Whenever she saw me drawing, my mother would tell me to stop. ‘You’ll be nothing but a poor artist,’ she’d say.
Her life was very hard. She worked in a sweatshop, so she wanted me to get a ‘real job’ when I grew up.
But art was the only thing I was good at. I was failing all my classes. I couldn’t speak English well. But I’d paint these little watercolors, and it was enough to make my teachers say: ‘Wow.’
When I was fifteen a program came to our school. They were recruiting kids to paint a mural in the courtyard. Ten of us were chosen.
The instructor was a man named Arlan Huang. He was a real, working artist. He’d gone to art school. But most importantly he was the first artist I’d ever met who looked like me.
My father was not around. So I think I needed someone to latch onto. Arlan brought us to his studio in SoHo, and it was like: ‘Wow! You can do this for a living.’
He taught us about visual storytelling. He taught us how to use symbolism. He taught us to reach down deep, and express a feeling. We were just kids, so these were complicated concepts.
The theme of our mural was: ‘Tell your story.’ At the time I lived in the housing projects. So I painted a giant extended hand, with my building coming out of it. It was like: ‘Look at how we live.’
When I finished Arlan told me: ‘This is good. You are good.’ And oh my God. That encouragement carried me through so much. Even when my mother called me a ‘poor artist,’ I kept practicing.
I found other teachers who believed in me. And eventually I earned a scholarship to the School of Visual Arts. When the envelope arrived at our house, my mother started crying. Not because she was happy. Because she knew she couldn’t stop me anymore.
Even after I got my degree, she couldn’t see the value. She stole that moment from me. She begged me to apply for a job at the post office. It was Arlan that congratulated me.
It was Arlan who attended my graduation. Looking back on my entire journey, there is not a moment when I don’t see him.
We’re great friends now. And fifteen years ago, when the US Postal Service selected me to paint a series of stamps for the Lunar New Year, it was Arlan that I showed my first draft.
You can find more of Kam Mak’s work, including his Lunar New Year series, on his Instagram @kammakart.
Here are some comments regarding the author’s story:
“I feel for both of them…mom was exhausted from the sweatshops and hoped for a little respite and some income stability in less harsh environments for her son and son needed a more emotionally present mom. I don’t understand how people on here could both say she was selfish but not acknowledge the arduous work she did to provide for her kid. If you are angry at anyone you should be angry at our immigration and employment systems that create these conditions that these two human beings have to navigate.” – Sharmaine Daniels
“We need to be reminded of the power of encouragement; everything from a hands-on mentorship to sometimes just a very few words from a teacher, a relative or friend saying “you can do this”. Butterfly wings that create a tsunami.” – Erin Quinn Purcell
“Powerful. The power of consistence. You made us see the Arlans of our lives. And for mama, she just wanted the best for you. And you have achieved the best- what mama wanted. You achieved what mama wanted although the best came from the other side of how she wanted it to come. Lovely tribute to your mentor and inspiration.” – Mutebe Henry
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