Master Stroke - How Picking Up a Pencil Can Lead To Great Things
Canadian thalidomider, Susan Wagner-White discusses her lifelong love of art, valuing herself and her artwork.
I started drawing as soon as I could pick up a pencil. Of course back then my pictures were pretty crude.
Because of my disability (I was born with two short arms due to thalidomide) it was hard for me to draw or write like any other kid. It took quite a few months for the school to get my desk set up the way I needed it to be. Eventually they got it right. And I was able to do the work that I needed to do to get through school, to be able to take tests, draw and write.
In school my favourite class was art, of course. I think the teachers recognised that I had some artistic talent even back then as far back as grade two.
One of my earliest memories was back in high school - we had this crazy art teacher, Mr. Barwick, he was the weirdest guy in the world but he knew I could draw. He would encourage me to do some things that I wasn't comfortable doing. He really pushed me. I think that's where things really started to pick up.
I have some artwork from grade school and some high school stuff but I gave most of my stuff away which was really an unfortunate thing to do.
I did a series of pictures for someone back when I was about 13 or 14. I was doing rehab at the Crippled Children Center in Toronto. This woman was in charge of the entertainment for us kids.
I have contacted her to ask if I can get them copied - I would really love to see what I did. I know it sounds funny, but I don't remember what I did for her! But I know that she had them framed and put in her bedroom and she would troop people through her bedroom and tell them that the girl that drew this had no arms. Even though she worked in the disabled community, she was very impressed with my work.
I really don't know why, but I found that I didn't really believe that I was good. I really didn't believe it. Even though people would say, "you are so good", I still didn't get it.
I went through a dry period, maybe 15 or 20 years, where I didn't really draw very much, I think it had to do with my living situation. I lived with someone who was an abusive personality. And I didn't really feel worthy of doing anything.
I should rephrase that - she made me feel like I wasn't worthy. On the outside it looked like she was encouraging me, she would tell people that she had set up an art room for me in the basement. But on the inside she really didn't encourage me, she actually discouraged me. She would tell me I was no good and that translated to my art. So, I really didn't do anything.
Luckily I got myself out of that situation. It took a long time to get my self-esteem back.
Fast forward to now. I'm in a good situation, I'm happy, and I have started to draw again! So many people started to tell me, 'hey! You should sell your stuff!'
When they said that, I would laugh. I didn't really take it seriously I didn't think anyone would ever pay money for anything I drew. I finished a hummingbird, it took probably 25 hours to draw. And then came the time to ask how much is it worth? I had no idea how much to charge for it. I was afraid if I asked too much for it people would just be turned off. And I was also afraid of asking too little and devaluing my own work.
A woman in California asked me how much I was charging for the hummingbird, so I basically plucked a number from my head. I asked $185 CDN. She replied with a 'sold!'. She said it so quickly I realised I probably could've asked more then she would've bought it, but it was already out there.
Since this was my first sale, I wasn't really sure how to go about packaging it up and sending it off to California. So I went to the UPS store and had the woman package it up - it ended up costing me $95! That was a good lesson learned: do not ever send another picture framed.
So then I was working on another hummingbird - I titled it 'hummingbird at rest'. It sold before it was completely finished! This time I asked for $220, I knew I was taking a bit of a risk, but they could still say no. But when they paid for it they sent $250. I asked if that was a mistake and they said that I had undervalued my work and that's what they thought it was worth. I was a little bit surprised to say the least. But happy, as well and proud of myself.
I have to add here, I can only work for about an hour at a time because of my neck and shoulder pain. I have had chronic pain for the past eight to ten years and I deal with it the best I can: I take pain meds, and also needles to my shoulders and neck.
At first I thought that when people wanted to buy my artwork that they were doing it out of pity, you know? The 'poor crippled girl, look at the pictures she's drawing'. But my wife told me to get that thought right out of my head. That people love my work on its own merit, it has absolutely nothing to do with my disability. But yet they admire my work because of my disability.
So I have about four people that want pictures. I'm thrilled to bits, it's the first time in my life that I have ever made any money that is not from my annuity because of my disability. To be able to say that I made almost $450 in one month because of my artwork, it's just an amazing feeling. For the first time, I can contribute to our household.
I really don't know where this is going to lead, who knows, maybe someday I'll be famous! I doubt that, but it's nice to be able to dream about something like that.
You can see more of Susan's art on her Facebook page
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