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Emerging Artist Catherine Huang

Art School Rejection Abroad: How Failure can be Successful

Catherine Huang
2017 Summer Intern

Since I was 16 years old, entering a certain art school located in Paris, France, was what I wanted most in the world. The desire always hovered in the back of my mind, and I assumed it was an impossible and crazy dream. I’d never been to Europe before, and the only language I knew was English.

During my last year of high school, after I had been accepted to all the art schools in the US I had applied to, my family and I considered making my dream to study in France a reality. We made an investment: I would spend a gap year in France learning the language and preparing applications for two French schools, with the hope that I would be accepted to one.

When I arrived in France, my grasp of the language was little to none, and I was scared and nervous about my future prospects. My immediate concern was how I was going to live alone in a foreign country. Making art wasn’t something I could do until a month into my year, I was too occupied with a completely new lifestyle. I had to learn a new language and culture, and learn how to cook and clean by myself.

Catherine Huang

When I did draw, it was because I could only think of the impending application deadlines. The application required an on-site, day-long test that involved drawing models from life, drawing figures in movement, and storyboarding. If I failed these two applications, I felt that so many things would go down the gutter: the financial means required for my stay in France, my family’s trust in my capabilities, and my own self esteem.

I spent months attending a French language school and hunkered in my apartment preparing for the drawing test. I went online and contacted an alumnus of one of the French schools asking for help looking for figure drawing sessions in Paris. She introduced me to weekly drawing sessions that happened at an animation studio, located smack in the middle of various historical and cultural sites.

Had I taken the time to explore the immediate area, I would have discovered Victor Hugo’s home in Place des Vosges, or the beautiful architecture in Le Marais. However, my behavior remained predictable every week: take the metro to attend the drawing sessions, and immediately return home afterwards. I thought, “I can enjoy myself and explore later in my life. Right now I need to focus on my goal.”

Right after taking the drawing test, my gut feeling was that I had failed. A month later, the results proved that I was right. I took a step back and asked myself what happened and why. Despite investing all of my energy into this one goal, how did I end up with this outcome? Why did my initial joy for drawing disappear once I had set my mind on being accepted to these art schools? Why did I only have memories of the dread of failure the whole time I was in France? I was lonely in a country I spent no time getting to know.

I spent around a week mourning my failure; however, I couldn’t stay in this state of mind forever. The first thing I did after the drawing test was over was direct all of my energy into other activities. I asked a classmate to take me to a language enthusiasts club, where I met native Parisians who wanted to learn English, and we became friends.

We went to the Louvre, to the home of Victor Hugo that I didn’t see before, and to various historical sites. On one of our adventures, we visited the most famous Parisian cemetery, Père-Lachaise. On the metro ride back home, my friend and I caught a thief who was trying to steal her cell phone. The day ended with us riding in a police car (with the criminal in the backseat) to the police station to reclaim her phone. In my search for adventure, I sure got more than I expected.

I felt as if I had been holding my breath the entire time I was preparing for the art school applications. Once I released myself from that stress, I could finally breathe. My French improved dramatically. I gained a new confidence with the language, and you know what? I didn’t draw at all during that time. I focused on learning about France and life in a foreign country.

Looking back on it now, I can now see my own growth as a person, and in turn, my growth as an artist. An artist doesn’t focus solely on their brush and canvas. Instead, that brush and canvas is capable of expressing ideas and knowledge about the world. In order to do that, you have to experience the world. How boring would it have been if I had shut myself away in a room feeling sorry for myself when I was in FRANCE!

Despite my rejection from the two French art schools, my time abroad was definitely not wasted. I believe this experience taught me that failure doesn’t define me. Instead, it’s what you do after failure that can be a vital growing opportunity. After a year in France by myself, I’ve realized that there are some things I cannot learn on my own, and that I needed mentors. This motivated me to begin my formal art studies at an art school in the US. Although this wasn’t my original plan,  I’ve made new friends, met wonderful professors, and I can see my skills in drawing and thinking evolve everyday.

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