Friday, June 3, 2011

Part 25: Living a Lie

Failing at something is an interesting experience to say the least. Painful.  Embarrassing.  Whether anybody thought that my return to Louisiana was viewed as a "failure" didn't matter.  To me it was VERY disheartening.  After all, I was the one who was going to break out of the little New Orleans suburb.  I was going to move outside of the box.  I was going to work in Hollywood!  I was going to be different!

And there I was, sitting in an office at the New Orleans Hilton, filling out an application for a job as a cashier.  I had an "in" because Tracy's sister, Judy, worked in the accounting office, and was an exemplary employee.  I'm sure she tipped the scales in my favor.  To complete my employment, I had to go to the New Orleans Trade Center building to take a polygraph test (which I passed - thank you). I was issued a coat and was told I had to buy certain colored shirts and pants and I officially worked for the New Orleans Hilton.

It was like I had been "reborn" into someone else.  My wings had been clipped and I was going to do something "sensible" for a change.  Yes, yes, yes, I was happy to be home with Tracy and seeing how she had made her own life at the University of New Orleans was inspiring.  She had gone against her father's wishes and enrolled in the music department rather than engineering.  This resulted in her having to pay her own tuition (which, technically she had done since high school).  I would use this inspiration and follow my first childhood ambition: I would become a paleontologist.

It was late Fall so the soonest I could enroll in the University of New Orleans would be the Spring Semester which didn't start until late January.  Until then, I'd work and save my money.  After blowing my mother's money on CalArts, I knew I couldn't expect (and didn't expect) any assistance from her.

My mother had divorced my father years earlier and then sold our West bank house and now lived on the East bank in Jefferson which meant my commute to downtown would not include being stuck on the Mississippi River Bridge.  It was a bit more difficult to see Tracy, but certainly much much more convenient than California.

I learned a lot about corporate life working at the Hilton and I didn't cotton to it very well.  I just didn't care.  I was still a bit depressed, and guilty, and a bunch of other negative emotions that prevented me from even wanting to forge any friendships at the hotel.  Besides, most of my time was spent dealing with irritated customers who had been unaware that every time they picked up the phone, or changed the channel on the TV, or looked out of the window, or got ice, or reset the air conditioner, the New Orleans Hilton was there with a fee for that.  It didn't matter that they paid with gold cards, we were fleecing them for just about everything, and....I didn't care.  I was not emotionally invested.

Then, an event occurred that would forever change my life.  Tracy had an epileptic seizure.  Right out of the blue, with no warning.  I was getting ready to take her out on a date, and she lost consciousness while bathing and nearly drowned.  The next few months were spent trying different seizure suppressant pharmaceuticals to keep her nervous system in control with the least amount of side effects.  It was clear, however, that she would be affected by this specter for many years, which meant I would be to.  However, I loved her and stuck by her and supported her through all of it.

By January 1983, I had enrolled in the University of New Orleans in the science department.  I had to get my degree in geology before I could enroll in graduate studies that would lead to my study of fossilized dinosaur bones.  I kept telling myself that this was going to be good.  This was going to be steady work and I'd end up employed by some museum or university half the year, and the other half I'd be globe-trotting around in the field digging up dinosaurs and giving them exotic names.  Sounded good, right?

The first hiccup came when I received my class schedule and went to the General Manager of the Hilton to coordinate my work schedule with my school work.  I would have received the same reaction if I had told them that I had stolen $50,000 from the company.  They were indignant and told me that I had to commit to the company 100% or nothing.  Adios, Hilton and good riddance!

I needed to find work before the school year started because I knew once my classes began, the last thing I'd have time to do was find work. Answering an ad in the newspaper, I applied for work at Fox Photo.

For those of you too young to know what Fox Photo was, allow me to describe how things worked in "the photochemical age."  Photos were shot solely on film, and most people would take their film to drug stores to have their photos developed.  This could take weeks, seriously, so Fox Photo made this promise: Deliver your film by noon, get it back the next day after 2 p.m. Nearly 24 hour turn around.  That was BIG!

To make it more convenient for consumers, Fox Photo had kiosks all over the city.  These little air conditioned booths were generally set up in parking lots outside of mini-malls and enabled customers to drive up and drop off/pick up their film without ever getting out of their cars.  I'm sure this sounds like hell, but trust me, it was the greatest part time job I ever had....ever.

 First of all, you worked by yourself.  No boss, no manager, just you and the public.  Second, you got to look through everyone's photos and believe me....every single Fox Photo employee did at one time or another.  How could you NOT?  Third, when you wanted a break, you would throw up one of those irritating plastic "Will be back in 10 minute signs" and then you would watch your booth until a car drove up, and THEN your break would begin.  I had the added luxury of being teamed with a morning employee who insisted on doing all of the inventory and paper work herself, so if I even attempted to do something other than take/distribute photo orders, she'd be pissed.

It didn't take me long to realize that I had about as much of a chance of becoming a geologist as I would becoming a geneticist.  My first college Algebra class (which was required for a degree in geology) was like sitting in a class being taught completely in Mandarin Chinese.  I was lost after the first class.  Equally frustrating was Chemistry class which turned out to be just another math class.  The reading was colorful - electrons, valences, the periodic table, that stuff I got.  Balancing a chemical equation....that was never going to happen for me.  After passing Algebra with a D and failing Chemistry completely I knew.  Geology was not for Shannon Shea.  Dinosaurs were made out of foam rubber and had ball and socket skeletons in them.

This was more my speed than digging a fossilized bone out of a quarry.
Believe it or not, this went on for two semesters!  One semester of torture apparently wasn't enough.  I had to make SURE I was never going to be a geologist.  Finally, out of desperation, I decided that I would finish my BFA at the University of New Orleans by transferring to the Arts Department.

Believe it or not, this was not an improvement.  In some ways, it just made things worse.

I should have known that this was a huge mistake when the Fine Arts chair looked at my credits at CalArts and told me that they could not let me continue where I had left off. The "Pass", "High Pass", "No Credit" policy of CalArts just didn't fly at UNO.  They wanted to see letter grades with number point equivalents next to them.  I would be restarting as a college freshman.  Ugh.

The University of New Orleans Fine Art Department attempted to "school me."  Not part of any major art scene in the world, the faculty consisted of either disinterested or angry individuals who invested a lot of their time pushing some sort of intense, crazy agenda on the students.  For example, my sculpting teacher, George Rowan, gave us an assignment to sculpt a word in clay that reflected the definition of that word.  People spent a lot of time sculpting all of these crazy words like "Stairs" where they would fashion a huge hill with the letters spiraling upward on the hill, only to have George get frustrated and angry.  Finally, I sculpted the word "Decomposition" with the letters getting progressively more rotted.  George was excited because the letter "D" was three dimensional and I had determined how thick a two dimensional letter would be in three dimensional space.  Whatever.

I also had a drawing teacher who simply hated everything I drew.  She told us that you didn't have to know how to draw figuratively to know how to draw.  She insisted that we have a "sketch journal" that we kept that not only had drawings, but personal observations about life, and quotes that meant something to us as artists.  When I turned my sketchbook in, you would have thought I had handed her a poisonous snake.  She gave me a "C" on it just because I had completed the assignment.

My sketchbook was a series of figurative drawings, not because I was trying to piss her off, but because that is what I enjoyed drawing and was attempting to refine. My art.  My style.  Another student had turned in pages and pages of color pencil rendered swatches.  That student received an "A."  It looked like it had taken two or three hours to complete (and a lot of color pencils).

For the last assignment in her class, I was forbidden to do anything figurative and I could only use the colors black or white.  I turned in something like this:
It is obvious here, but the original was charcoal on newsprint paper so...
The teacher had me post it up for critique and went on about how I had made a significant breakthrough in my art.  I had finally drawn something worth looking at.  Finally one of the other students asked, "Does that say crap?" I said yes to the chagrin of my drawing teacher.  Let's just say that I didn't pass that class with an "A."

I was despondent.  I was desperate.  I needed to do something to put me back on the proper path...


  1. I still think this teacher got the best piece of conceptual art out of you to this day! Mission friggin' accomplished.

  2. Getting conceptual art out of me is like getting milk out of a cactus.

  3. That's your racket!

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. The former Fotomat booth photo was used without my permission or credit:

  6. My apologies to Debra Jane Seltzer. The offending photo has been removed.

  7. Hello, I just found this blog site and have started from the beginning. I am really glad you wrote this blog. So much of what I have read so far is close to my experiences starting out. Especially this entry about your return home and your college experience.

    I attended the University of Oklahoma in the mid 1980's working on my BFA. My sculpting teacher only liked abstract are. And it had to "speak" to his soul. He told me I would only end up being a nick nack artist who makes little sculptures that people buy to put on their shelves. I wanted to be a creature sculptor and saw nothing wrong with that.

    Again, really enjoying this blog. Thank you for sharing it with us.


    Matthew Grove