I started to love painting and drawing in elementary school. I remember being 8 years old and spending days on end drawing butterflies. I wish I had one of those butterflies.
When I was in high school, I went to study with a private teacher every afternoon. Her name was Mrs. Basset, and she was just about the toughest and strangest teacher under the stars. My refuge in her studio was much needed during those years. My parents were recently divorced. My mother had recently gone through hard core chemotherapy for breast cancer. I was at my best with Mrs. Basset. She believed in me. She was never nice and always demanding. She had no patience for anything other than total dedication and diligence. She was as hard ass as they get, and I was lucky.
Each year she would cull through her many students and select a small group for her portfolio classes the following year. These students would be guided by her through the process of creating a diversified portfolio of work for applying for scholarships to the most important art schools in the country. I was one of these lucky students, and through her careful and Nazi-like tutoring, I created a portfolio of work during my senior year of high school. The portfolio contained some of my favorite mediums, as well as things I despised (like charcoal and colored pencils), and was soon whisked away to be judged for admission into an art school.
When I received the letter telling me that I had won not one, but two scholarships to two different schools, I remember that my family was flabbergasted to say the least. Life in my house had been difficult, and my absence during the long hours I spent with Mrs. Basset had mostly gone unnoticed.
I left for New York City in August of 1985. I was from Florida, and couldn't get far enough away from there. My mother escorted me to what would be my "home" for the first months I lived in New York. I was moving into the YMCA on 34th Street and 9th Avenue. In Hell's Kitchen. In 1985. Way before Giuliani had cleaned things up. Way before Disney had taken over Times Square. The Sloane House YMCA was grubby and gross to say the least. The room was about 10 feet by 6 feet, and its only window looked out over an inner courtyard teaming with those New York super size rats. I thought it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was so fearless, so sure. I look back on that now and can't quite believe it. My life in New York during those first months was charmed by some kind of unknown benevolent force, a guardian angel that watched over me as I did one stupid, naive thing after another.
My mother and I took the subway downtown to Broadway and 8th Street, right around the corner from NYU. We were walking past Tower Records, which was still a big deal back then, when we both drew in our breath. Right there on Broadway, in a big beautiful window of a swanky office building with throngs of people walking by was my self portrait. I was kneeling and looking through a magnifying glass into the sun. It was life size and looked straight at you. It was staring us down with a placard that read "Winner of the 1985 Scholastics Inc. Full Tuition Scholarship". It was me.
That moment has shaped me ever since. I had no idea that I would find myself staring at myself on Broadway. I can still remember the noise and smells and cool breeze. My first grown-up epiphany.