Friday, January 18, 2013

A Tribute To My Mentors

I just wrote a post called Happy Blogiversary! celebrating the 5 year anniversary of this blog. As I started to thank all the people who've guided me over my life, I realized I had to write a whole separate post in order to express all that I wanted to say. There have been so many people who've been amazing influences to me that this post was becoming excessively long. So for now, I've edited it down to honoring just two of them because their stories are intertwined. Here goes...

I received my degree in Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design. Getting into the top art school in the country was a dream come true but college was really expensive. In my four years at RISD, I had 16 different work-study jobs to help pay for school ranging from Fitness Center Attendant to Dark Room Manager. The best job I had was working as a Teacher's Assistant to my favorite Professor, Tom Sgouros (it was also my highest paying job at $6.10 an hour!). Tom was an award-winning painter who also happened to be going blind from Macular Degeneration. Remarkably, he continued to paint and teach despite his disability. I helped him with simple tasks such as reading his mail to him (this was before any of us used email), taking attendance, and giving grades. Most of the mail he would receive would be from former students. They would write to let him know how important he was to them or that they had written a book and dedicated it to him. His response would be something like, "They must have written so many books already that they ran out of parents and grandparents to dedicate them to." 

Tom could only see silhouettes and colors and though I worked with him for 3 years he never knew what my face looked like. Every time I greeted him I'd have to announce myself by saying, "Hello Tom. It's Kim." He wore a pair of glasses with lenses so thick that it distorted his eyes making him look owlish. When he looked at his student's paintings he would lift up his glasses and put his face right up to the painting like he was trying to climb in. I would watch him, like many of his students, and try not to think about how horrible it must be to lose the ability to do what you love. I have always been blessed with 20/20 vision but to this day when I paint, I still squint my eyes to see my work the way Tom would see it. Back then, I thought I was just helping an old blind man. I wouldn't know how important my time working with Tom was until years later.

Ten days after graduation I was in a pretty bad car accident. An 84-year-old woman wearing an eye patch didn't see me driving through the intersection and drove her car directly into the driver's side of my car. I suffered permanent injuries to my spine, jaw, and the entire left side of my body. Being left-handed, this did not bode well for my future art career. My life was put on hold and I spent the next 6 months going to physical therapy 6 days a week. My jaw was dislocated and I could not chew my food so I had to go to jaw therapy 3 days a week and eventually required surgery. Prior to my car accident, I had already set up an interview with the Long Island Children's Museum. I went on the interview anyway because they told me they didn't have any openings at the moment but might in the future. I was hoping that by the time they did I would be well enough to work. I met with the Director of Exhibits, Paul Orselli. My first impression of Paul was that he was a cross between Einstein and Willy Wonka. I still remember some of the tough questions he asked me such as, "Who is your favorite Muppet character?" Paul offered me a job but then my doctor said I couldn't work yet. So I explained the situation to Paul and he offered to hold the job for me until I was ready to start working. This is not something most people are gracious enough to do. It was months before I was able to start working but I had student loans and bills to pay so against the advisement of my doctor, I began working part-time while continuing with physical therapy. Paul was understanding about this and was always accommodating. I would say Paul is the best boss I've ever had except that whenever I referred to him as my "boss" it was like I was calling him by some other four-letter word. He would always refer to me and my coworkers as his "colleagues." So I'll say Paul is the best colleague I've ever had. 
All 3 members of the LICM Exhibits Department, Me (L) Paul Orselli (Center) and Jenny Sumner (R)
getting filthy dismantling a school bus to use for the Totspot exhibit
He taught me much of what I know about the museum business and I consider him one of my greatest mentors. I have a lot of respect for Paul. As you can see from the picture above, he was not the sort of boss to give orders and then stand there with his arms folded watching you work. He is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get dirty. He has a fascinating brain that operates like no other, never running out of fresh ideas. In a business where people can often use sneaky and underhanded tactics in order to win projects, Paul has always conducted himself with much higher ethical standards. I can call him for advice and from time to time he will call me and give me some that is unsolicited! For example, it was Paul who called me 5 years ago to ask me "what I was doing about my online presence" and suggested that I start a blog. I knew I wanted to write about museums but I didn't want to write like a snooty art critic. I didn't really know where I was going with this at first but once I started traveling and visiting tons of museums, this blog naturally started to take shape, becoming more of an honest narrative describing my museum experiences. My peers have described my travel/writing style as that of Mr. Magoo with the sarcastic wit of David Sedaris. I will take that as a compliment. 

Paul and his wife Lisa have four amazing kids. He now teaches the Graduate class on Exhibit Development at Bank Street College and runs his own Exhibit Design company called, Paul Orselli Workshop (POW!) hiring me to collaborate on some fun museum projects with him throughout the years. I'm so grateful that he held the job for me, I love working with Paul, and I'm happy that we have remained friends and colleagues for 13 years.

One of my first projects at the Children's Museum was developing a gallery called, Changes & Challenges. It promoted disability awareness and Universal Design. It gave visitors a chance to experience first-hand what the everyday life of a person with a disability was like. Children were able to try out wheelchairs, type a braille message, and use devices to help with day to day tasks such as opening a jar with one arm or matching clothes if they were blind. In researching and prototyping the exhibit, I worked with children with multiple disabilities. Some were blind and in wheelchairs and some were deaf and blind making my injuries seem like a minor inconvenience. Just like the message of the exhibit, we all experience some Changes & Challenges at some point in our lives whether it be a broken leg or a permanent disability, but we learn to adapt. 
Child's bedroom in the Changes & Challenges exhibit
This got me thinking about Tom and his beautiful paintings. I called him up and he asked me what I had been doing since graduation so I filled him in. Despite all of his hardships, it was Tom who was giving me encouragement. He invited me to his studio in Rhode Island. I hadn't been back to Providence since the accident and left without saying goodbye to most of my friends, never even telling them what had happened. I was scared to drive so my coworker and I took the ferry from Long Island and then she drove me to his studio. He showed me my replacement, a high-tech magnifier that projected the words from his books onto a video monitor. But while I was there, he asked me to read some of his letters to him anyway. Most of it was praise from former students and more books being dedicated to him. He shared with me his experiences of when he first started to go blind and admitted that he went into a deep depression and didn't want to live anymore. He made the decision to stop feeling sorry for himself, chose to not let it ruin his life, and continued to teach and paint. Instead of creating detailed watercolor renderings he began to paint from his memories a series of large moody oil paintings called, Remembered Landscapes. Tom's courageous confession provided me with so much support and inspiration. I thought about how my doctor had told me I'd never be able to work, that I should just go on disability for the rest of my life or think about a different career. This was an absurd notion to me. I had one singular goal my entire life and had just spent 4 years in art school only to have my hopes and dreams shattered 10 days after graduating. While all of my friends were starting their lives, I was in a 115-degree pool doing water therapy with a group of geriatric patients. But Tom understood being an artist is not just a career and taking away our sight or our mobility doesn't change that. We just have to find a new way to be who we are. He then invited us to his home to have lunch and meet his wife, Roxie. He spent his entire day with us and then told us to drive to the art gallery where his paintings were on display and pick out any painting we wanted for the Changes & Challenges exhibit. The gallery let us walk right in and take a $5,000 painting off the wall. Three of his paintings were displayed in the Children's Museum exhibit. Two were his watercolors which he painted before going blind alongside his Remembered Landscape illustrating how gracefully he turned his disability into a remarkable ability. Tom's bio mounted beneath the painting astonished everyone when they discovered it was painted by a legally blind man. I doubt he had any idea how many children and adults he inspired. 
Tom's Remembered Landscape and watercolor prints  displayed in the Changes & Challenges exhibit
Last month, I decided to email an artist I admire. I felt kind of silly and was hesitant because I've never sent anyone "fan mail" before and didn't want to seem like a stalker. I really didn't expect that I would receive a response at all, figuring that she was too famous and wouldn't take the time to answer an email from a stranger. I will send emails to close friends and won't get a response for days and sometimes not at all (I'm guilty of doing this to others as well) yet I received a gracious and humble reply from this artist within 15 minutes. This made me feel so good that I said to my husband I was going to write to people I admire more often. Then I thought, shame on me. It's been a long time since I've written to Tom. I should really get in touch with him. The next letter I composed would be sent to him. Then I found out he had died just the night before. In response to the news of his passing, so many of his former students have shared their stories of how he helped them in much the same way, taking his entire day to invite them to his studio, counsel them, write to them, and have long phone chats. He treated everyone like that. When Tom came to see the exhibit at the Children's Museum he told me he was proud of me but it was I who was so very proud of him. I think we may feel silly doing this but I don't know anyone who doesn't like to receive praise and positive feedback. As artists and non-artists, we constantly draw inspiration and motivation from others and we should let them know. 
Tom Sgouros-taken the day I visited him at his studio in 2001
Everyone has at least one person who has influenced their lives in this way. I am blessed to have many who have helped guide me to where I am today. For all of the people who have opened doors, there have also been people who were roadblocks. Thanks to my mentors, I always try to pay it forward by being the one who opens the door.


  1. Wonderful tribute!! I really like the Changes & Challenges project and would love to visit a gallery like that.

    1. Thanks so much for reading Kim. There are many museums now that have similar exhibits about disabilities. I don't know where you live but maybe there is a children's museum in your area that you can bring your (four!) kids to : )

  2. Thanks Kim,

    Keep paying it forward! So proud to know you and see your continued success.

  3. Kim, this is a beautiful story and you are so right--we should be much more generous with sharing our admiration and thanks for the many people who help us see the world differently, encourage us to push ourselves, and teach us through their own actions. I was very moved by your journey and your earnest gratitude towards the mentors you've known in your life. Your post also reminded me why so many of us work in or on behalf of museums--they can truly change lives. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. I want to thank you so much for writing this post. You are so right--we should be more open and generous about our admiration and gratitude to the people who help us see the world differently, push us to grow, and teach us through the things they do themselves. I found your story so compelling and it reminded me why so many of us work in/on behalf of museums--they truly have the power to change lives. Thanks for reminding me to share my thanks with the people who have changed mine.

  5. very beautiful, thanks, and lovely tribute to both Paul and Tom.

  6. thank you for pointing this out to me. I hope he sticks with you like he does me...

  7. Thank you, that's a lovely way to remember him. -Tom Jr.