took his classes. I was the outsider. Each time we painted, he’d walk around appraising our work. He’d praise others’ work, but when he’d appraise my work, I’d cringe.

He accused me of falling too much in love with my painting (don’t know where that came from). I painted but started feeling a familiar paralysis; I couldn’t be myself. He must’ve sensed I was having difficulty painting and dished out abuse. At a break, I said nothing, just packed up my stuff and left.

Later that day, I complained to the host art store. The store manager told me he had had his doubts about this art teacher and my call confirmed these doubts. To make amends, the manager would leave a coupon for me at the store – for 30 percent off everything on my next shopping visit.

Somehow that didn’t fully appease me because I view art as sacred to the soul. And while a coupon is nice to have, this teacher temporarily broke my spirit. And this is unforgivable.

Kinder, Gentler Art Teachers

Despite my difficulty with a couple of loser art teachers, I took another chance at art, this time at a nude-figure drawing class at a local college. I yearned for art, but I hoped this class would help me face my lumpectomy-caused body-image issues. I translated some drawings into oil paintings.

Diagnosis, one of my nudes translated into oil painting

Diagnosis, one of my nudes translated into oil painting

The professor was marvelous and helped me grow as an artist. She did this by complimenting my style and by challenging me to use different techniques. I stayed in the class until my bilateral mastectomy and returned about a year after the surgery. But I wasn’t the same person and had severe body image issues. So I left.

My best art teacher, however, was an amazing artist whose paintings were in the Pentagon and in various famous venues. He gently challenged me to use new techniques and depart from my comfort zone, while being positive about my artwork. This wonderful teacher undid all the damage the other two oil painting teachers did to me. I became confident and no longer felt like I didn’t belong in the art community.

Ballet Dancer

Ballet Dancer

These days I continue to draw and paint on my own. When I focus on artwork, I stay in the moment, and the disturbing realities of life don’t exist. I’m now teaching Ari art techniques and we paint together. I know better than to stifle my daughter’s creativity. And I hope she, like me, will love art forever.

What do you do for relaxation? I would love for you to share your hobbies.

What do you do to alleviate stress?

My first draft of Ari with elephant bells

My first draft of Ari with elephant bells

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15 Responses to Portrait of an Art Student

  1. Kathi had this to say about that:

    I’m so glad you hung in there. I’ve had both bad, discouraging, snobby art teachers and writing teachers, and they can do so much damage. Fortunately, I’ve also had good ones, and I’ve been doing both things for so long, that I could no more stop doing them than I could stop breathing. Lots of people who have gone on to become accomplished and famous for their creativity have suffered a lot of rejection, though. But it’s hard to take when one is already dealing with the aftermath of cancer, too. So proud of you for continuing, despite the naysayers. I especially love your ‘diagnosis’ image. It says so much. Just beautiful. xoxo, Kathi

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your kind words about my artwork and my perseverance. You are so right; after cancer, it’s difficult to deal with assaults to the spirit from horrible art/writing/music/dance, etc. teachers. Whatever passion moves us does so with a kind of sacredness.

      I’m sorry you’ve had to endure horrible art and writing teachers. Who do these people think they are? Ridiculous for them to even try to teach anything.

      Yes, the “Diagnosis” image has become my signature image, I think. I’m hoping people don’t get tired of seeing it! I’m thinking of using the image in some fashion on my next book or something. Not sure at this point.

      Like you, I cannot imagine not writing or participating in artistic activities.

      Thank you for your comment, my friend. It is so appreciated.

  2. Martine had this to say about that:

    I cringed when I read your blog. Creativity is sacred, and so easily teachers can crush one’s spirit. Your paintings are beautiful.
    I too put down creativity years ago and 7 months ago grabbed it back. I sing and play guitar. I have not yet gotten back to songwriting. But now I play most every day. I found a new guitar teacher, who like your wonderful art teacher, gave me confidence and introduced me to new styles, new ways to approach playing and learning, and playing an electric guitar. There are no words to describe it–except true joy.
    I love it that you encourage your daughter’s creativity. I do the same for mine.
    Keep on with your art. Thanks for a great post.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Martine,

      Yes, creativity is sacred. Thank you for your compliment on my paintings.

      I’m so glad you’ve picked up the guitar again. I am awed that you write songs, play, and sing. Fantastic! I’m so glad you have a great guitar teacher who is able to teach you new things in a kind way.

      I totally understand it when you say that your musical exploits are “true joy.” We are so lucky to be able to experience such intense joy and fun.

      Keep going with your music. It clearly is a passion of yours, and anything that gives you that wonderful feeling you are experiencing through music is worth continuing.

  3. Elissa Malcohn had this to say about that:

    First I have to say: I love your paintings!

    Until cancer, my main creative output came in fiction and poetry. Chemo changed that. I couldn’t reach that part of my brain, so I turned to mostly digital art (along with Sharpie doodles). I now facilitate a “Creativity Heals” support group at my radiation facility.

    I took oil painting years ago, but my partner couldn’t stand the smell, so I switched to acrylics. I took a class in that and in drawing, but mostly have experimented on my own. I’ve exhibited and sold mixed media art and photography. Digital painting gives me loads of stuff to play with, and storage isn’t an issue because everything is on my computer. When I write, it’s usually in my journal notebook or blogging. When I do a digital art project I blissfully lose all sense of time. Both it and journal writing are my meditation, along with photography.

    Do you know about NASA’s project to send citizen art on a data chip to an asteroid? They’re accepting material through 3/20 or until they reach the chip’s data limit. https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-invites-public-to-send-artwork-to-an-asteroid

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for enjoying my paintings and saying so!

      It’s amazing how chemotherapy changes the way our brains work, and kudos to you for finding other ways of artistic expression. That “Creativity Heals” support group sounds wonderful. I wish I had something like that when I was going through treatment. I attended a few writing classes for cancer patients, but I was so fatigued, I couldn’t really participate well.

      I’m amazed that you do digital painting. This is wonderful! Thank goodness you never gave up on artistic expression. Good for you! I like that you call digital art and journal writing a meditation. That’s exactly how I see art and writing: as a meditation.

      By the way, I’ve been using water-based oils for years, and there’s no smell. I switched a long time ago from the traditional media because of my fear of carcinogins. Hans thought I was crazy for being concerned about this, but I explained that minimal chemicals were what I was striving for. The water-based oils are supposedly non-toxic and don’t smell like anything other than tubes of oil paint.

      I didn’t know about the NASA project, but I want in! Thanks for the link. Now to figure out what piece(s) of art I want in space.

  4. Marie had this to say about that:

    Thank you for sharing this personal story. I am so angry at that art teacher – what he did was cruel. Your paintings are wonderful – I adore the one of Ari as a ballet dancer – what a lucky girl to have such a talented Mommy. You’ve shared the nude before and it is absolutely one of my favorite pictures. Thank you for inspiring us to keep going even in the face of adversity x

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you so much for your kind words. Yes, the one of Ari as a ballet dancer is fun (you knew it was Ari!). That one had its challenges because I was capturing her looking at herself in a mirror, and I never did a mirror-image subject before.

      And the nude is significant to me, for it seems to capture my feelings at diagnosis.

      The art teachers who were mean to me had no place teaching art. I agree that it is crucial to continue with our passions and never give up, despite adversity.

      Thank you for your comment.

  5. Pingback: Weekly Round Up | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  6. Rebecca had this to say about that:

    Beth, I am so sorry those teachers treated you that way. I feel angry for you right now. First of all, they are in the wrong business. They shouldn’t be teaching. Secondly, everyone perceives art differently. Everyone’s expression is different. One thing is to try to help you improve on techniques, another one is to shut down your inspiration, which is what they tried to do.

    I am glad you never gave up on this hobby and that you continued to believe in yourself. When it comes to ‘art’ it is so hard to keep the spirit up after getting a discouraging response. Your paintings are lovely. Good for you!

    To control my stress, I read and write. I always enjoyed drawing when I was younger and I thought I was going to become an animation artist (only because I love telling stories). But I was not good at it and gave up. Sometimes though, I would catch myself drawing here and there but I never fully developed the skill. I love writing a lot. I find it to be therapeutic which is one of the many reasons I do it.

    I hope you never stop painting. And I am glad you are introducing the arts to your daughter. I am sure you two enjoy it. xo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your nice words about my paintings. Ironically the good teachers were also professional teachers, so they had real experience and training in teaching others. I think the art-teacher duds simply were artists with no teaching background or training.

      I love art too much to give up on it, although I thought about it after these imbecile art teachers gave me a hard time. It took me awhile to figure out the problem was them, not me.

      I’m so glad you have reading and writing to rely on. It’s so important to have a passion, I believe, and hold onto it. Writing is, indeed, therapeutic, and you are really good at it.

      I also wanted to be an animation artist at one point, just because I could draw cartoons. However, I couldn’t come up with original cartoons, just replications of already existing ones. And I couldn’t come up with story lines.

      Keep writing, Rebecca. And keep reading. It’s wonderful to be able to express oneself through the written word.

  7. Dee had this to say about that:

    When I was in chemo my son’s girlfriend bought me a painting kit so I would have something to do when I was stuck at home with low blood counts. I loved it and started painting – quilt patterns and buildings and dogs. I do it because I enjoy it. I can still remember elementary school and high school art teachers telling me that drawing and painting were not. One of my talents. For me Art is therapy. Quiets my worries.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      How wonderful for you to have discovered painting! I’m so glad you have a wonderful hobby to rely on. Of course, as you know, art is more than a hobby: it is a spiritual journey and a passion of the heart.

      Your former art teachers make me mad. I wish they would never have told you that art wasn’t your talent. Teachers can be so mean. I’m glad you rediscovered art — which everyone is free to participate in — and you are right: “Art is therapy.”

      Keep drawing and painting!!

  8. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    As I’ve mentioned before, I am quite envious of artists such as yourself. And yes, you are one. I love your paintings. As an educator, hearing stories about teachers stomping on a student’s creativity always makes me cringe. Yes, creativity is sacred. And that connection between a teacher and her students is as well, at least it is to me. I’m glad you stuck with it and continue to paint and draw. Might I suggest you teaching an art class at some point? Of course, you probably don’t need another thing to do, but… someday, right? Wonderful post. Thank you.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      Thank you for all your support and saying that you love my paintings. I so appreciate it.

      From one educator to another, we do know how stomping on a student’s creativity is detrimental. You are so right about the connection between teacher and student. It is a fragile relationship, easily marred by the wrong teacher.

      I’ve never thought of teaching art! Maybe someday, I can volunteer and teach art, but I think I have a lot more to learn first. I do fantasize having my work in a gallery. Maybe one day, huh?

      Thank you for your comment. I really appreciate it.

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