J. M. DeSantis

Fire at Pratt Institute

I know that I had written in my last post that the next few updates on this site were going to be short and quick (in light of me needing to work more on the new Chadhiyana project), however, I felt the recent fire on the campus of my Alma Mater warranted something of a response. And, just to warn you, it’s going to be a somewhat longer post than usual.

To be honest, though I have a certain affection for Pratt Institute, as it was my college for four years (and for that I’ve always begrudged it the “Institute” bit, as those unfamiliar assume I went to a trade school), my memories of going there are mixed, and greatly fall on the side of unfavourable. Though I don’t think my experience there was unique, I did not like the college experience, in general.

There were constant issues every time I got involved with Registrar, the Bursar’s Office or, especially, the home office of my chosen major (thankfully I had a good academic advisor who seemed to take to me and so registering for my general classes was always stress free). Many of the professors had a blatantly condescending and belittling attitude (I guess they thought that was an effective teaching method). Never mind, I really dislike artsy-fartsy attitudes, and Pratt was full of people like that. I even had a name for those types on campus: Pratties. Of course, there were added factors. I commuted from New Jersey to Pratt (in Brooklyn, New York) all four years, and for a few of those years things were not so good in my personal life.

However, I had friends at school (though most of my friends were still in NJ) and there were a decent amount of professors who were very good and I remember fondly. A couple of them I still keep in contact with today. Also, had I not attended Pratt, I wouldn’t have seen all the art and artists I was exposed to there, or at least not in such a timely fashion. Thus my style would not be what it is today. Even so, until my senior year, I don’t believe there was ever a day I enjoyed going to school (though there were classes I enjoyed), and my opinion of Pratt is still that it was an unnecessarily difficult experience, and I border on considering it either a complete waste of money or merely too expensive for what it was.

Now, I’m not writing all of this to rant about my experiences at Pratt. I’m merely painting a clear picture so you can understand, though I have little pride in my school, I do feel the fire in the Main Building was extremely tragic.

I’m in no position to comment on whether the fire was accidental or deliberate, and, so far as I know, no such information has yet been released to the public. However, I will say, that even despite my feelings about Pratt, I did choke up when I saw the pictures of the top of the Main Building engulfed in flames. What’s more, I began to think about the classes, days and even moments I had in that building, and those of my fellow alumni and students. Certainly, there are those who liked Pratt better than I, even loved it, and I wondered what they felt at seeing those pictures. But most of all, I thought about the artwork that was lost in the building.

That is the one irreplaceable loss in that fire. Fortunately, no one was hurt, physically, and the building can be repaired (expensive though that may be, especially if they want to keep the building’s historical look), but the students, I think, will find the art hardest to bear. It’s what my mind keeps going back to. Artists understand this. I’m sure many non-artists do as well. When any one creates something, it often comes from their very soul. Even if not, the long hours spent struggling, tweaking, flowing, second-guessing and crafting this thing into being is an achievement difficult not to be effected by. There is often a sense of accomplishment (though not always at the very moment, if you’re over-critical of your work and most of us are). And to have lost something that comes from us–is of us–and that you sacrificed other, important activities and responsibilities to create, takes its toll.

You see, I have lost artwork myself, both finished and unfinished, though, fortunately, never to a fire. I have experienced that feeling that comes with realising you’re going to have to start the thing from scratch or mourn the loss the rest of your life. It’s daunting. Unachievable. Impossible. How can one redo what they’ve already done? How can one re-experience every moment of doubt and inspiration? How can they recreate each brushstroke, every word, every note, exactly as it fell during the moment it was first conceived? The hard truth is you can’t, because you cannot recreate all of the knowable and unknowable factors which were present at the moment of creation. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The trick is in looking at it as an opportunity to revise the piece, so to speak, to have another chance to do it again even better. Sometimes artists will revisit a piece or subject matter many times over the course of their lives. This is because they feel they didn’t quite get it right the last time or there was still something left unexplored. The same idea can be applied to a lost or damaged piece of art, writing, song, etc.

Of the art I’ve lost or had damaged in my life, two come to mind, which I immediately went back to work on and still had the original, damaged version to refer back to. One, which was finished, had been crumpled and torn up (not by me), and the other was half-finished when I spilled black ink over half of it. I was upset, angry, depressed, a whole mix of emotions, but I went back to work on them immediately, with all the same fears of how I was going to recreate exactly what I had just done. And again that truth: I wasn’t able to. But after completing them, and comparing them to the originals (what I could see of them), I noticed something.

Yes, there were particular areas that I felt were incredibly well done in the originals, but generally speaking, the new piece was much, much better, even though very little time had passed between creating them (hardly enough time to significantly develop as an artist). Even many of the parts I felt were so great in the original, were not as good as those in the new version. It’s as though the original served as a guide for the new piece. Practice as it were. I was only in high school at the time, and I had learned something very profound.

It’s true. You won’t be able to recreate exactly what you did, but I can all but guarantee you will create something better. You already know the subject matter. Don’t get hung up on how well you drew an open hand for the first time in your life or how that one paragraph you wrote vied with the best of Poe’s. It won’t be the same, but it will be better. I promise you. In having already gone through the experience of creating the thing once, you are infinitely more familiar with it than you were before you had created it in the first place. And, if you’re honest with yourself, there’s always something you could have done better, because art is imperfect, no matter how perfect it seems at the time. Now’s your chance to make it better.

I won’t deny it’s a difficult place to get to when something like this happens. It’s one thing to revisit a piece willingly; it’s quite another to be forced into it. Some people may go straight into the task, while others will find it difficult to do for days, weeks, even months. But if the piece is important to you, no matter how daunting it seems, it’s impossible not to go back or at least dwell on the idea of going back.

That’s the one thing I would say to the students at Pratt (or anyone who has lost a piece of artwork): take a breath, mourn it and plunge back in. The new work may not be exactly the same, but it will be better. If you need to take time, take it, just don’t take so much you’re avoiding redoing the piece rather than taking a needed break from it. Then, when you’re ready, go back to it. I think you’ll be very happy you did, and you’ll be surprised at how you feel about the new piece.

Every artist will, unfortunately, experience the loss or destruction of a piece in the course of their life and everyone is going to handle that loss differently. I only hope my own experiences can offer some comfort and guidance. And, if I may be so bold, I hope too the professors at Pratt will give these students a break rather than (as was my like-experience with so many of them) shrugging their shoulders, saying “shit happens” and demanding you catch up and have the work in on time anyway. After all, it’s hard enough dealing with what happened without you being a jerk about it.

J. M. DeSantis

J. M. DeSantis is a writer and artist (Write-ist), best known as the creator of the Indian dark fantasy heroine, Chadhiyana (chadhiyana.com) and the humorous web-comic, Gentleman Cthulhu: Emeritus Moribus Monstrum (gentlemancthulhu.com). DeSantis has also authored a number of short fiction and artworks. Support his work as well as this blog through J. M.'s Patreon at: patreon.com/jmdesantis.

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