If you put a bunch of creative people together and give them access to a workshop and supplies and space and time to create, great things happen.

lieslI came to Princeton in 1985 from a public school in a rough neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina. In high school, we had an art teacher and a music and drama program and, for what funding those received, they managed. My arts teachers shared a pervading sense of sadness, of knowing most kids used their classes as filler and that their jobs would be the first to go. None of this alarmed me. It was the way things were.

And then I showed up at Princeton with my thrift store finery and memories of cinderblock classrooms and I unpacked my room and looked around, cranked open an arched, leaded-glass window and studied the weight and majesty of the granite building next door. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I marveled at the beauty of the campus every day. At the time, I might have called it history, and there were days I found it oppressive. But now, I understand that it was all art. I was living in art at Princeton as I walked across a campus juxtaposing Gothic and modern architecture, past avant-garde sculpture, under a tower where an a cappella group sang for the pure joy of it, through a library overflowing with stories and music and poetry and into an art history class where a piece of canvas became the springboard for a conversation about who women were in the 1800s and what impasto techniques were new and why, perhaps, we humans have been scratching shapes into cave walls and tattooing ankles since we first stood upright.

I remember vividly the first time I walked into 185 Nassau Street, then the visual arts building, and was assaulted, thrillingly, by the life in an otherwise old building, the joy and possibility in each warped floorboard and carefully placed spotlight. I took every studio art class I could fit into my schedule without majoring in art. I just wanted to be there, surrounded by the exquisite creative energy of 185. If you put a bunch of creative people together and give them access to a workshop and supplies and space and time to create, great things happen. And I’m not talking about works of art necessarily, though certainly many beautiful pieces were born at Princeton. I’m talking about the process of manufacturing joy and a sense of self.

I would not be the same person without the study of and exposure to all things art at Princeton, and I may not even have survived. Princeton is a place that demands excellence, and I placed a heavy burden on myself, too. Had I not learned how to look up from all those books at critical points, to wonder at the pattern of leaves against a gargoyle’s shadow or to ask what in the world the architects were thinking when they sketched Butler College, things could have gone very wrong.

But I survived, and even flourished. I drew and painted and went to concerts and shows and considered majoring in architecture and read books beyond those on the syllabus and I made it through the dark parts. I learned about who I was at 2 a.m. in front of a blank canvas, and I’ve never let that part of myself go. I’m grateful to Princeton for the education, the canvas, the paint, the time with artists visiting from New York, the commitment to every aspect of the development of my adult self, but most of all for understanding that in all of the rest, the nurturing of my soul was as important as water.

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This article was originally published in 2015 by the Princeton University Office of Development Communications. It has been reprinted and adapted for the web with permission.

Photography by Kah Leong Poon

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