I am an artist. Believe it or not, it only took me 34 years to be able to say these words out loud, without crying, and still maintain eye contact. I know, pretty incredible, right? I owe this achievement partly to the consistent cattle prodding of my dear mother.
In 1999, when I was thirteen and about to enter high school, my mother could sense that I was interested in taking art classes. She came from a family of artists herself (my great-grandfather and grandmother), but somehow her generation was skipped. While my older brother showed an aptitude for drawing from a young age, it was still unclear whether or not I had inherited that gene. He was currently doing quite well in Mrs. D’s high school art classes and I was intimidated. Undeterred by my already-budding case of imposter syndrome, my mother pressed the issue and talked to Mrs. D who said she’d “take a crack” at me.
A couple months later my other, younger brother, nine-year-old Andrew, fell into a ravine and died. He and his friend had been searching for a car that they heard had been washed away in the floods of Hurricane Floyd a month earlier.
That year, I auditioned for the high school musical and couldn’t even get through my favorite Fiona Apple song without crumbling in tears on stage. Instead of letting me give up, my mother signed me up for voice lessons. When my art teacher suggested I apply to art school for college my mother took me on an inter-state college tour without questioning whether it was a practical path. When I couldn’t find a job I cared about after college graduation, she casually suggested I move across the world to Japan and teach English for a year, to see if I liked teaching.
College had left me feeling unsure if I had what it took to “be an artist,” whatever that meant. While recovering in Tokyo, I instead wrote lyrics for my Indie rock band Das Yukon, casually slipping in references to Andrew’s death between lyrics about the Great Recession and my deceased childhood pets.
When one year in Japan somehow turned into five and I was officially painting again, Mom would like my Facebook posts and comment “Love this one!” or “Proud of you, daughter.” When five years turned into almost ten and I was too scared to actually pursue art as a career, she patiently listened to my anxiety-riddled questions over Skype. We probably had about fifty different versions of the following conversation:
“I feel like I want art to be a bigger part of my life again. Should I finally get an MFA?”
“Sure, sweetie, that sounds like a good idea! Let me find a list of good MFA programs in the US.”
“But.. then how would I make money? Maybe I should just get a masters in ESL or Early Childhood Education and keep teaching?”
“Oh yeah, maybe you could go to Teacher’s college and get certified in New York State! Here’s a link to their website. You’ll have to take the GED probably, but here’s a link to information about studying for it.”
“Ugh, I dunno. I don’t see how I can leave Japan after so long. This is my home now. Would I even fit in if I returned to New York?”
“Oh, of course you would!”
“But …what would I do with all my stuff, my furniture, my art, my dishes, my knick knacks?”
“Easy! You can donate them or ship them home.”
“Yeah, but I’ve invested in my life here. I can’t just pick up and leave. I have a great job, and friends, and I’ve spent over nine years learning Japanese, what if I forget it… after all that work I’ve put in? Maybe I should stay here and get a job in translation.”
“I know, why don’t you get a job in the US where you can use Japanese? Look, here are some jobs in New York that require Japanese language skills! This one looks good…”
“No, no, no. I’m not interested in those jobs. Ugh, I dunno… maybe I can’t ever leave. Maybe I should just apply for my permanent residency.”
“Yeah, I dunno, I was thinking then it would be easier to switch jobs or freelance without worrying about work visas. I can apply for it once I hit the ten-year mark. That’s only a few months away.”
“I… didn’t know that was something you were thinking about.”
My brother and sister-in-law fly out to Tokyo to take care of me for a week. I submit to their Mari Kondo-ing of my apartment, and once they have returned to New York I notice how much lighter I feel. Now that I have less stuff I can actually see the floor and walls of my apartment AND… get this, I can almost think about moving, or maybe even leaving Japan…maybe.
Suddenly alone again, on crutches, and mostly house-bound, I have lots of time to wrangle with my mother’s sudden non-existence. A few things occur to me:
Everything has changed.
As much as I love my job, I can’t do it anymore.
The only thing I can–or want–to do is paint.
My brother loves me enough to drop everything and fly to Tokyo to be with me.
I want to get my MFA.
I do the unthinkable. I give up the beautiful life I have built over the almost ten years of my adulthood thus far. I quit the job I love. I go to work one last time to clean out my desk. I hug my computer, and then the pink binder that holds the training manual of which my co-trainer and I were so proud. I sob when my colleagues on the training team gather around me in a group embrace. I take a month to pack up my carefully-decorated studio apartment and visit my favorite restaurants, kissaten (Japanese coffee shops), onsen (hot springs), karaoke joints, and hiking spots. I say goodbye to my almost ten-years-worth of good friends.
During my first semester of grad school, I struggle to understand my father, whose coping mechanisms involve remarrying, selling our family home, and donating most of our family possessions.
I gorge on the memoirs of other people’s experiences with disaster, loss, and grief, which make me feel less alone. I read non-fiction books about psychology, probing into the anxiety-fueled, compulsive tendencies behind both my hoarding of mementos and my father’s discarding of them. I gain newfound understanding and empathy for him. I make sculptures that are inspired by my memories and influenced by what I discover.
While I miss my mother terribly, I am grateful to now have a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture, a new network of friends and colleagues, and a new mission to normalize conversations about loss and grief through my art practice. I am keenly aware that her death has been a major catalyst for my growth. Thanks to her, I am home, and finally I am an artist.
Caito Stewart was born and raised in Ossining, New York. After getting her BFA in Painting from Washington University in St. Louis, she lived in Tokyo and worked at a language school for almost ten years. In 2017, she returned to New York and got her MFA in Sculpture from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Please visit Caito on her website: caitlin-caito-stewart.com and on Instagram: @caitostewart