Visual Arts student finds her way back to the classroom after two decades

Lisett Clark always seems to find her way back to life as an artist.

Shortly after a promising start studying fashion design at a community college on New York’s Long Island in the early ’90s, Clark put “everything on pause” to raise her two children. But, “the thought of wanting to go back to school never left my head,” she says.

Now, 20 years later, Clark, 41, has returned to school as a full-time visual arts student at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts.

When she applied two years ago, “I held my breath and hoped to get in. And when I did, I cried,” says Clark, whose concentration is in design. “Ever since, I have never looked back.”

Re-entry has not been without its challenges, including having to learn digital technologies. Sometimes she feels the difference between herself and her classmates, many of whom entered the program straight out of high school. “I’m in the same place as my peers artistically,” she says, “but I have had different life experiences.”

One of those experiences involves Clark’s son, Kyle, who was diagnosed in 2009, at the age of 14, with a craniopharyngioma – a benign brain tumor that required a seven-hour operation and changed their lives forever. Kyle has since had numerous other brain tumors that resulted in complicated surgeries and permanent vision loss, among other things. There is no cure for his condition.

“He can only have so many surgeries, which is really scary,” Clark says. “As an artist, it is very difficult to express what it feels like to have to endure.”

At Mason Gross, Clark says, she found professors who were able to “scratch the surface” of conveying her feelings, including Julie Langsam, who teaches a drawing class called “Systems and Mapping.”

Langsam says one of her goals as a professor is to give her students a means of dealing with their personal situations – and by extension, their art – in “ways that may be less obvious to them.”

For Clark, the guidance stuck.

“She really blossomed in my class,” says Langsam. “She had some conventional ideas of what art making was all about, and it kind of blew apart for her. Her art opened up in ways that she was really excited about and that I was excited to see.”

One work for the class, Time Accountability, uses building footprints in varying thicknesses to express the long, tiring hours she and Kyle have spent in hospitals around the tristate area, where “a checkup is a whole-day ordeal.”  

“You’re investing yourself into something you have no control over,” Clark explains. “The maps are a history of where we’ve been and what we’ve had to go through.”

For her final installation project for the class, Clark created Connection Times Twenty, a series of maps made of pinholes that chart out the towns and cities where her family and friends live, in countries including Chile, Norway, Spain, and Australia.

Plotting out the faraway lands of her loved ones made the world seem smaller to Clark and eased some of the uncertainty she feels about the future for Kyle. The theme, she says, is unity.

“When I was working on everyone’s map, I was thinking about them and wondering what they were doing, or what their houses look like,” Clark says. “Maybe they’re walking down the street I’m drawing. I found that closeness while working on the project to be really amazing.”

Even more amazing to Clark is her progress as an artist since her return to school, and the guidance that got her here and continues to help her along her journey.

“I’m impressed when I look at my portfolios for a class after it’s done,” she says. “I don’t think I would ever have been able to get here if it wasn’t for the people that have helped me along.”

Posted November 2014.