By Professor Rebecca Mills
When I turned 14, the legal age of working, my mother took me right down to the city hall of New Rochelle to get working papers. Shortly after, she placed me in a program that helps young teenagers prepare, look for, dress for, and interview for jobs. When I completed the program’s training course, I was given a list of places to pursue and hopefully get an internship at. The program pays the trainee for the internship, which is why so many places were available to choose from; those places didn’t have to pay us themselves. I looked through the list of places that were available and had no interest, in the least, in most of them. They had a bunch of positions at the YMCA that was formally in Mount Vernon, it was closed a few years ago, and some others in offices. The only place that seemed of interest was the Pelham Art Center because it had “art” in the name. I was set up with an interview and shortly after meeting with Lisa Robb, the director at the time, I was given an opportunity to be an intern.
Previously before ever having worked in an art related environment I was heavily into reading. I read anything and everything whether it was a comic book, manga, fashion/music magazine, romantic fiction novels, or crime solving mysteries I would read it. Most importantly though, I loved comic books and manga. I loved the illustrations and the dramatic story lines. It catered to my love of cartoons as well. So, when I started to work in an art related environment I felt as though I was being entered into an expansive world beyond what was available on my television or my weekly trips to book stores and comic book shops. The Pelham Art Center offers classes and a public gallery along with free workshops catering to cultural traditions such as Chinese New Year celebrations or my absolute favorite the Diwali Hindu festival of lights. I learned a lot being there. I still am there except now instead of an intern, who then was promoted to work front desk, became a teacher’s assistant, was a camp counselor, gallery help, and whatever else they threw at me, I am currently a teacher.
While attending high school (New Rochelle High School), I was blessed enough to be amongst one of the first year of students that had the privilege of having access to the then new building dedicated to the arts. There are multiple studios for painting, photography, graphic arts, dancing, drama/theater, and music. The teachers are also very supportive of students who wish to pursue any kind of field whether it was in science, mathematics or the arts. I was able to grow as a painter and mixed media artist because of this. At the time, most of my work was heavily focused on gay rights, feminism, and bizarre (bizarre is good) teenage fantasies. Though I am not a homosexual, I had and still do, many friends who are LGBTQ and was the vice president of the Gay-Straight alliance. For senior year of High School I was a part of an independent study program that NRHS offers, W.I.S.E, and dedicated a whole series of paintings questioning why homosexuals weren’t allowed the rights of marriage. Before graduating high school, I was sure of myself as an artist but unsure of what I was going to do to pursue the arts.
My grades weren’t great because I always cut classes to paint. I lived in those studios. When I was home I would sketch, create, paint and collage works of art in my room. It was never an issue of my intelligence because I would read all the books my teachers would assign, write fantastic essays, and engage in conversations with my teachers. My grades suffered only because I was rarely in class, and it is the teacher’s obligation to deduct points for not coming, along with missing in class tests and quizzes. With that said, when it was time to go to college, it was very hard to be able to actually get into one. My portfolio was phenomenal, art schools loved it, but my grades were totally horrible and they couldn’t accept me. I ended up going to WCC for two years which has a fantastic art program. I eventually transferred to CUNY Lehman before receiving my associates degree.
Lehman was a stepping stone in my life because it was completely different from any other kind of environment I have ever been in. I hated it there for the first semester because I was not used to culture in the Bronx and thought everyone was angry all the time. Hear me out, I grew up in Westchester, would hang out in Chelsea with the gays, Brooklyn, L.E.S and Queens with alternative sub-cultures/aspiring conscious rappers/hippies; etc, or anywhere there was an artsy environment. The Bronx was a new setting for me and a new culture that I didn’t understand. People weren’t as open to me coming up to them and starting a conversation as though I have known them my whole life. I also hated my first painting professor. He is your typical macho painting professor that hazes everyone who wants to be an artist. This is something common in art schools and programs. The painting departments are typically white male dominated and they put pressure on their students but more so specifically their female students. They do this to show that painting isn’t just a hobby; it’s a serious discipline and you have to really want to be there. With that said I felt like I was in a nightmare. Up until that point I had never experienced a challenge to my knowledge of self as an artist. I even considered switching my major from painting to design.
At Lehman, students are required to take a course in every discipline including philosophy, science, language, politics and so forth. This is common at most Universities. My second semester, and so on, I was more used to the culture and was experimenting with different kinds of classes and fields and having an amazing time. I grew to really love the place. I took up creative writing as a minor with thanks to a childhood friend who inspired me to get into writing. I grew to understand myself as not only a black person but a black woman and what that means in relation to the world. Lehman caters to the African diaspora and Latinx community, offering a multitude of courses and majors that reflect the community they serve. This changed my focus as an artist as well. I became more interested in feminism and the perspective of a black woman which reflects in my artwork and writings. I also became a stronger painter because of that professor I hated so much. I now appreciate him because I became resilient and didn’t want to let a white man bring me down. Him and I became very close. He even told me he wishes he could adopt me as a daughter. There were other professors who I admire very much and learned a lot from but the experience with him, Professor Carrellas, was the most intense.
These experiences have shaped how I have moved forward as an artist and someone whose life is dedicated to preserving, understanding, teaching, and experiencing art and the different forms of it. To say that I live and breathe art is not only a cliché but an understatement. I’m so deep into this world that I think I would be horribly miserable if I were to take up something else such as being a lawyer, a doctor or those other jobs parents ask that their children consider as a child to guarantee a successful life. I intend to spend the rest of my life pursing a further career as an instructor of the arts, write about art and art history, and be a painter. Though, it is not easy to be represented by a gallery as a painter and have your work showcased internationally, I feel it’s never too late for anyone if they try hard enough and stay dedicated to their dreams. I am not currently represented by a gallery but I haven’t given up yet either.
About the Professor
Rebecca graduated from CUNY Herbert H. Lehman college class of 2015 with a B.A. in Studio Art concentrating in Painting while also minoring in Creative Writing; received a honors chord for graduating as a Dean’s List student. She exhibited as a member of NRCA ( New Rochelle Council of the Arts) for various public installations in downtown New Rochelle. She has curated exhibits, was a featured poet in spoken word events along with having written work published, has written a successful 10-minute play featured in two CUNY theatre festivals and has a passion for painting and working with mixed media from a feminist perspective.