“The only time you should ever look back is to see how far you’ve come.”
I just read in the newspaper that a man I knew died a few days ago. I didn’t know him well but what I did know, I liked. He seemed like a sound guy. He was a very active, outdoorsy kind of guy, a hill walker, climber and talented wildlife photographer. He was climbing up north in the Cairngorms in Scotland on Friday, slipped and fell and it was all over. He died doing what he loved most, which is a very important lesson. Always do what you love because you just never know when the curtains are going to come down. It also reinforces how important it is to tell the people you’re closest to just how much they mean to you, regularly.
When I was asked to submit an article to ‘Life as a Human’ I really didn’t know what to write but after reading about this tragic death, I immediately knew I needed to say something about how important it is to follow your dreams.
Experiences like this very quickly put life into perspective and it’s helped me to organise my words here. I thought it important to talk about the journey I’ve taken to get to where I am now, an artist and the Director of the wonderful charity Art in Healthcare. I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing, to be following my dream; but it hasn’t been easy.
I’d never planned on being an artist. Well, that’s not completely true. Becoming an artist was a definite career path I’d been thinking quite deeply about… when I was about seven years old. That year I’d also decided I wanted to be an astronaut, a lion tamer and a millionaire. However, after graduating from high school in a tiny, logging community in Western Canada, I’d left my dream of being an artist (and an astronaut, a lion tamer and a millionaire) far behind and I took a more realistic approach to life and work and to make an income that could actually pay the rent. As a young man I took on various jobs, as one does in a small, working class community; including grocery store shelf stocker, bread maker, photo developer, forklift operator, window cleaner, waiter… you get the idea.
Although I loved the wee town I grew up in I realized the world was a big place and I needed to go see some of it. I strapped on a backpack at the age of 26 to go travelling, always expecting to come back home. However, the years rolled on and I worked in restaurants in different countries to fund my travel addiction. Although I enjoyed the lifestyle and the social aspects, I knew this wasn’t what I’d be doing all my life. The problem was, even though I was 31 at this point, I just didn’t know what I wanted to be when I eventually “grew up”. They say everything happens for a reason and although I’m not entirely convinced, it can also be quite difficult to argue with this statement.
The year of my thirty first birthday wasn’t a good one for me. I was living in Scotland and without going into all the boring details, a lot of bad things happened, many I’d brought on myself, and I ended up in a really dark place; jobless, recently single, depressed, broken and absolutely no hope for the future.
Whilst in the middle of this deep depression, for some inexplicable reason and one that I still don’t entirely understand to this day, I decided that I needed to become “an artist”. It made no sense to me why I chose this path, a dream I had when I was seven years old; and it confused the people closest to me even more.
“Art school, Trevor? Are you serious? Why? I didn’t even know you could draw!”
Nevertheless, I was compelled. I guess I didn’t know what else to do. For some reason I had this belief that being “an artist”, whatever that meant, would answer all the big questions I had spinning around relentlessly in my head as I desperately treaded water.
I somehow managed to enrol into a small art school foundation year. I have no idea why they let me in. I had no portfolio or artwork to show them. Actually, that’s not entirely true. It was late July when I knocked on the art school door and I was met by one of the tutors. I explained my situation, that I wanted to become an artist and that I really needed to go to this school. It must have been the sheer desperation on my face because the tutor handed me an empty sketch book and told me I had three weeks to fill it before they made their final selection of students. I came back three weeks later with a sketchbook full of a lot of bad drawing from what I recall; trees, rocks, boats in the harbour, my hand, whatever I could find that wouldn’t move and all most likely stained with tears. I was in complete disbelief when they accepted me. I assumed it must have been a very weak year for quality of students… nevertheless, I was in and that’s all that mattered. I was following my dream.
It was a difficult year, I’ll be honest. The depression still had a strong hold of me but I struggled through and even managed to submit a portfolio to Edinburgh College of Art. Again, I was completely surprised when I was accepted into the College. I’d assumed they saw a whole lot of easy money thinking, “Here’s a Canadian resident enrolling as an overseas student for a five year degree. Cha-ching!” Fortunately, I’d been living and working in Scotland for three years and as a resident I was entitled to free tuition – thank you Scotland! The College must have been terribly disappointed but by then I’d already had my acceptance letter in hand.
So there I was, 33, working part-time in a restaurant to pay the bills and embarking on a five year art degree. It wasn’t exactly the soundest financial decision but at the same time I felt I had no other choice and so I worked hard. I continued working at the restaurant two shifts a week and also every Saturday at the art school as a technician to pay the bills. Over the years the depression eventually began to lift but then the reality of graduating with nothing but an art degree at 38 began to set in and there was another little uphill battle with “The Fear”. However, I guess at this point I felt I was on the right track; I was doing something that was important to me and for my emotional wellbeing and I just needed to have faith that it would somehow work out.
A few months before graduation I quit my job at the restaurant. Again, not the soundest financial decision as I didn’t have another job lined up but I figured I couldn’t have a crutch if I was going to make a real go of being an artist. I’d already invested six years of my life into this dream and it was a little too late to get cold feet. It was a leap of faith but somehow it worked out. About three weeks after I quit my job and a month before graduation one of my university professors forwarded an email to me from a small charity called Art in Healthcare looking for an Assistant Director. I read over the job description and even though I believed I was completely under-qualified for it I thought, “This was made for me!” Everything I could ever have possibly dreamed was right there. Six years previous I was drawn to art to help heal me, to find strength and direction and now I was applying for a job for an organization that encapsulated all of this. Here was a charity that employed the use of art and creativity to facilitate healing for those in need. And once again, I was in complete shock when I received the phone call – I landed the job and I couldn’t believe it.
The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been working for Art in Healthcare since the summer of 2008 and I took on the role of Executive Director two years ago. It’s not been easy managing a small charity through the biggest economic downturn in 80 years; but I wouldn’t change a thing. I absolutely love what I do and so now, when those inevitable tough times rear up and the fear tries to take hold again, all I need to do is look back to when I was in the depths of my depression. I think that, no matter the difficulties at the time, the setbacks and constant fear of failure, how following my dream brought me to the present. And here I am today, able to feel real joy and happiness and to experience a sense of satisfaction – all the things I was unable to feel when I first began this journey.
So I’ll end with saying, “Take chances and follow your dreams.” It’s not easy but if you do, you will always have something to hold close to you, something that no one can take away from you, and something that will ease you through the tough times.
I dedicate this to Donald Tiso, a man who followed his heart and his dreams.
All Photographs © John Need
Trevor Jones Guest Artist Bio
Originally from Canada, I set out in 1996 with a backpack and an appetite for adventure. Three years and four continents later I found myself in Scotland, fell in love with it, and decided to stay.
I graduated from Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art with an MA (Hons) Fine Art with distinction in Drawing and Painting and I now organize my time between painting and running the non-for-profit organization Art in Healthcare.
Blog / Website: Trevor Jones Art