I toured the University of Delaware before applying to grad school, and had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I visited classrooms and looked at bulletin boards and hallway exhibitions of student work. There wasn’t any tangible reason to feel uncomfortable with the surroundings. I had a premonition of coming misfortunes.
Judy and I were invited before my first semester started to a Welcome-to-UD party for fine art grad students. The host was a sculptor in his second year. He was warm and friendly, but nearly everyone else there was antisocial and somewhat hostile. Judy and I got some food and sat at a picnic table in the back yard of a two story, wood frame house. I introduced myself to a few people, but they seemed unwilling to speak to me and Judy. After a half hour of being ignored I leaned over to Judy and said, “I’ve got absolutely nothing in common with these people.” We got up and left.
I was one of the few artists working realistically and had no allies among the grad students in painting and printmaking. The group critiques could get harsh and personal. If a professor or a fellow student ran out of negative things to say about the artwork, they would turn their focus on an individual’s personal weaknesses and engage in amateur psychoanalysis. I found it particularly unsettling when it was acknowledged that I had successfully achieved a particular effect in my work, and was subsequently criticized for choosing that effect.
Certain students were singled out for more abuse than others, and I found out years later that the school had a reputation. The professors tended to pick out one male student in each year’s class and would focus their hostility on him. It had become something of a tradition, and I was the one chosen in my group.
One professor tried to run me out of the program. He had been away on sabbatical my first year, and when he returned he based his opinion of me strictly on hearsay from the other professors. I had learned by that time to shut up and refuse to defend myself during critiques (If you argued they made you pay all the more.), but he still treated me with animosity. I finally asked him why he arranged field trips during times when I had to teach classes, and why he failed to tell me when guest speakers were coming to campus, and he told me that I had a bad attitude and no one wanted me around. I said, “When have I ever argued with you? When did I cause any trouble?” And he answered, “I could tell what you were thinking.”
I had hoped when I started school to find a community of like minded people who would be willing to share ideas and support each other. By the end of my first year I realized that the grad students had formed cliques and that I was mostly left out in the cold. My one friend was a painter named George who was a year ahead of me. He was the scapegoat of that class, but didn’t seem to be bothered all that much by the disrespect and abuse. The department chair, who was sloppy drunk at the time, openly mocked George in front of a group of grad and undergrad students during a year end, final critique. Another professor came up to a large mural that George had painted and used his fingers to isolate four square inches of canvas. He told George that those four square inches were the only part of the painting that actually worked. George was fully aware that he was being screwed in front of a crowd, but gutted it out. He escaped with his degree, but I doubt if one of the professors wrote him a good reference or gave him a lead in finding a gallery.
I too escaped with an M.F.A. I managed to put together a strong body of work in my last semester, found a way to defend and explain my work without offending the powers above me, and happily put up my still life paintings at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts for my graduation show.
I still hoped to find a friendly connection with my fellow graduate students during the last few weeks of school and was pleased when three of them invited me out to dinner. We sat and talked through a meal at Jimmy’s Diner, and everything seemed all right. But when we walked out of the restaurant they surrounded me and told me that they were going to beat me up. I had no idea what they were angry about–they didn’t say; I replied that they could give it their best shot, but warned them that I would do my best to hurt them if they attacked me. They figured out that I meant business and backed off. My personal motto after that incident became: Get the Hell Out of Delaware.
Years later I returned to U.D for a visit. The campus was mostly deserted and I had a gallery in Recitation Hall all to myself. I wandered around and looked at the framed photographs. A woman came in and asked me if I was ready to lock up. I recognized her. I had a studio on the second floor in this same building in my second year, and she was a professor of weaving and worked across the hall from me. She had since become the department chair, and apparently had called security to lock up the building. She didn’t recognize me, of course, but somehow assumed that I was a guard even though I wasn’t wearing a uniform. I identified myself and told her that we used to have friendly chats in the hall, but she bum rushed me out of the gallery and building.
This disregard for an alumnus wasn’t all that significant, but I recognized the treatment as something that had happened to me before. One day during my second semester at U.D. I was standing outside my studio watching a fellow grad student give a drawing class. I was looking for ideas for my own lessons. A professor, who I had met at a couple parties and social gatherings, mistook me for a maintenance man. He walked up to me and told me to fix the air conditioning unit. I ignored him at first, but he tugged on my shirt sleeve and demanded that I do something. I let him know that I was a grad student and that we had met. He didn’t apologize or acknowledge his error, but turned on his heel and continued his search for the missing fix-it man.
As I left campus after being expelled from Recitation Hall, I connected the two moments of being mistaken for a guard and a workman, and decided that I had been sent a message. I clearly wasn’t ever going to be recognized, wanted or appreciated by my alma mater, and there was no point in ever visiting or communicating with anyone associated with the institution ever again.
I have never returned to the campus since and plan to stay the hell out of Delaware until my dying day.