When you talk as much as I do, you’re bound to blurt something out that surprises even yourself. This happened a little after Christmas, when I was having drinks with a friend and we were talking about our relationships with our parents.
I suddenly heard myself saying, “But with my dad, well I guess he figured I’d be married and someone else’s problem by now… and so did I.” My friend looked at me for a second as my brain caught up with my mouth, and I realized the gravity of what I’d just said.
(For the record, neither of my parents treat me like a “problem” – I meant that my father worries a lot about how I’m going to support myself, as do I.)
My whole life, I’ve been encouraged to dream. My brother and I made an agreement when we were very young that we were going to do whatever we wanted in life, our logic being that someone gets to live our dreams, so it may as well be us. This attitude has been both tremendously liberating and horribly impractical, since I rarely consider the monetary ramifications of decisions I make. I sort of just do what I want and try to figure out how to pay for it afterwards.
As I thought about where I’d be at 28, I admittedly always figured there would be some guy in the picture, making decisions with me. This wasn’t always in some starry-eyed far-off capacity – for three years from the time I was 23, I was living with my ex-boyfriend and very seriously believed we were building a life together.
I was kind of dazed when that didn’t work out (in case you didn’t notice), and I moved into my parents’ house, trying to figure some things out while finishing my degrees. This has involved a ridiculously long, expensive and stressful commute (minimally 3 hours by car, 6 hours by train), which bookends most days with untold exhaustion and frustration. I really genuinely love the job I work, and I’m planning to pursue another degree or two to be able to do this all the time (I’ll get to that in a moment), since I finally found the field that combines my interests, education, and talents. Having this carrot is just about the only thing that keeps me motivated to keep traveling to Brooklyn, to finish my theses, and to move on with my life.
Another thing I blurted out recently was that I’ve never been able to fully support myself with any of the jobs I’ve ever worked. Really, not even close.
The summer after I graduated from undergrad, I was working a job that was split between Brooklyn and New Jersey (oddly prescient, now that I think of it). It was an accounts receivable position for a luxury clothing store that also included facets of purchase ordering, receiving, database maintenance, tracking down inventory problems, personal shopping, cashiering, and so forth. I worked it for more than a year, and I didn’t hate it as much as I probably should have – the job itself was fine, and most of the people were great – but it was a serious effort to force myself to show up. Over time, this became more and more ridiculous, and as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I understood that the main cause of my dissatisfaction was money. I did the math and determined that if I worked every single hour possible, every day the store was open, and as much overtime as I could arrange, I was still hundreds of dollars short of my monthly expenses and would never, ever be able to support myself with that job alone. When I was offered assistant buyer and management responsibilities with no additional pay, I realized it was time to go.
My biggest nightmare (and probably a large part of why I continue to live on student loans and procrastinate finishing my degrees) is graduating with two master’s degrees and having either no job possibilities, or only those of the same caliber as when I graduated with my first follow-your-dreams degree in painting (which is to say positions that would like you to have a master’s degree, five years of experience and want to pay you less than a barrista at Starbucks, before tips).
I hate myself, often, for feeling this way, but right now the main thing I care about is being able to pay for my own apartment, to adequately cover my expenses and support myself like an adult. And that issooooo far away from right now.
The plan I make can’t just float me for a while at my parents’ house, nor get me set up with a bunch of roommates scrapping together while I peter out my twenties and loll around in my thirties. I need a serious career path, the likes of which will carry me through the next couple steps and into paying off my student loan debt, buying my own car and house (or whatever), and being able to support myself the rest of my life alone if necessary, since I really can’t bank on meeting another person and making a marriage work. Or if I do, it’ll be nice to not have to struggle all the time and spend half of our relationship fighting about money.
My plan is a kind of ridiculous and irresponsible one, but it’s the best one I’ve got after an immense amount of thought. I’m going to pursue another set of degrees, in chemistry, at schools in the NY area so that I can live in the city. This is not just a degree out of nowhere: it’s the third necessary facet of a career in art conservation science, but it feels like such a huge undertaking to add a new field to what I’m already doing.
Most of the art conservators (and related people) whom I’ve encountered have come into the field through one of a handful of schools (there are currently only 5 degree-granting programs in the US) and very, very few have more than 4 semesters of chemistry (Inorganic I and II and Organic I and II). With this relatively limited education in chemistry, these are the people making decisions about conservation treatments and preservation issues. I’ve attended a handful of conferences and talks since I started my current job, and I quickly realized that I don’t want to go into art conservation – I want to go into art conservation science.
I think that when most people think of art conservation, their immediate connotations are of Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters II, wearing those weird little magnifying glasses and cleaning paintings. That’s about as far from what I’d like to do as that old accounts receivable position was from being a fashion designer.
What I do at my job, and what I would like to do in my career, is use nondestructive spectroscopy and analytical chemistry methods to study artist’s materials and techniques and degradation processes of art. Material and technical analysis of art is invaluable for art historians and conservators (my thesis advisor and I are constantly talking about needing more specific information about art than connoisseurship and traditional art history research and documentation can provide), and using nondestructive methods allows for precious, fragile works of art to remain intact, while also giving insight into conservation issues that aren’t readily apparent by customary observation. I find that in my encounters with painters, very few really understand their materials outside of a trial and error approach (which is a lovely aspect of studio experimentation, but leads to a lot of reinventing the wheel). As artists move further and further away from making their own paints or materials, the conservation issues multiply like crazy. By contrast, the greatest artists, I’ve found, had an intimate understanding of their materials. Lastly, while using forensics science to analyze art (and here, I mean forensics chemistry, not criminal forensics like CSI), you learn what the spectroscopy techniques are capable of, contributing to the fields of analytical and organic chemistry alike.
I realize that, like any field, this stuff is mostly only interesting to people in it, and when I start talking about our research and what I do for work, many people glaze over until they hear words like “Italy” and “Pompeii.” For me,
it really is the perfect marriage of art and science, and to be able to do it, I need to get myself as familiar with chemistry as I am with painting and art history. Actually, much moreso, since it’s going to be the majority of what I do.
In the back of my mind, as I face the daunting prospect of a second bachelor’s (and eventually, PhD) in chemistry, is the answer to the nagging thought that started this diatribe: with degrees in hard science, I can finally work real jobs.
And since I am being honest from now on (man what a pain that is, already), I think even if I don’t have anything to do with art conservation research except as a hobby or on vacations, I could be happy working in plain old chemistry. There isn’t that much difference between studying the proteins of paint binders and parchment versus the proteins of medicine or industry. The list of things I’d like to do in chemistry in seemingly endless, and the lab is the first place I’ve felt as at home as in my studio… but people will pay me to work in a lab.
I used to say that I’d be happy as long as I was doing something I loved, but I have to face reality now and amend that statement. I will be happy as long as I can support myself, for real, by doing something I love.