Always an Artist

After discouraging experiences in her younger years and subsequent self-doubt, one author rediscovers her passion for visual media.

red headed girl creating art

I’m a creative person, and creative people are never bored. In fact, I really don’t have enough time to work on all the projects I want to tackle. You know by now that I love creative writing. I also crochet (my husband might say obsessively), and I’ve dabbled in embroidery, knitting, soap making and other crafts. 

But what you might not know is that my first creative love is art. I’ve been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. In fact, I don’t really recall a time before I could hold a crayon or a pencil and make marks on paper. 

I piddled around with drawing all through grade school and middle school, but it wasn’t until I transferred to St. Paul’s Episcopal School in the 9th grade that I ever took a serious art class. That’s when I met Mrs. Beth Compton, the art teacher. She opened my eyes to a world of art and art history that I’d never known before. She coached us on technique and challenged us to experiment with new media and methods to create art. She quizzed us on terms like chiaroscuro and trompe-l’œil. She educated us on famous and not-so-famous artists.

And she was a cool person! She wore jeans to teach in. Jeans! At a private school where all the other teachers were wearing dresses and pantyhose. She played music from cassette tapes on a boombox in the classroom (if we heard Don McLean sing Vincent once, we heard it a thousand times). She talked to us like we were actual people, not just students who needed to tuck in their shirts or pull up their socks. I wanted to be just like her.  

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I took Mrs. Compton’s art class every single year — Art I, Art II, Art III, all the way through AP Art. I was even president of the art club my senior year, which was the only extracurricular activity I ever participated in. Other people had sports and high school bowl and band, but art was my thing.

After high school, I went on off to the University of Montevallo where I planned to get a bachelor of fine arts. I was going to be an artist and wear jeans to work like Mrs. Compton. I was going to be the next Mary Cassatt or Frida Kahlo.

But early on in my freshman year, the chair of the art department declared to an assembled group of freshman art majors that “just because you were the hot shot art student at your high school and president of the art club, doesn’t mean you’ll be a hot shot here” or words to that effect. Basically, he described me! 

And in the classes I was taking, I started noticing all the super-talented students who surrounded me. I mean, these folks had some mad skills. They could draw things from their imaginations with no reference material, which was something I always struggled with. I saw the student work exhibited in the halls and gallery and wondered how they got to be so dang good. I talked to older art majors who seemed infinitely more knowledgeable about technique and materials than I did and wondered how they knew so much.

That’s when I started to doubt myself and my talent. And as a fairly naive 18-year-old, it never occurred to me that I would learn the techniques and the materials and the skills (don’t ask me what I thought I was in college for because I really don’t know. I was barely 18 when I started). So I bailed. 

I went to my advisor who happened to be the same department chair who had told us we were all talentless hacks (at least that’s what I heard even if he didn’t actually say it) and declared my intention to change my major. He didn’t try to dissuade me. He didn’t offer me any alternatives to getting a BFA like going into commercial art or interior design or art education. He never even asked me why. 

He just said OK and scrawled his signature on my form. 

I did minor in art but graduated with a degree in English. Both my parents have their master’s degrees in English so it seemed like a natural choice. But it wasn’t anything I was passionate about like I had been with art. It was just familiar and comfortable and came easy to me. And now, when I look back at old notebooks from that time, they aren’t filled with notes about literature or poetry, but they are filled with doodles and drawings and sketches. You can take the girl out of the art department … right?

But life goes on.

I ignored my inner Georgia O’Keefe for years and years and years after I graduated from college because I thought she was a no-talent nag, and I only let her peek out to help my son with a school project or Halloween costume. But about 12 years ago, I saw an ad for a
beginners oil painting class, and I just couldn’t quit thinking about it. I guess Georgia was trying to claw her way back out and was whispering in my ear that I should find some lessons. So I took the plunge, joined the class and loved every little minute of it. 

I learned the techniques and the materials and the skills that I would have learned in college had I only stuck with it (surprise surprise). More important than that, though, I learned that I do have talent, that I have a distinctive style and that not everything has to be Michelangelo to be considered good…or at least good enough. I learned to be confident in my own ability. And I learned not to compare myself to all the other people out there who ever dragged a brush through some paint and smeared it on a canvas. 

After a couple of years, I quit taking the lessons because other things needed my attention — family, work, writing. I still dabbled in my free time but I wasn’t painting nearly as much as I had been. And then the self-doubt started creeping in again. Could I even paint a picture without the teacher there to guide me through it and hold my hand?

But thanks to a little thing known as a global pandemic, I had more than a little time on my hands, and I used that time to get reacquainted with painting. I finished a portrait of my husband, experimented with different techniques and materials, and made cards to send to friends and family members.

It’s been a lot of fun to get back to my first creative love. There are limitless possibilities in a blank canvas…or board…or sheet of paper…absolutely limitless! And when things are stressful, painting is a relaxing escape from the world and all the crazy things that are happening around us. But that’s not the best part. The best part is finally learning not to worry about what’s “good” or if everything looks “just right” and making the conscious decision to focus on what brings me true joy — letting my inner Georgia come out.

Born and raised in Citronelle, Atkins shares stories about growing up and living in the South in her book, “They Call Me Orange Juice,” and at her blog

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