Yes, I Can Be Both An Artist and a Scholar

I started graduate school three months ago, and I find myself rephrasing the same sentiment on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis.

I think the Academy hoards knowledge. What good is it if I’m learning something that could be of use to millions of people, when I have to weigh my knowledge down with jargon and densely packed sentences, ensuring that only 50 people in the world will be able to access my truth? Why do we look down upon articulating knowledge in more accessible forms–stories, articles, blog posts, visual art, graphic novels, music, film? Why is it that if I choose to express my knowledge in this way, I will be devalued as a scholar?

I’ve been having to choose between being an artist and a scholar for almost half of my life. When was only 14 years old, I was forced to make a decision between pursuing admission to the regional Governor’s School for the Arts versus the “prestigious” International Baccalaureate (IB) program. By the time I had to make this decision, I had been equally gifted in academics and as I was in art and music. I took fine arts classes all throughout my education, I had joined the school orchestra as a violist, and I had been taking private piano lessons for eight years. When my nose wasn’t in a book, I was making art; I wrote stories, composed musicals and devoted a least a couple hours a day to learning music for the National Piano Players Guild.

I was an artist and a scholar, but I wanted to be a concert pianist at age 14.

I knew my odds were slim getting into Governor’s School. They only accepted one or two classical pianists a year, and when I was waitlisted, I was so thrilled to even be considered, that I was willing to throw out my acceptance to the IB program.

My parents had a different plan.

After months of fights that broke all of our hearts, it was decided for me that I was going to do IB. In addition to the superior academic training, the program also promoted well-roundedness of its students. Because I was to be in the inaugural class, my city had economic limits on what sort of extracurriculars IB could offer. By the time I was 16, I had become one of the most enraged, most vocal (read: difficult to restrain) opponents of the program because of my particular circumstance.  I was stripped of my orchestra classes, and the only arts I could still do were my outside of school piano lessons and the also poorly funded school drama club.

Yet, I still tried to reconcile the two. The only things I ever loved more than my art were my books and school. I was the kid whose favorite family activity were road trips, because it meant that I would get to go to Barnes and Noble and select two, maybe three, brand new books to read on the way. I had an insatiable desire to know, and almost anything could peak my interest, because I wasn’t just artsy; I had a math mind, gifted to me by my father. I was the precocious kid who called up her fathers’ colleagues at the Virginia Department of Transportation in the Civil Engineering Unit and asked them to “talk to me about bridges.” A few months later, I won a prize in the science fair for my popsicle stick arch bridge that could hold twenty pounds of bricks. That budding engineer would grow up to be the young lady who started an International Club, simply out of curiosity to know what was on the outside of her small rural town.

It wasn’t as though I deeply resented IB: I loved learning, and was quite gifted academically. But while I loved learning new things, I wasn’t always a fan of having to write a research paper. My teachers indulged my creative pursuits (mostly because if they didn’t, it would usually end in a class period long debate), so in addition to, or sometimes in place of, the classic research papers, I was almost always allowed to turn in “alternative assignments.” These assignments included a translation of scene from Othello into French, a graphic novel about my French class and verb forms, three “Survival Guides” to IB Psychology, several short stories and, most memorably, “The Carbon Song,” in which I sang the entire Carbon Cycle to the tune of “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz. My Extended Essay combined my love of Mozart and psychology, and I wrote about how nature vs. nurture came into play, as Mozart had an equally talented sister, who never ascended to his level of fame. And more than once, I entertained my weary classmates with X-Men-style adventures stories during Journal time and illustrated funny cartoons of us all “failing” our tests to combat the oppressiveness of our three week block of IB testing.

But as I turned my eyes toward college, somehow I began to believe that colleges wouldn’t value my artistic training and creative tendencies. As my focus on my work doubled, I realized my piano teacher began to assign less challenging music, and less music in general, until my skill had all but stagnated by the time I graduated and headed off to UVA.

I went to UVA a virtually artless being. My half-hearted attempts to join music groups were denied, and the only thing I still did regularly was write, yet even that soon fell to the wayside. I could tell immediately that my professors would have no interest in my creative “alternative assignments.”

So, I reluctantly stepped on the conveyor belt, and I stayed on it, churning out uninspired papers that were just creative and articulate enough to merit the A’s I sought, for three uninterrupted years.

It was a stroke of good fortune that I met my friend Micah, and that she asked me to be the stage manager for an idea of a show that she had, which was to be called “The Black Monologues.” Peaked by the prospect of doing something artistic that I didn’t have to audition for, I ended up spending my penultimate semester at university hidden away in the Drama Building, falling deeper and deeper in love with art all over again.

Black Monologues was special because it was one of those rare, beautiful moments where art and scholarship collided for a spectacular result. We incorporated all types of knowledge, from literary giants, to musical greats, to inspiration from television shows, to poetry, to dance to create something visual that expresses the kind of scholarly knowledge about African-American consciousness and experience that most people assume can only be adequately articulated in a scholarly book.

Black Monologues taught me that I am an artist and a scholar, because I cannot afford to choose any more. It brought me back to the times I had successfully bridged the gap between the academy and art, and I asked myself, “Why did I ever stop? That was when I was the happiest.”

Without art, there would be no scholarship, and without scholarship, without knowledge, without understanding, without conversation, art would have less impact.

Furthermore, being a Black artist comes with the weight of having your work be in conversation with everything and everyone that came and created before me. But, in actuality, isn’t that the goal of scholarship? To join a discussion? The only difference, in my mind, is that art puts far less limitations on who can and will join in.

Art functions as a vehicle to communicate the very things scholars attempt to discuss in impenetrable articles and lofty language. An artist can capture those same ideas in a short story, a documentary, or a theatrical performance. It comes down to your personal goals and what you want your work to accomplish.

Frankly, I am tired of choosing, so I choose both.

I am an artist and a scholar, and at age 22, I want to be a professor.

I am going to work toward a tenure track academic job and join in intellectual conversations. But I am also a blogger, a novelist and a comic artist. I have a voice, stories to tell, knowledge to share, and a commitment to accessibility.

I am an artist and a scholar–and the Academy is just going to have to deal with it.

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