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Perspective

An alum looks back on a humiliating Yale art class—and tells how she finally returned to painting, 35 years later.

Jenny Hansell ’86 is president of the Berkshires Natural Resources Council and a member of the board of directors of Her Future Coalition.



I arrived at college with a very clear identity: I was an artist. I loved theater and dance, but drawing was always my special gift, my happy place, my refuge in moments of social anxiety. Whipping out a sketchbook in a bar is one way to start up a conversation with a guy if you don’t know how to actually talk to a guy in a bar. (Cocktail napkins work, too.)

After the requisite year of basic drawing classes, I started painting my sophomore year. The professor, Robert Reed ’62MFA, was renowned for being a tough but excellent teacher. It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember many specifics from the class (except how much he seemed to dislike my work), but I do remember two things: in the beginning, we were only allowed to use three colors: one blue, one yellow, and one red. He wanted us to deeply learn how they look together and interact with each other before adding more colors to the palette.

And I remember this: one day, all the students put our paintings on the wall for the weekly crit, or critique.  It was a fundamental part of the art program: the public judgment (or to be less judgy about it, analysis, feedback, discussion).

But today, Professor Reed wasn’t talking about the paintings. He was talking about his breakfast. He explained that he had the same breakfast every day—eggs, toast, hash browns—at the Yankee Doodle, the now-departed hole in the wall on Elm Street that was a New Haven legend for many decades.

This particular day, he said, he was poking at his breakfast, but his mind was far away, and it took him a while to notice that part of his hash browns seemed to have legs—and they were wiggling. He leapt from the table and shoved his plate at the waitress, exclaiming “there’s a cockroach in my hash browns!” 

He expected her to apologize profusely and offer him free breakfast for a week. Instead, she scraped the hash browns off the plate, put new ones in their place, and handed it back to him. (Yankee Doodle in the early ’80s—sounds about right.)

Why was he telling us this? Was he warning us away from the Doodle? He walked to the end of the line of paintings and stood in front of the first one.  “Sometimes,” he said, “we don’t see the cockroach when it’s right in front of us.” He pointed to an area of the painting that wasn’t quite working. “See? There’s the cockroach.” Laughter, understanding. A metaphor for how we could be looking right at a problem and not realize it.

He walked down the row, drawing circles in the air around the cockroach in each painting. Mine happened to be last. I think it was one where I was looking out a window at some brick buildings and trying to play with flattening and simplifying the planes of color rather than create depth and space. I quite liked it. When he got to it, he stopped and turned back to the class. “This painting,” he said, “is full of cockroaches! It’s crawling with cockroaches! Here! And here! And look at that nest of cockroaches over there!” The class was roaring with laughter. I was utterly humiliated.

I remember nothing of the rest of the semester. I didn’t take painting again. I tried photography, printmaking, another drawing class. After I graduated, I went to Utrecht Art Supply and bought some oils and an easel, thinking I’d give painting another try. I set up the easel in my living room, realized I had no idea what I wanted to paint, and I put them away. I never touched them again.

I got a job, briefly, as a courtroom sketch artist,  but after that ended (the laws changed and cameras were allowed in courtrooms, so there were no jobs), I pretty much gave up art.

I told the story of the cockroaches for years. It was an admittedly hilarious anecdote. It took on many different meanings for me over the years: how I didn’t have what it takes to stand up to the winnowing process. How mean that professor was. (Ten years later in New York, I ran into another student from the class—a brilliant painter. He also gave up painting after that class and became a sculptor; he had only started painting again recently when we met.) How Yale in the ’80s was a tough place for women. 

I also told myself I wasn’t an artist—if I was, I’d be doing art. I had a mechanical skill. I’d say, “I can draw a picture of a thing that looks like the thing,” but who cares? I didn’t have Ideas. I didn’t have anything to say.

Over the years, I found ways, occasionally, to indulge my artistic, creative nature. I spent ten years in an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan group, and I once got to be in the chorus in a community theater production of Sweeney Todd. I took dance classes. I had a photo blog that took off nicely and led to some local shows in the small Connecticut town where I was living. I took voice lessons for a while, and after our first recital, I went up to the teacher and asked if she had a critique of my performance. She looked at me blankly. “You are a beginner. You are right where you are supposed to be in your development. Why would I critique anything?

That blew my mind.

Professionally, I started working in the arts as well, but I found that the aptitude I had that was in most demand, that I didn’t even realize I had, was administrative. I could craft a budget, write a grant, organize things. So I spent the next 35 years working in nonprofits (still do), raising a family, and doodling portraits in the margins of my notebook.

Two and a half years ago, with the kids out of the house, we moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, where an old friend ran an improv comedy school. My husband and I took a few semesters of classes. Pam often talked about “Calvin,” the critic in our head that told us what we were about to say or do was stupid. Calvin was the voice who convinced us we should just sit down, let someone else do it, that we weren’t good enough.  Getting Calvin to shut up was a big part of what she wanted us to learn. My Calvin felt extra noisy and controlling (sometimes he spoke in the voice of my mother), so it was hard work, but I hurled myself into the sketches and had a great time.

Then I heard about a nearby life drawing group: a local man brought a model to his studio every Friday. No teacher, just a model fee and three hours to draw as you please. After the first session, I was completely hooked, and I have barely missed a week since then.

I started out with just charcoal and pencil. Soon I added some pastels, and before long, I bought a small set of paints (gouache, not oil—that’s too big a commitment). I told myself that it was okay if my paintings sucked; it didn’t matter how good they were. As long as I was enjoying it, I decided, I would keep going and ignore the product—no crit, no judgment, no worries about where this might lead, or whether I was an artist or just a dilettante (a longtime deep-seated fear of mine) or a middle-aged lady with a cute hobby. (The horror!)

And I did enjoy it. I loved it. Those three hours were the happiest of my week. I’ve done hundreds of paintings now, and I can see myself get more confident, stronger, better. I recently signed up for a plein air painting class with a real live teacher, and I have painted a few landscapes—again, with no agenda other than spending a few hours doing something that makes me happy.

A few years ago, my old painting professor died. Reading his obituary in the alumni magazine, and quotes from adoring former students, I felt some of the old regrets—that I didn’t have what it took, that I wasn’t able to learn what he had to teach, that I let him take something away from me.

But today, when I was standing in front of my easel, my brushes arrayed in front of me, looking at a peaceful mountain stream, I squeezed out three colors: cadmium red, yellow ochre, and prussian blue. I’ve learned exactly what they do, how they interact, what they might look like when mixed with white or black or each other.  And when I stood back to look at my progress, I noticed a part near the bottom where the values were off and the perspective was wonky. “Oh,” I said to myself. “There’s the cockroach.”  

9 comments

  • Donald Sosin
    Donald Sosin, 11:15pm January 12 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    What a beautiful essay, Jenny. I really feel for the pain you went through from this teacher, who felt for some reason that he had the power to tear your work and that of others down instead of encouraging you. I have memories like that in both art class (3rd grade, never took art in high school or ever again as a result), and various other demeaning teachers, directors, conductors. It's a gift to be able to learn to overcome the negativity and just follow your path. I'm really happy to hear that you are painting again. Send pix! Be safe. Blessings D

  • Robin Packel
    Robin Packel, 2:51pm January 23 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I love this essay. I grieve that it took you so long to overcome your Yale art-class experience and joy that you were again able to claim art for yourself. I never had any idea that art was my thing, or that I wanted it to be, but a few years ago starting joining my best friend and a few other middle-aged women for a monthly art class in a local artist's dining room. We would (pre-pandemic) sit around a table and drew or painted or whatever was on the artist's agenda that week, seeing the cockroaches in our own work but the beauty in each others'. It was the best hour of my month.

  • Sylvia Brownrigg
    Sylvia Brownrigg, 8:57pm January 23 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Thanks for this candid essay, which so captures a certain sort of attitude common in creative environments at Yale at that time (I'm also '86). As a fiction writer, already keen to write stories when I arrived on campus, I soon found that the competitive, judgmental atmosphere of writing classes was stifling -- and so I shelved my creative writing for most of my time at Yale. I think of that as an act of self preservation: I went on to graduate school and became a novelist, but am relieved I was able to avoid the sort of experience you describe. It's so great to hear of your rediscovery now! (And it's true that it does help to see the cockroaches when they're there—in fiction, too.)

  • ANN LARSON 74
    ANN LARSON 74, 3:45pm January 24 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I'm so glad you found your way back to something you loved. But I find it tragic that, while giving you some knowledge and skill to bring to it, a professor's humiliating tactic robbed you of years of delight. No, it's not your fault that you didn't just bounce back and keep going.There was enough to struggle with in those years -- and enough other options in the buffet of course offerings to fill the gap -- at least for a while.

    At a reunion in the context of some discussion, I asked "Didn't you find that a Yale education taught you to accentuate the negative?" We always seemed to be looking for the hole in somebody's argument, the fault in someone's work. Did that make us feel better about our own or make us part of some club? Or was it just what we saw around us?

    I've heard similar stories in music -- friends who loved to sing but were told by choir teachers in elementary or upper grades just to mouth the words because they "didn't ahve a voice." Yes they did and some learned to enjoy singing later on. Some of our best songwriters are "terrible" singers -- think Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen--but have enriched many of us with their art.

    Coddling incompetence isn't the answer. But squelching efforts without even knowing what the attempt was about is worse!

  • Cai Emmons
    Cai Emmons, 9:08pm January 24 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Having taught fiction writing in an MFA program in which some of my (male) colleagues humiliated the students as you were humiliated and discouraged them from continuing to write--a teaching strategy I always objected to-- I loved this essay. Thank you for your openness. It will certainly, I hope, help others, particularly women, go forth with more confidence.

  • Alexandra Kahn
    Alexandra Kahn, 9:57am January 25 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Yes, he was a meanie. I applied for the art major in the fall of my senior year (1979), and had enough credits, and he was on the review board. He said my work was awful, worthless etc, but the other review members all voted me in, and stipulated that I didnt have to take his class at all, so I escaped having to take more abuse from him.
    I had another teacher there who said that for someone so bad, my stuff still looked amazingly good!!
    Insane.
    I think some of the problem in those years was caused by the prevalence of "formalism" as being all meaningful- although that is a funny sort of contradiction. But art criticism has moved on.
    Anyone who needs to bully and be mean - just should be ignored. Also in those days women couldnt be artists etc so Reed had some of that going on.
    I didnt go on to be an artist as a career, but I still make art.
    I was grateful for Robert Thompson, African Art History professor, who insisted that everyone could draw, sing etc, it was just a matter of training and for society to have the cultural values to encourage and validate it as an activity. Ashe, as he used to say.
    Making art definitely develops executive function-- important for every job.
    Many jerky male professors at Yale in those years in every department. My favorite was always "How does it feel to be a woman at Yale?" as though I was going to always see myself through their eyes only.

  • Jim Henle
    Jim Henle, 9:35am January 27 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I'm not a Yalie or an artist, but I found this essay quite relevant. I'm a retired mathematics professor and I also live in Northampton. The problem of discouraging students is particularly acute in math. Recently I have developed an approach that I believe can be liberating, namely to look at mathematics as an art, not a science, not a subject where answers are either Right or Wrong. This essay suggests that one still must be careful! I am careful. The fact that the "art" I see in mathematics is new means that there is no measure, academic or otherwise, of good and bad. That helps.

  • Anne Margolis
    Anne Margolis , 4:34pm February 03 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I just read your essay & thought it was sad but powerful. It should be recommended if not required reading for anyone who plans to teach, esp. at elite institutions like Yale (see Alexandra Kahn's response, above). As an American Studies grad student at Yale in the early 70's, I had quite different experience. Ever since my
    Jr. High School teacher had given me a "C" in Social Studies (whatever that is!), I was convinced I could not "do" history. But when my Yale graduate advisor, Charles Feidelson, saw I planning to sign up only for American literature classes, he insisted I also take American history courses. He recommended Professor Sydney Ahlstrom's full year grad seminar in American Religious History. After the first few weeks of class, I was so lost & intimidated that I decided I had to drop the course, something I'd never done before. But when I stayed after class to notify Professor Ahlstrom, he managed to persuade me not to give up. He also followed through by meeting with me periodically between classes to talk about the assignments and even shared occasional lunches with me on the grass, during which he would regale me with stories of being a grad student at Harvard while he performed an occasional somersault, thus making it awfully hard to be intimidated! That semester Sydney won the National Book Award for his magisterial Religious History of the American People: The really great professors didn't need to humiliate or bully students to get admiration and respect. p.s. I also live in Northampton now!

  • Ken Goldstein ‘84
    Ken Goldstein ‘84, 10:05pm February 15 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I am quite touched by the candor of your writing here. Perhaps that is an understatement. The honesty and clarity of your recollection brings back similar experiences I had in the Theater Studies program of the same era, where pointed critique was at times stifling and debilitating. The excuse was they were doing us a favor, readying us for rejection in the professional world, and if we couldn’t take it in college, we were well-advised to quit while the quitting was good.

    I’m not sure that was all wrong, but we were after all in a liberal arts curriculum meant to shape us for a life of innovative thinking and adaptation. Like you, I found my muse again many years after college, not at all what I intended. Had I listened at all to the harsh critique of my best intentions, I would not be at all who I am today. In the end, Yale taught me two extremely valuable lessons: when to listen and and heed; and when to ignore and protect. Resilience cannot be learned early and often enough. We are kindred souls in that regard. Thank you for your openness.

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