After Graduation: The journey of an artist after art school – Part I

Carolina Lake by Cortney North

The graduation party was full of joy and celebration, family and friends. In all but timing the event was very similar to other graduation parties. But Mel’s party, which was hosted on the back porch of her parent’s Carolina lakefront home, was being enjoyed a full three weeks after her actual college graduation day. The delay was due to her grandmother, the bohemian Granny Ann, who had gifted Mel and herself with a two-week surprise trip to Paris. In Granny Ann’s impromptu fashion, the trip was announced hours after her ‘Bachelors of Arts in Art Education’ diploma was handed out. The plane tickets had been booked for two days after that. While others may have minded the sudden change of plans, Mel didn’t blink an eye because she and her grandmother were cut from the same spontaneous mold.

Parts of the overseas trip had been lovely and were being discussed over vanilla on vanilla graduation cake. After taking a bite of the plain cake, and wishing instead for the pastries she left behind in France, Mel looked around at the beaming faces. The only non-relatives in attendance were two friends from Mel’s summer job at a local bookstore, who were coincidentally leaving at that very moment. Waving their hands in the air, the two friends signaled their departure from the affair. She waved back, a gesture which was hidden behind the hill of her Great Aunt’s gray, frizzled hair. Mel mouthed ‘thank you’ just as their backs began to turn.

With each passing hour, the celebratory event felt less like a graduation party and more like a family reunion. Everyone had settled into the oversized deck chairs to watch the sunset over the lake. Wine glasses had appeared after the leftover burgers were retired to the refrigerator. A fire was burning in the chiminea. The school-colored balloons had had enough and were expressing their fatigue by hanging at three quarter-mast. Once the party had moved inside and was fully immersed in the narratives of second cousins reliving farmyard antics, Mel said goodnight and quietly retreated to her upstairs bedroom.

Her memories of the Parisian vacation – not the lovely ones she had shared for the past four hours – recounted themselves with each ascended stair step. Drake, who she had dated for three and a half years, took up all the negative memories. They should not have talked while she was over there. She should have taken her grandmother’s advice on this, but she didn’t. The number of times Drake asked about her adventures in Paris was zero. The number of hours he talked about his brokerage internship was too many, though she knew she lost patience with him at hour seven. Somewhere into hour eight of his thrilling job that involved nothing more than calling potential clients, she gulped a generous amount of Cabernet, found her confidence, and did the unthinkable: She blurted out that they were done. Through. Ended.

She wouldn’t recommend this particular approach to a friend, but in her situation the wine was needed to find words that had been lost for the past three years. After the stunned silence, insistent rebuttal, solemn goodbye, and many quiet, contemplative days, the pain of the breakup eased. It was only then that she realized the terrible deed she had committed. Not the breakup itself, but rather that she had broken up with someone in the city of love. What omen could that possibly speak over her love life? If the Trevi fountain in Rome could bring someone back, then could killing a relationship in Paris cause you to never love again?

This thought kept her up for two nights. Hopefully Paris was a forgiving soul. Granny Ann assured her it was.

Mel opened the freshly painted door to her room, kicked her shoes towards the half-ajar closet door and slumped on her bed. Her weight fell fully into its cushion. Her russet hair flew in all directions reflecting the loose freedom she now had. One simple two week trip and she was free in almost every way she could imagine.

It was a terrifying freedom. What was she going to do now with a world of possibilities available?

College was behind her, job searching was ahead and a life-shaping summer was lapping at her toes. A sigh emerged from her lips just as her relatives burst into laughter downstairs. Certainly others had survived such a transition before. There was a house full of stories being tossed around like lofted graduation caps: stories of triumph, hard work, failure then redemption. Someday her story would be added to the mix. For now, though, she was in the midst of the ‘I’m feeling lost’ stage due to her decision to not pursue art education as a career. It was a sound decision, and not one made hastily, but it was frustrating, discouraging, and left her scratching her head with the question, “What should I do?”

The more she lay in bed analyzing the shapes of the popcorn ceiling hoping and willing them to assemble themselves into the form of her future, her eyes expressed their fatigue. Somewhere in between considering selling chocolate-covered bananas on a street in Key West or, somewhat more logically, selling art on a street in Key West, her eyes fell. Before the last of her consciousness left her, she asked her dreams to reveal the correct path. That night, she dreamed of selling her art in a cornfield full of ravenous red-winged blackbirds. They were screeching for more seed even though it was easily picked from the cornstalks. “You’re going to have to do the work yourself; it’s right there,” her voice cried out above the shrieks. Then the dream ended.


The next morning, Mel awoke to a chime. Was it her phone? Groggily, she reached her hands up and let out a defiant yawn. She pulled herself to the side of the bed and rubbed her eyes. The chime voiced again. It was her phone, there was no doubt about that, but where had she placed it? It echoed once more across the room, giving no hint at its location. Sunshine poured through the open window. Birds called outside. The red-winged blackbirds trilled in delight of the new day.

The phone remained silent as she searched through the desk stacked with the lethargic attempts at senior year essay writing. Empty handed, she searched under her bed, which was exactly where it had fallen. It chimed again just as her fingers wrapped around the thin metallic sheath. The battery icon was blinking condescendingly. It needed to charge. Walking back to her desk and moving a stack of Educational Psychology notes to the floor, she situated her phone to absorb its power, watching as the angry red battery shifted to a less threatening yellow.

The computer that had been her personal assistant through college was now taking its own form of a vacation on her desk. That ended quickly. She had opted for having a minimal technology version of Paris, which meant, as she wiped her eyes for the second time that morning, she had nearly one hundred and fifty pieces of email to sort through. Most were easy – stores announcing now out-of-date sales – but there was one that pulled her eyes like a magnet.

A fellow classmate, Henry Garret, had sent her a message. The subject line read: Photos from graduation. She recalled the request, her request on the sunny graduation day, to have him send the photos over. They had been standing on the forty yard line talking about their futures when his parents walked up. Once his parent’s feet hit the thirty eight yard line, a camera had already been dispatched from his mother’s white and gray stylish purse. Another yard closer and a candid snapshot, as well as one reluctantly posed snapshot, was taken. She also remembered Henry’s cap pressing down the deep umber strands of his hair, the tanned skin of a person training for a sporting event that he was never to compete in again. They exchanged pleasantries, hugged a friend’s embrace, which she remembered more than she should have considering she had a very serious boyfriend at the time. After disengaging, she had made her request of the photographs and that was that. Drake had approached not long after; Henry left with his parents in a different direction. It occurred to her now how uncommonly handsome Henry was, albeit a nerdy, comic book-loving handsome, but handsome all the same. It begged the question, why over the past four years had she never noticed?

Hey Mel,

Hope you enjoyed your trip. Here are the photos you asked for. I was asked to fly out for a job interview next Tuesday in Colorado. It’s a little website start-up, but the owner graduated from Whiting and contacted Chris (their Art Department Chair) for people to hire. Hopefully it works out because, if not, I’m working a summer job at my dad’s landscaping company. Good luck with finding a teaching job.

Keep in touch,

The attachments were already loaded onto her computer. She opened the candid photograph. The moment looked even better through the lens. His eyes were glued to hers as her head craned back in to a hearty laugh; both were completely enraptured in the moment. Her hand was gently reached out towards his wrist; a flirtatious sign. His free hand was reaching towards her arm affectionately. They both were partaking in the moment. She wondered if his parents could see the chemistry. She stared at the photo a second longer, while considering her declaration to Granny Ann in Paris: “I’m done with men! I just want to be on my own.” It was a declaration made over a mostly empty bottle of wine.

She immediately clicked reply and decided to include a few photos of Paris: one of her standing in front of the Eiffel tower, another in front of the Louvre and the final one was a plate of something very delicious, very French and very unpronounceable to her.

Hi Henry!

Great to hear from you! Thank you for remembering the photos. They look great!

Paris was excellent! The museums are wonderful – shocking news, I know. I’ve included a few pictures from my trip. If you ever get the chance, you should go!

Not sure anyone knows yet, but Drake and I broke up while I was over there. So there’s that.

I hope the job interview went well. Let me know! As for me teaching, I’m thinking of going a different direction, though I’m not sure what. Does your dad need a landscape assistant? Just kidding! I think.

Take care,

Re-reading the message, she promptly deleted all but two of the exclamation points and clicked send. Perhaps Granny Ann was right, Paris had a forgiving soul.

© 2014 Cortney North. All Rights Reserved.

To read the next part of Mel’s story, here is the link: Part II




  1. This was lovely! I’m going to subscribe so I can read the rest! Lovely paintings! Do you sell any of the actual paintings rather than just the prints?

  2. Thank you so much, Madaline! This story has been a lot of fun to write and I’m delighted you enjoy it. I do sell original paintings, but I do not have any available at this time. There are a few in the works and when they are finished, I will make them available for sale!