As immigrants with their own big dreams, my parents were the first to show me what that meant. Though they didn’t speak a word of English at first, they were committed to building a life in the United States. I myself was born and raised in the heart of Hollywood, and moved to rural Pennsylvania with my mom and stepdad when I was a teenager. It was a big change, from living in the midst of gang violence to being surrounded by Amish community instead.
By 1991, we had moved again to Washington, D.C., where I began studying math and biology at American University. Encouraged by my parents, I was well on my way to medical school; but life can change in an instant, and not always for the better.
During my final year of college, I witnessed my boyfriend Tom die in a tragic car accident. After losing him, I fell into a downward spiral, and I entered a deep depression. I didn’t even want to finish school anymore.
Tom’s death had shaken me, but it had also given me tremendous clarity. I came to the realization that life is far too short to not follow your dreams. So, I left the premed program and moved out west to achieve a longstanding goal of living in San Francisco.
Instead of medical school, I enrolled in mortuary school, perhaps as part of my grieving process. With my background in biology, I was able to graduate quickly and begin a career as a licensed embalmer and funeral director.
At the same time, tech was starting to flourish in the Bay Area. And with the dotcom boom came a huge influx of art and culture as the region became ever more popular. That surge of life, along with my first trip to Burning Man, opened my eyes again to the wonder of the world around me.
“Life is so beautiful,” I said to myself. “Why am I working in a field that revolves around death?”
It was just what I needed to revitalize my spirit and inspire me to pursue art in my life. My mom had always called me an artist (though my friends might have used the word “eccentric”), and I wanted so badly to make a living by painting. I kept trying and failing and trying and failing again. But like I said, I don’t think it’s possible to achieve your dreams without stubbornness and a little blind faith, and I kept on believing in myself.
Shortly after the turn of the millennium, and pregnant with my twin sons, I moved back out to D.C. with my then husband. Still eager to make my way in the world as an artist, I shifted direction a little bit. I started learning how to paint murals on building interiors, both walls and ceilings. I stepped up my game with faux marble and gold leaf. By networking with architects and engineers, I opened up all sorts of opportunities, and completed projects everywhere from the White House, Trump Tower, and US Treasury to palaces in the Middle East. My determination had paid off, and I had finally secured my place in the art world.
However, I wasn’t content to fall stagnant in my passion. In 2004, I wanted to apprentice under a certain master painter in the southwest of France. He lived in a medieval village built in 1100 AD by Richard the Lionheart. With no way to contact him from home, I simply packed my bike in a backpack and took a plane to Europe. I rode as far as I could through France and hitchhiked the rest of the way to the village. When I found the master, I convinced him to take me on.