The following excerpt is from one chapter of a book about the year I spent living with college students at 23 schools across the United States. Each chapter tells the true story of one week in the life of a random college student at one of the nation's most interesting colleges. The following chapter tells the story of Mary, an art student who struggles to create art at a school that places high demands on its students.
Chapter 15: Rhode Island School of Design (excerpt)
I would still become extremely nervous before meeting every new host. My habit was to park on the edge of campus and wait until nighttime to contact my host and tell them that I had arrived. I didn’t know anything about Mary until I knocked on her door. I called her around 9pm, and she greeted me outside her house. It was an old yellow wooden house with insides that had been converted into dorm rooms for students.
“So I hear you’re making a movie,” Mary said. She was short with frizzy blonde hair pulled into a bun, and she looked at me through clear thick-rimmed glasses. She wore a fuzzy yellow wool jacket with big buttons. Her voice was quiet, and she spoke and moved slowly, like an old librarian.
The fact that she thought I was making a movie meant that there was a huge misunderstanding. The friend who put me in touch with Mary must have told her the wrong thing. Not only did I need a place to stay, I also wanted to follow Mary everywhere she went for a full week so I could write about her life. I tried to match Mary’s librarian voice and whispered back to her like we were between book shelves.
“Well, no. I’m writing a book, actually,” I said.
“That’s nice,” she said. “What is your book about?”
“College culture and student life. What did you think I was coming here for?”
“I heard you needed a place to stay for a few days while you were filming a movie.”
“Oh, yeah, no, no, not quite,” I said. “Actually I was hoping to write about you and your college experience, so like, I would follow you around and go to your classes and stuff.”
“Oh, ok. Well that would be fine. I don’t have a roommate, so there is an empty bed you can sleep on, but you should know it has some weird stains. Shall we go inside?”
Mary didn’t hesitate at all. She was immediately ok with the drastic change of plans.
The inside of her house looked like a co-op, although Mary told me that nobody ever used the common areas. It was lonely there, she said. The stairs up to her room were old wooden planks that creaked as we climbed them.
“I’m getting over shingles,” said Mary. “It’s an old lady illness. I’m on a lot of medication.”
Perhaps that explained why she was so calm.
All the dorm rooms and apartments I saw at RISD were decorated to the point of sensory overload. Mary had pieces of cloth, drawings, old dresses, bandanas, and small picture frames hung up all over her walls. Her furniture was antique-looking and matched the style of the house. She had no overhead lights, just warm lamps that glowed in the corners of the room, creating pools of light that illuminated the colorful porcelain objects, paint brushes, sketch books, and stacks of artwork on her dressers. The only untouched surface of her room was her former roommate’s bed. Mary wasn’t lying—the mattress did have some weird stains on it.
“My roommate moved out randomly for a roommate transfer,” Mary said. “I admit it might be because of all my things.”
“I like it here,” I said as I looked around.
“Thanks,” said Mary. “I’m kind of an old soul.”
“How do you like RISD?”
“I sort of like it. But sometimes I’m frustrated by it, because I know it’s so good that I can’t leave.”
Mary sat on her bed and I sat on her roommate’s.
“I almost didn’t go to school here,” she continued. “I didn’t want to go to college at all unless I got into RISD. And somehow I did, so now I’m here, and I feel like I can’t leave. It’s very, very expensive here. My grandparents have to help me pay for it. So I feel a little trapped, like I can’t leave even if I sometimes want to.”
“What makes you want to leave sometimes?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “You’re expected to be very good at your art here. And you make a lot of it. So it’s easy to feel afraid of not doing well, or of not doing as well as other people.”
“What sort of art do you make?”
“I want to be a children’s book writer and illustrator. So I’m in Illustration.”
The artwork hanging around Mary’s room was her own original art. She had a style that was whimsical and fanciful. In her drawings were things like fairies, magical forests, and kids riding on the backs of monsters. She was dressed like and had the demeanor of a grandmother, but her artwork showed that she saw the world more like a child. Since I had arrived so late, it was already time for us to sleep.
“I usually listen to music while I sleep,” Mary said. “Will that be ok?”
The room was quiet and still except for the soft music coming through Mary’s laptop speakers. She played the album Pink Moon by Nick Drake. The only other sound was that of the occasional car passing like wind. The windows were cracked, and Mary’s white lace curtains swayed gently in the breeze. A street light shone through the window, turning the curtains orange.
Mary and I were both still awake by the time the album ended.
“He was a sad soul,” she said.
In the morning, Mary dressed herself twice. First she wore a black flowery dress, then she switched to a striped shirt with corduroy pants and red shoes. We grabbed coffee before class from a student-run coffee shop. Mary’s first class was about archaeology, and we sat up front.
“He basically just shows old pictures of himself bare-chested, surrounded by women in South America, from his old trips and archaeological digs,” Mary told me.
Mary’s closest friend at RISD took a seat next to Mary. Her name was Zoey. She wore a black dress with white polka dots, and she wore bright red lipstick. During class, Zoey drew pictures on yellow scratch pads and handed them to Mary and me. One she drew for me was of an androgynous creature with hairy legs, a top hat, hooves for feet, holding a rose. Next to it was a note that said, “Welcome to RISD.” I stared at the drawing for a long while, but I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to mean. I looked at Zoey with a raised eyebrow, and she smiled back warmly.
After class we passed by a student outside with a sword and shield practicing his fighting technique. He fought against an imaginary opponent with complete concentration. Mary and Zoey told me that he was also a nude model. Apparently he could be seen practicing at that spot on campus at all hours of the day, so the students were entirely used to him. Zoey left us, and I continued the day with Mary.
“RISD doesn’t really have a college experience,” Mary told me as we walked. “There are a lot of weekends where I don’t go out, even if I want to, and I spend a lot of time getting ready for my adult life. I mean, it’s here if you want it. But whatever the typical college experience is, I don’t think I’m having it.”
“I don’t think there is such thing as the typical experience,” I said.
“That makes me feel a little better. When I was touring other art schools, I got the feeling that art students were almost a homogenized type of person. But I didn’t feel that at RISD. There was some variety to the people here, which I liked.”
We went inside the Illustration building. Mary needed to look for one of her paintings that she had left behind after class. We looked in her classroom, but the painting was not there, so we went to the head office of the Illustration school. A woman sat behind her desk.
“How can I help you?” the woman asked.
“I’ve lost one of my paintings,” said Mary. “This is the second time it’s happened.”
“What does this one look like?”
“It’s this giant fluffy green man creature that looks like a fairytale yeti,” Mary said.
“Ok, well you need to check everywhere for it. But if you can’t find it, that means it was probably stolen. We have continuing education classes in this building at nighttime, and if you leave any art here that is halfway good, it has a high chance of getting stolen.”
“If this has happened to you before, why would you leave another painting behind?” the woman asked.
“I guess I like to think that people are good people,” Mary said.
“Nope,” the woman said. “You’ll learn that they’re not. And it’s even more true out in the real world. This is just preparing you for that.”
Mary had a job in the campus mailroom. When she was not busy filing mail, she would work on her art. The piece she worked on that day was a watercolor painting of a woman and daughter making a banana pie. She usually starts a painting on Sunday if it’s due the following Friday, because she works so slowly. She has to spend more time on each piece than her classmates because she has a small, meticulous style.
We went back to Mary’s room where we would remain from 3pm until we went to sleep that night. She worked slowly and steadily on the same piece of art, the woman and daughter making the pie. During this time, she apologized repeatedly for not having anything interesting going on in her life. I didn’t mind, and I liked being able to relax. The first day at a new school was usually stressful for me, but this made it easy.
“Freshman year at RISD you’re in studio for eight hours a day,” Mary said. “Just painting all day. They’re trying to weed out the people who aren’t serious. And there was this sort of competition of who spent the most time painting. So lots of people didn’t sleep and would be like, ‘Oh man, I only got two hours last night,’ but I couldn’t do that, so I just had to spend much more of my free time working on my projects instead of having a social life.”
“Do you enjoy spending so much time painting?” I asked.
“It’s ok,” she said. “RISD can be really isolating. Like, if you weren’t here right now, this is still what I’d be doing, but by myself. I guess it takes being alone to realize how much you like people. This house isn’t very social or communal, as you can tell. And all my friends stay very busy. So I don’t often see anyone in the evenings except for on the weekends. Sorry you got stuck with such an introvert.”
Before bed time, Mary phoned her grandma and told her that she had accidentally taken too much of her shingles medication. She told her that it was hard to paint while high from the drugs. I took a shower in the communal bathrooms of the old house. When I returned, Mary was asleep on top of her bed wearing red flannel pajamas. The lights were off except for a string of Christmas lights. Her laptop was next to her playing Pink Moon again. I unplugged the lights and crawled into my sleeping bag.
In the morning, we went to Mary’s still-life painting class. Fifteen other students were there, each setting up easels around a stage. On the stage was a random assortment of objects—an open umbrella, draped sheets, a chair, and stuffed animals. Before class started, a middle-aged man came onto the stage, unceremoniously took off all of his clothes, and sat down in the chair. The students then got to work reproducing the scene on their canvases. Since I hadn’t been in an art class like this before, I was immature about his nudity and looked around the room for a minute with a little smirk on my face, but fortunately nobody noticed me.
The room stayed silent during class except for the rustling of paint brushes. About half of the class wore earbuds. Mary’s easel was in the back center of the room. She straddled a tall stool like she was sitting on a motorcycle, and she leaned forward with one hand on the back of her neck and the other hand holding her brush. The teacher patrolled the room, stopping behind a student as they worked, watching them silently for a few minutes, then moving on to the next student. He had gray hair down to his shoulders and wore paint-splattered carpenter pants. If he did speak to a student, it was always practical and sensible. He would say something like, “Make this shape more defined,” or, “Clean up this shadow,” or ask, “Should these two lines really be parallel?”
RISD is modeled after an old-fashioned ideal of artist training where the young artist apprentices for many years before becoming a working artist. The goal of this class was to produce an accurate representation of the stage, the umbrella, the sheets, and the naked man. It was not about self-expression—it was about pure artistic skill.
After some time, Mary stopped painting. She was just sitting there. As the teacher walked around the room, he noticed that Mary was not painting, and he came to stand behind her. Mary’s face contorted and her posture shifted as she reached for different brushes and mixed new paints, but still she didn’t paint.
“How is it coming along?” the teacher asked eventually. His voice was gentle and understanding.
“I don’t know,” said Mary.
“Tell me about it,” he said.
“I just hate my painting.”
“It’s not talking to me today.”
“Why do you need it to talk to you? There is a lot of work you could do while you wait for it to talk to you. You could work on the perspective of the stage, or begin shading the umbrella.”
“I just can’t get anything down.”
“Do you think maybe you’re nervous because your friend is here watching you today?”
“No, that’s not it.”
“Why don’t you go out for a little walk and come back in when you’re ready?”
Mary left class to go outside and remained there until lunch. During lunch, Mary and the teacher sat together on a bench outside having what appeared to be a serious talk. Later, when studio began again, Mary had started her painting over on a black canvas and was painting the naked man above a floating rainbow instead of on stage with the other objects. I gathered that Mary was given permission to do an alternative assignment because of her difficulty with the original one. (Mary had also missed one day’s work on the assignment because of her shingles, so she was behind the other students.) The whole incident seemed very sensitive.
Studio ended early that day because the teacher decided to take the class on a trip to the RISD art museum. We walked from painting to painting as he discussed the history and techniques used by the masters. He had the students look up close at brush strokes, he spoke of how paint used to be made, and in general he discussed art as a learned, technical skill, not as something mysterious or available only to the gifted. The class paid close attention to him and seemed to have sincere curiosity in what they were learning.
When class was over, I didn’t ask Mary about what had happened to her. I figured that she would talk about it later if she wanted to.
That evening, Mary, Zoey, and I went to a presentation by a RISD graduate who was back on campus for an art show. (Students here pronounce RISD as rizdy, so “a RISD graduate” is correct grammar.) She had graduated two years prior and was now a freelance illustrator. Her art had been featured on magazine covers and in books. Her presentation focused on the practicalities of freelancing as an artist. She shared lessons about the technical challenges she faces in her screen printing process and about the logistical concerns she encounters when communicating with magazine editors who need her work on a fast deadline. While she spoke, she flipped through a slideshow of her work, and if she occasionally commented on its creative elements, it was casual and indifferent, such as, “I wanted to show something big in a small city.” Everyone in the audience seemed impressed by the quality of her work, and the presentation seemed encouraging for future illustrators.
However, near the end of the presentation there was some discouraging news. The presenter told us that when she graduated RISD and moved from Rhode Island to a cheap apartment in New York City, she tried for a year to make enough money to support herself, but eventually she couldn’t sustain, so she had to move back in with her parents. Now she did her screen printing in the bathroom at her parents’ house, and she was saving up money before a second try to leave home. This news came after having just showed us a large portfolio of commercial work. In theory, she had been very successful after graduation, but that level of success was still not enough to make a living wage in New York City. Mary and Zoey looked at each other with worried eyes: in a few short years, they too would face that challenge.
Afterward we walked to Zoey’s apartment so Mary and Zoey could study. Zoey’s roommate, Brooke, came out of her room wearing only a bed sheet wrapped around her. She studied sculpting and showed me with great enthusiasm some brass objects she had made. She had hair that was braided in a spiral and pulled up straight over her head. Zoey was making tea in a kettle, and David Bowie played from a record player. Hanging from the ceiling were dozens of fake flowers and butterflies. On the walls were floral quilts stretched out like wallpaper. The only light was a metal clamp-light shining onto the kitchen counter. Musky-smelling incense burned on the table and turned the air gray. Once Zoey’s tea brewed, we all sat around the table drinking it. Zoey was holding a big loaf of bread.
“Before I went to college, my dream was to eat a huge piece of bread like this,” Zoey said. “My mom would always catch me gnawing at baguettes like a beaver. And now I can do it. Freshmen are so excited because their parents aren’t around. You can party every night because you don’t have parents telling you not to. And if you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, you just live at their place because nobody’s telling you not to do that either. But then sophomore year you realize you’re paying so much, so you get serious.”
“People party every night here freshman year, even with eight hours of studio every day?” I asked.
“Some of them,” Zoey said. “Well, they try to, but not many of them make it work. RISD is a very old-fashioned version of an art school where you’re supposed to work all the time. At our initiation, our president was like, ‘Art is going to change the world. Art is just as important as business.’” She switched into a silly voice while speaking as the president and then resumed her real voice. “There were these big puffy chairs we sat in. But that’s part of why I wanted to come here, because they took art so seriously.”
Mary had not said much since we had been to Zoey’s apartment, but she chimed in here and said, “Today I had a huge fit over whether I should even be here.” That must have been what was going through her head during studio.
Brooke and Zoey nodded.
“I get those too,” said Brooke.
“Me too,” said Zoey.
After we finished the tea, Zoey grabbed a banjo and sang us one of her original songs.
“I like that one,” Mary said.
“It’s about my ex-boyfriend,” Zoey said. “I felt like I finally got him out of my system when I wrote that song. I could feel him in my hands, like he was creating the song in me.”
Mary, Zoey, and Brooke were unusual to me in a lot of ways, and yet I felt especially relaxed around them. In a way, at RISD it felt as if a person could do no wrong. Nothing was off limits socially, stylistically, or conversationally. For example, after seeing so many odd haircuts around campus, I started to suspect that there was no such thing as a bad haircut at RISD—anything that you did to your hair was just your unique method of self-expression. It was the exact opposite of the feeling at NYU of not having a pea coat. Here you couldn’t dress incorrectly if you tried.
Mary had a test the following morning, and then she spent the rest of the afternoon working on her painting. That night we went to Zoey’s again for dinner. The girls were going to make an experimental dinner out of the random foods they had in their refrigerators. The meal ended up being noodles, mushrooms, and some other vegetables, made into a big pot of soup. We were also joined that night by their friend Mason, who was studying digital image manipulation. His primary artistic tool was Photoshop, and he would start with an ordinary photo and turn it into visual art. Before dinner, Brooke rolled one small joint, and we passed it around. Neutral Milk Hotel played on the record player. Before smoking, the girls had used the word “beautiful” frequently, but after smoking they were using the word almost every sentence. Everything was beautiful now— the soup, the mushrooms, the kombucha Brooke was drinking, Mary’s coffee. Zoey eventually said, “I think you guys are beautiful.”
“I took a year off before coming here,” said Brooke. “I think that really helped. It really informed me of what my goals were once I got here.”
“I wish I took a year off,” said Zoey.
“Me too,” said Mary.
“In a way I’m doing college for my parents,” said Brooke, “which is weird because they’re doing it for me. It’s kind of amazing that they’re giving me this gift, so I don’t want to take it for granted.”
“It’s weird going here,” said Zoey. “Before you actually arrive, RISD is just a name. Even with a scholarship, my parents still had to take out loans, and I still don’t know how to support myself. I’ll have this cushion for a few more years, but after I’m out, I have no idea if I’ll ever make money. That’s a scary thought.”
Brooke and Mary nodded their heads.
“I must say,” said Brooke “I rip on school a lot, but I’m having the most amazing time here just making shit. We have such great facilities. It’s like everything is at your fingertips.”
The girls asked me if RISD was similar to other colleges. I told them that so far it was very different.
“See, we don’t get any outside perspective here,” said Brooke. “At art school you get put with all these people who are similar to you, so you forget how other people see it. It’s almost incestual.”
We smoked another joint and then watched vintage Disney cartoons projected onto the ceiling. The girls called each one beautiful. Then they put on another record, The Kinks, and we danced together as the record played from start to finish. When ‘Waterloo Sunset’ came on, I felt pure bliss. It was one of the nicest evenings of my whole trip. When it was late, Mary and I walked back to her dorm. She had been participating throughout the night, but I realized that she hadn’t spoken much. It was mostly Zoey and Brooke doing all the talking.
“I get stuck being an observer sometimes, and it can be a curse,” Mary told me on our walk. “I have to think, ‘Oh, I haven’t talked in a while, I should probably say something.’ You seem like that too, how you ask a question and then sit back. You’re almost like a traveling ghost, like you aren’t a real person. Do you know what I mean?”
I felt touched that Mary had been paying attention to me and thinking about how I might have been feeling. “I think I know what you mean,” I said.
“What’s intoxicating about college is that you get a new face,” Mary said. “I don’t know if you care about any of this at all, but I used to have bad depression. I don’t know if that’s interesting at all for your book or if you want to hear about any of this. You probably don’t.”
“I’d like to hear, but don’t feel pressured to tell me anything.”
“Well, I had bad depression, and let’s just say it got serious. And I had dealt with it during high school, and college presented an opportunity for people to not see me that way. But it also presented a challenge. When you’re constantly being critiqued, it can lead to a very strange sort of anxiety. The point is, my life you’re walking into, the only way I can describe it is that my knees are under water. I’ve been walking a lot on my own, and I have a very good friendship with Zoey, but my other friend is away overseas. Ultimately my point is that art school can be taxing because you’re constantly being personally rated.”
It was silent for a moment.
“I’m sure this is all stupid,” said Mary.
“No, no,” I said. “Not at all.”
“Let’s say tomorrow, what I turn in, if it gets slammed, it’s like I’m being personally judged and valued. If my piece gets slammed, that’s something I’m going to have to learn to grow with, and I’ve already had to go through a year of it. If I didn’t choose to be more open with my intuition and creativity and speak freely, then I would probably be so consumed with my sadness that it would... not end well. And that’s why I chose art. And this sounds so dramatic, but it almost saved my life.”