Flunking Art


By Julie Wu

In Junior High, we took a test for artistic aptitude. The top scorers would be in “Art Band,” excused from classes once a week to be apprenticed to working artists. We took a standardized, timed test, made a sculpture, drew a picture.  Our art teacher would score us.

Art Band sounded fabulous and I wanted very much to meet a real artist.  I loved to draw, thought of myself as artistic, and believed I would qualify.  I was used to doing well on tests, and when we got our standardized test, I dove right in.  The first section presented pages of parallel lines, and we were supposed to incorporate them into drawings.  I raced through as I always did on tests, trying to finish all the pages.  When the time was up, I asked my friend, Rosemarie, “How many did you do?”

She smiled a little and shrugged.  “Just a couple.  I connected them into one big drawing.  It was pretty crazy.”

Next, we had to sculpt a human head out of clay.  I molded a girl’s head and smoothed her cheeks to make her as pretty and realistic as possible.  Rosemarie made an old man with a scrunched up face, his chin protruding comically so it almost touched his nose.  The art teacher, who barely glanced at my pretty girl, lit up with delight at the old man.

Rosemarie got into Art Band, and I did not.  Every week for two years, an announcement would come over the intercom for Art Band members to assemble, and all my friends would get up and leave.

I was devastated.  If only I’d known that the object wasn’t to be fast, to make things neat and pretty.  But there it was—I was officially un-artistic, un-creative, nothing but a mimic.  I had always chafed at any attempt to categorize me, and fitting the stereotype of the narrow-minded, technocratic Asian student was deeply wounding.

How had I turned out this way?  Was it inherent?  Was it my upbringing?

I knew for certain that Rosemarie’s family was very different from mine.  They were white, a large family of kids talented in the arts.  Rosemarie’s mother told her children that they were all special in their own way, and encouraged them to find their own direction.  My family was also loving and respectful of differences, and my parents wanted us to be happy.  But to my parents, whatever path to happiness we chose had to include getting top grades, graduating from Harvard or MIT, and having a lucrative, dependable career.  Life wasn’t so much about self expression as it was about doing the best you could.

And doing your best applied to the arts, as well.  My mother studied Chinese brush painting, and I learned through her the Chinese approach to art, which is to completely master all the traditional techniques before daring to innovate.  Like any other field of study, art was to be learned with discipline, respect for tradition, following the rules.  I did not learn Chinese traditional arts myself, but the approach–mastery through technical mimicry, permeated my life.  It affected how I drew, how I painted, how I played violin.

It’s no surprise, then, that I flunked the Art Band test.  It tested a kind of creativity I had never developed and made me aware of a constraint I didn’t fully realize I had.  As the years passed, I began to resent and rebel against the approach to the arts I had learned.  Maybe rebellion was in my nature, or maybe, growing up in America, I simply bought the contemporary, Western view of art as personal expression first, technique a distant second.

As an adult, I found a new medium of expression in fiction–a medium in which I had never been instructed and there were no real models to imitate except the images in my head.  Writing was freeing, unconstraining, and felt absolutely right.  And it was a few years after that, when I was conceiving my first novel and had just met the man who would become my husband, that I felt a sudden urge to capture the beautiful colors around me.

Did that Art Band test help me or hurt me?  Was I a good artist or not?  I didn’t know.  But now, for the first time, it didn’t matter.  I daydreamed about purple plum leaves against a clear blue sky, about fiery maples trans-illuminated by the sun.  I rushed out to buy a bunch of acrylic paints, some brushes, and an easel, and sat in the grass.  I didn’t care about how fast I painted or what technique to use; I just wanted to capture how I felt.  Spreading the colors across the canvas was exhilarating and joyful.  I was unfettered at last.



  1. Erika Robuck says:

    Julie–I love how you channeled what you learned from the Art Band rejection into your fiction. This is a lovely and inspiring post.

  2. “I had always chafed at any attempt to categorize me, and fitting the stereotype of the narrow-minded, technocratic Asian student was deeply wounding.” Ouch. Great sentence.

    When it comes to any kind of art, it pays not to be a good girl. Great (if painful then) lesson at an early age.

    Curious: Do you remember what your parents said about it? Do you remember if you described the difference for them between proficiency and creativity?

    • Julie Wu says:

      Interesting, Nichole. I don’t recall discussing the test with them at all. I don’t, by the way, think that the typically Asian approach to artistic pursuits is necessarily inferior. It wasn’t a good fit for me, but I’m not going to argue that the Western approach is good for everyone.

  3. Javed says:

    Inspirational post Julie – I can completely relate – I was told I could do what ever I wanted to as long as it was engineering…

  4. Pauline says:

    Again, this post speaks to stuff that is going on in my head right now. One of the things I can’t stand about a lot of contemporary art is that it shows no mastery whatsoever. A clever, edgy concept seems to be enough, to modern curators. But part of me is screaming for some semblance of SKILL! Or TECHNIQUE! I must be a creature of the two cultures I was raised in. I was a perfectly robotic pianist (I had lessons from age 4) and then I went crazy and became a rebellious young adult that got thrown out of Copley Place for guerrilla performance art with a bunch of stoners. I think you and I got the best of both worlds.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Pauline, I totally agree that there has to be some kind of balance. It’s not enough for me if a piece of art or literature has only technique or only concept. It’s a privilege to have a view from both sides of the fence, though I may not have gone as far over the fence as you!

      Glad this post spoke to you! Thanks for writing!

  5. Kathy Crowley says:

    Julie –
    I enjoyed this very much. My parents, though not Asian, had some similar ideas. I think in their case, it was borne of growing up poor and during the depression. Art was nice as a… hobby.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Kathy! I don’t think the “Asian” approach is limited to actual Asians. As you say, it’s just a state of mind in which hard work and industry are valued over flights of fancy, and hardship is just one of many conditions that can promote this state of mind. Thanks for reading and commnting!

  6. Julie, to me it is always inspiring to follow other artists’ path and your take on the culturally inherited approaches makes so much sense. When it comes to your question: Did the art band test help or hurt? I think of art or any creative work as a process of overcoming obstacles. In that sense, I am sure the art band test helped. After all, 80 to 90 percent of the creative work we have to do every day is perseverance, right? Thanks for letting us walk part of your path.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Christiane, you’re absolutely right. The whole creative process is about overcoming rejection and obstacles, both in the world and within ourselves. Thanks so much for commenting and I’m so glad the post spoke to you!