I went to Catholic school the whole time I was growing up – I even went to Catholic kindergarten – and they start phasing art out after you’re not a little kid anymore. In high school, I already knew that I wanted to pursue art in some way, but the guidance counselor looked at my schedule and said, you need to take three math classes this term if you want to stay on track. You don’t actually need to take art, you need to take math. I toughed it out for a half a year and then transferred to the public school.
At the new school, my art teacher’s name was Angela Glowatch. She was such an amazing person because she was a total ballbuster. She knew that some people took art as a blow-off class and because of that, she turned it into one of the most time-intensive classes that you could take. You had a sketchbook where you’d get an assignment a couple times a week to draw a specific thing, and you’d have to do that on your own time and come in and have critiques. And I loved getting the assignments and having something to work on, and I also just really liked that she wouldn’t just tell you that something was good – if she gave you a compliment you knew that she meant it, but you had to really work for it. She would give an honest critique about the things that were not great about whatever it is that you’re doing. It set me up in a good way for critiques in college.
I had a boyfriend in high school that I was completely obsessed with. A lot of people end up in these horrible, destructive relationships when they’re teenagers because everybody’s so insecure, but this was a very sweet relationship and we’re still friends now. It was very supportive, but I was just so obsessed and in love that I made all this crappy art about my feelings. I basically made Dave Matthews lyrics personified on paper.
I feel like sometimes when a high schooler is doing photorealism, it's a no-decision situation.
One of the things that I was really proud of at the time was a drawing of Indian corn, in pencil. I loved to draw shiny things in pencil. I think that everybody on earth appreciates photorealism. If you can make something that is that accurate, even if people say they don’t appreciate art, they look at it and go, wow, that’s super-impressive. I just liked that if I could do that, then I could show it to anybody and they would be like, you know how to draw! Whereas a lot of better art – which is not necessarily in my portfolio! – but a lot of art that gets responses like I don’t understand what’s so special, my kid could do that – it’s more about really specific artistic decisions someone is making rather than no decisions. I feel like sometimes when a high schooler is doing photorealism, it’s a no-decision situation.
One painting got me hired to do a mural at a local restaurant, although they’ve since painted it over. The reason I’m proud of that one is that I haggled with them really hard about the price of the mural. I think they paid me fifteen hundred dollars – a totally decent amount of money for a mural by a high schooler! I thought, well, I can’t set a bad precedent. If I do stuff for cheap now, I’ll do stuff for cheap forever. And so I think I’m most proud of my weird eighteen-year-old business savvy.
My teacher brought in people that went to art school to talk to us, and then also brought in people from college admissions offices to review portfolios. There aren’t as many people doing that in the other subjects in high school – when I took chemistry it’s not like there was a chemist there telling you about why you should pursue chemistry. It was kind of nice to have someone who wasn’t all that much older than us come in and tell us what the experience was like. This representative from Keystone College came and reviewed portfolios and was kind of being Mr. Art School, being really harsh with the students’ work. I got really discouraged and as soon as he left, my teacher was like, don’t worry about him. You don’t need to have a huge portfolio, you just need to show that you’re going to make good work in the future.
Tyler School of Art, which is part of Temple University, recruited from my school a lot. The admissions counselor, Carmina Cianciulli had a good relationship with my teacher, and also since Tyler is a commonwealth university, it’s cheaper than a private school. I had never really heard of Tyler – I had a big dream where I wanted to go to RISD or SVA or something, but I just knew that I couldn’t afford it and I was feeling really stuck, and then after that review with the Keystone guy I thought I was never going to art school. She was incredibly encouraging and Ms. Glowatch basically pulled her aside pointed at me and said, I know she doesn’t have a lot of stuff in her portfolio, but you should really take a hard look at this one. And so I got this major blessing from my teacher to the admissions counselor. And that day, they said, well, you don’t have a ton in your portfolio but you’d be a good match for the school, so all you have to do is take your SATs and you’re good to go. I was so pumped that I didn’t really apply anywhere else. It was like, this is where I’m going! Which could have been a bad thing but it ended up being a good thing. They did a good job recruiting me! It was actually kind of perfect; it couldn’t have been a better match.
Design and illustration satisfied everything that I wanted, which was to be able to draw and create images all day, but to have a purpose that was outside of my own self-authorship.
When I was in college, I loved every class. I was so enthusiastic. I tried so hard, and I loved everything. I thought of it as this restart, because I was an okay student in high school, but I felt so behind in terms of the academics because of transferring from Catholic school to public school. I loved all the classes, but I was getting a lot of feedback that I treated the work like exercises – that I would devote everything to it, but that I wouldn’t spend enough time doing some of the conceptual up-front work. Whenever I did anything for painting or sculpture, everyone would just be telling me to loosen up because I loved working really tightly and doing really technical stuff and working very graphically, as they would describe. When I took graphic design, I was like, oh, wait – this is it. It wasn’t until probably after I graduated that I realized I had wanted to go to school for illustration all along, because all I wanted to do was draw all day. But I had no way to do that, because I was so self-conscious about the idea of having to paint your feelings all the time. Design and illustration satisfied everything that I wanted, which was to be able to draw and create images all day, but to have a purpose that was outside of my own self-authorship. It’s problem solving. But then, I think if I had known earlier that graphic design was an option or illustration was an option, I don’t know if I would have gone for it because I would have been a stupid teenage rebel and would have just made weirdo performance art instead.
Jessica Hische is a letterer, illustrator, type designer, and self-described avid procrastiworker. Her clients have included Wes Anderson, Dave Eggers, the New York Times, Tiffany & Co., Oxfam America, Nike, Samsung, and Wired magazine. She lives in San Francisco.
More of her high school and early college work can be found at icanhazartschool.tumblr.com