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Art Saved My Life: A Story of Being Scared and Doing It Anyway

Last year, Andrew Cronin from the Hermitage Museum and Gardens, contacted me and asked me to participate in their summer program Stories on Stage. Along with a select group of other artists – notably spoken-word poets, a comedian, and other talented public speakers and performers – we were to perform however we chose on the subject, “Art Saved My Life.” My initial reaction was to close the ema

A portrait of a woman in black with a yarn ball for a head.
Yarn Head, From the Fiber Friends series, by Kristin Skees and Ryan Lytle

il and pretend I never read it.

Over the last decade of teaching and giving artist talks, I have become comfortable speaking in front of people. But something about a microphone and the context of being on stage stage before and after creative professionals who have done this a lot more than me, really freaked me out.

Time to get uncomfortable

Friends, let me tell you, when you are faced with something that scares the bejeesuz out of you, it’s a good time to sit back and contemplate if it’s a good fear, or a bad fear. Is it a time to push your own boundaries and comfort level? Can you learn and grow from this experience? I read the email the next day. And the next. And then, I replied.

I said, “Yes!”

Ok, maybe not with the exclamation point, but I did try to hype myself up. And I committed myself before I could change my mind. And in the weeks leading up to the night, I went through a roller coaster of emotions over it. Even my deep thinking on the topic at hand pulled up a lot of feelings I had forgotten and probably had not processed. My boyfriend was planning on going with me, but ended up being sick that night, so I went by myself. I’m not going to lie, the support of a familiar face in the audience would have calmed my nerves, but I didn’t let that stop me from doing the thing.

I did go easy on myself and allowed myself to read from my phone, but in the end, I received so much warm and positive feedback. The topic helped me reflect on my path as an artist, and being a little vulnerable and open about my ADHD really resonated with some people in the audience and the connections and conversations that resulted made the entire experience worthwhile.

I am so thankful for that opportunity, and for Andrew for reaching out to me and asking. I’m sharing my piece that I read that night below. Maybe you can relate to the meandering path of art that I have been on, but even if not, I hope it inspires you to just do the thing. Whatever it is that scares you or makes you uncomfortable. That’s the thing that is worth your effort and time. It will push you to grow, and that is what life is all about.

It’s always worth it.

How Art Saved My Life

Hello, I am Kristin Skees. I am an artist, I teach photography at Christopher Newport University, and I cozy people. But I’m also just a boring mom who really likes gardening and reading romance novels. I’m multifaceted! Thank you for inviting me here to share my art story.

I don’t think that my story is entirely unique. Like any classic tale, it begins with an adorable misfit child born of a nomadic family. As a child, I spent a lot of time by myself, “crafting.” Once I was old enough to be trusted with needles I could be found cross stitching or embroidering for hours on end. In elementary school, I got in trouble in class regularly because I would rush through all my work so that I could get back to what was important: friendship bracelet production. In middle school my mom would drop me off at the library and I would sit cross-legged in the photography stacks pouring over Richard Avedon’s fashion photographs and Linda McCartney’s photography book, Sixties.

But if there was an adult in my life who recognized this creative impulse in me, they never bothered to nurture it. Instead, I was labeled as gifted, landed in a rigorous but wonderful college prep high school, and my parents started to lobby hard for me to go to dental school or medical school. This was a big deal to my Lower Middle Class Alabama family – there was potential in me and an expectation to live up to it.

So, you can imagine the burden of disappointment I carried when my high school friends were off to Harvard and Johns Hopkins and Stanford. And all I managed to do was change universities twice and my major 5 times in the span of 3 semesters, losing one of my scholarships in the process.

What was wrong with me? Why did nothing seem right, even when I was trying so hard to do everything right? I was frustrated with myself. It felt like my future was just beyond my reach, at the tip of my fingertips. If I could only figure out what I was grasping for.

And then somewhere between my Business major and my Spanish major, I wandered into the Art Department. And then, somewhere between the Conceptual Art History class and the Darkroom Photography class, I realized that … I could do THIS.

I could be an Artist.

This was NOT at all on my parent’s list of suggested careers. In fact, I don’t know that I even realized art was a thing you could learn in school. I just thought a person was just magically born an artist.

And yet, for the first time in my life, something felt like it clicked into place. As if a carpet had been rolled out before me that said “Welcome, Kristin. We have been waiting for you. Here’s your angle grinder.”

I changed my major to Sculpture, primarily because in sculpture I could make art out of ANYTHING and they were totally cool with it. I learned how to cast iron… and bronze… and porcelain. I lathed things, I welded things, I molded things, I threw things (ceramic pots, specifically). I made work out of fiberglass, and concrete, and lima beans. I sewed and quilted and crocheted. I created site-specific installations, video installations, sound installations, and performances. It was the first time in my life I felt I had permission to follow wherever my mind led me. To deviate from a prescribed path.

And permission to be myself.

As it turns out, my Self was a person with undiagnosed ADHD. And Art was the perfect place for me. All those different materials and processes I learned fed my ADHD-need for new experiences. I could hyperfocus on a project – much like I did with friendship bracelets and cross stitch as a kid – but now it was my JOB to that. Amazing.

My weird neurodivergent self ran wild. And it still does. My accountant doesn’t even bat an eye anymore when I hand her Ebay receipts for taxidermy and vintage handkerchiefs.

Art gave me permission to be who I was all along. Until then it was like the cliché “fitting the square peg in a round hole” situation. But Art didn’t care if I was a square peg, or a rhombus, or a blobulous melting Dalí clock. I just was able to be my weird self. And Art molded around me.

I finally became the creator of my own life.

And yes, I still fell flat on my ass many times and took some dead end roads. Like that time I drove from Alabama to Texas to buy a 2000 lb letterpress that sat mostly unused for 3 years until I admitted to myself that I had lost interest in that project. Or that miserable summer in Cape Cod that I spent combing sheep shit out of fleece because I wanted to learn how to spin my own yarn. And those 6 months I was really into fountain pens.

And despite what *they* think of us, we all know that being an artist isn’t easy. It takes hustle, and a certain amount of stubborn commitment. Mostly it takes the courage to try and the grace to fail and try again.

Because you can always sell those fountain pens on Ebay.

Above all, Art is not a passive way of life. You have to make decisions and creative problem solve and stand behind your work and defend your work. You have to have intentionality and thoughtful consideration to engage meaningfully in the world around you. Being an artist and being part of the art community has made me more confident in myself, given me the ability to accept and use criticism, and become more resilient to setbacks, and more open to new experiences, like this one.

Art challenges me to be better. Not just in the art I make, but in life. It challenges me to be a better mom, a better teacher, and a better partner. And I’m not trying to oversell it here – because also, shout-out to my therapist and my ADHD medications. But looking around at this life I’ve created, I feel really lucky and proud. It’s not perfect, but it’s authentic. And looking back at how I got here, I know it has a lot to do with Art.

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