I was an art school dropout. That’s why I didn’t become a great artist. That’s what I’d wanted to be from the time I got my first box of crayons. But I never reached my goal. Why? Because I didn’t like living in a garret — where it seems all struggling artists have to live. Actually, I didn’t like anything about the struggling part.


In school, my favorite subject was art — especially when the teacher hung my pictures on the blackboard.

I was nine when I first got my first art lessons. For my birthday, Mama gave me a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw set. It held pencils and charcoal like real artists used — and a book that showed how to draw everything. I drew the ball and the cylinder over and over till they were shaded just right. Then, the tree. I got pretty good at drawing the covered bridge — at least part of the bridge.

I tried to draw the great Dane. But every time it came out looking more like a sad horse.


When I was eleven I saw my chance to go to a real art school — on scholarship! All I had to do was win the Draw-Me Contest I found in the back of a magazine. I tore out the page and practiced copying the girl until it was almost perfect. 

I knew my drawing had to win. It didn’t. But the people from the school said they would take me anyway if Daddy would pay the tuition. He wouldn’t. It seemed my career as an artist wasn’t to be.

Life went on. I graduated from college. I got a job. But I wasn’t fulfilled. I continued to draw and paint but that wasn’t being a real artist.



I made a decision. I was going to be an artist. I quit my full-time job and enrolled in art school — and not the school from any draw-me ads. I registered as a student in a university art department.

Next, I had to find a different apartment — one that I could afford. I knew it would have to be small. I pictured a tiny but sun-lit apartment in the trendy, artsy part of town with its cute shops and coffee houses. I looked but found I couldn’t even afford the coffee.


I drew my circle wider, and wider still. Finally, one Sunday I found a place where rent and budget met. It wasn’t near the university. It was an hour away from anything cute. And it wasn’t pretty or sunny. It was green. The refrigerator, the shag carpet, and even the bathroom wallpaper, tub, and sink were green — and not a nice green.

The neighborhood wasn’t artsy or trendy. It was industrial with a manufacturing plant just across the road. And right next door there was a redneck bar.

So, green, drab, and industrial was the only place I could afford? Yes. But was I a quitter? Would I be an art school dropout before I even started? No! I decided I could live with a little ugly for the sake of my art.

Then I moved in. The place was worse than green and ugly. It was suffocating — really. Every day but Sunday heavy machinery and trucks went in and out stirring up choking dust. And it was loud — nails-on-blackboard loud with alarms, whistles, the screech of metal grinding on metal, and industrial clank, clank, clanking all day.

Night rang with noise from the bar — drunken hoots, ah-has, and occasional brawls. But worst were the bass guitar’s vibrations thump, thump, thumping through the walls and into my brain.


But I wasn’t giving up. After all, didn’t all artists suffer? And I loved being an art student. Loved wearing jeans and tie-dyed tees. And I loved my classes — history of art, introduction to drawing, and introduction to sculpture.

I was learning — though some of what I was learning didn’t encourage me. Only one in ten of the students would become artists at all. Few if any of them would become famous, would be a Picasso. And if they did it would take them years to get there.

I wondered, if I was the one out of ten, and if I was destined to become a famous artist, did that mean more years of living in a green, dusty, loud garret? I buried the thought and kept going. I lived for the rare small signs of promise from my professors. I was elated when I got a nod rather than a mocking comment from my drawing teacher, a master of disdain, when he viewed my drawing of a gas mask. That was enough to keep me going for another week.


Then something happened, something so awful, so terrifying that it led to me dropping out of art school never to be a great artist. It was a home invasion.

It was not an invasion of ski-masked killers, but roaches — at first just one or two. I complained to the owner. She told me she would spray. Her spraying didn’t discourage them. Whole families moved in. And they procreated. Roaches have millions of babies. They were everywhere. I kept forks, spoons, plates — everything I might touch in the refrigerator — including my toothbrush.

I complained. I cried. I yelled. Finally, the owners called in an exterminator. The roaches were gone. But no sooner had I put my toothbrush back in the bathroom than they were back. I found out my landlords were hoarders, and their hoards were roach breeding grounds


I could close my eyes to ugly green shag rugs. I could stuff cotton in my ears against the noise. I could do my breathing at school where the air wasn’t thick with dust. But I couldn’t do all that plus support whole families, no, clans of roaches. Within a week I’d dropped out of school, packed, and moved out of that apartment. I was off to find my future success and fulfillment in the nice clean offices of Ruthi Postow Staffing.

There you have my story. I was an art school dropout. I didn’t I become a great artist. But I did learn important lessons about myself. I learned I wasn’t Picasso — or Sharon K either — she once got a nod and a smile from the drawing teacher. I learned I didn’t like living in a garret as struggling artists must. And I learned I didn’t like anything about the struggling part.

Ruthi Birch

October 2022

October 3, 2022