In college, my parents told me that I could not major in the Fine Arts. My father thought it was too insecure of an occupation. An art teacher he would support, which I said okay to, but enrolled in the school of Fine Arts-Painting at Indiana University of PA anyway, unbeknownst to him. My cover was not blown until my second year when he read my major on my grade report. He made the choice to withdraw funds and forced me to come up with the cash on my own.
Back in 1975, the labor board told Bethlehem Steel’s Grace Mine in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, that they had to hire a certain quota of minorities and women to work in their underground iron ore mine. Perfect timing for me- a young woman with a burning desire to be a professional artist, looking for some big money. Underground mining was considered a very dangerous occupation so we got paid handsomely to enter a mile deep shaft into the bowels of the earth. There was an interesting ratio of men to women- 800 males, 12 women. A crash course in assertive training was about to begin.
I clutch my plastic lunchbox to my chest and get ready for the push. Twenty-five of us iron ore miners are packed into this man cage like cattle. The men push so the one in front of me can feel my breasts against his back. Instead, he feels my hard rectangular lunch bucket. We switch on our miner’s headlamps as soon as the light of day evaporates and I get ready to begin my day. I am twenty-one years old. I have a dream and this is what I must do to make it happen.
At first, we women were not openly accepted. Since the mine was young, with more money and work going into research and development than production, most of the employees recently walked a different path. Framers and farriers now drove eight yard wide scoops, learned to drill a blast pattern and blow up the drift face with tubes of nitro glycerin. Their wives back home-baked pies and canned sauerkraut. Women did not belong underground in their eyes and I had to earn their respect.
For the first few months, we were muckers, shoveling heavy wet iron ore from underneath the mobile belts that carried the raw material out to the shaft. The muck dropped off the conveyors, built up underneath and prevented movement. Our job was to get them going and keep them going. We also built muscle mass and learned if we had what it takes to work underground with a group of manly men.
It was not all easy. We changed shifts every four days, swinging through three shifts. I lived in a twilight zone above ground, never knowing what day or time it was, stealing sleep wherever I could. I drank coffee down there- everyone did- to stay awake and keep your wits about you- a good idea when handling heavy machinery, explosives, in the dark. I drank a half a gallon a day. It did not affect the men (other than kept them alert) but I cultivated fibrous cysts in my breasts from the excessive caffeine. They became so painful that I could not sleep on my stomach. Hazards of the trade.
However, I did come to love the work – the challenge, the variety of new skills I was learning, my strength, and the men as they came around to accept us. Reading books on assertive training helped me find my voice. I had dozens of uncles’ and ‘cousins’ and a few boyfriends who took me hunting and fishing and motorcycle riding after hours. I learned a lot about men, (including ‘Married Harry’ who wanted to show my what his pencil-penis could do), and, I made a stack of greenbacks- my ticket to professional art school in Philadelphia.
I did not resent my parents for withdrawing their support. I did not have to agree. It was up to me to figure out how to become a professional painter if I wanted it. It’s often good to have to go your own path. A better choice is your own choice. Plus how I chose to react was putting the power back into my hands. Besides, it was only their financial support that they withheld, not their love. This made a huge difference. Knowing this probably made it less scary to forge into uncharted territory.
Some people spend their whole lives searching for people, institutions, religions, to tell them what to do- how to think and live, what to believe in. Starting off with their parents, then school officials and textbooks, then the church doctrine. Water takes the easiest route, the path of least resistance. Less energy is required to just coast along, follow.
John Holt said in his book, “Dumbing Us Down,”
“Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental human right is the right to control one’s own mind and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we explore the world around us, think about our own and other person’s experiences and find and make meaning of our own lives.”
Holt believes that we should be able to explore the world in our own way, and in as many different areas as possible so we can direct and control our own life.
After saving enough money at Grace Mine, I applied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia- the oldest art school in the country. I won a half tuition scholarship and happily attended the inner city professional art school for two years. A degree was not offered, for academics were not taught. I was learning to paint and draw. I was being educated on becoming an artist and I was happy.
Posted in: Book Blog- Modeling a Life