Storyboard: Tracy Wong

Scared out of my wits

The catalog scared me. The student gallery scared me. The lingering nightmare of not getting in and spending my entire career working a high-speed copier at Kinko’s scared me. Being surrounded by the most gifted art and design students in the world – that definitely scared me.

As a kid, I was “good at art.” But could I make a living from it, let alone succeed at it? I came from a traditional Asian household. Art was not something we discussed. What was left was the notion of “commercial art,” which offered some dim hope of getting paid.

I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which was not the vibrant creative metropolis it is today. Long before the days of Nike, it was a small, damp, unknown corner of our country with no major industry to speak of other than keeping Californians out. I never had visions of working on Madison Avenue, frequenting the global offices of major international ad agencies, or walking the steps of the Palais des Festivals at Cannes carrying shiny Gold Lions.

That all changed when I received my first catalog from ArtCenter College of Design. Boom! There it was in vibrant 4/C print: “Commercial art!” Revolutionary, mind-boggling, out-of-this-world commercial art. I was determined to attend – by hook or by crook.

Along the way, I fell into advertising more or less by accident. At the University of Oregon, I had enrolled in their graphic design program, which focused primarily on fine arts. I hated it. I asked them what were they training me for. Their response: “Stop worrying about a job. After five years, you’ll have a fine theoretical background in design and printmaking.”

Wrong answer.

At a friend’s recommendation, I enrolled in an ad layout class in the journalism school – which led to my interest in the Advertising major at ArtCenter.

I was a punk kid with no portfolio and little hope that any real-world agency would take a chance on me. I heard a constant refrain from each and every creative professional who would talk to me: “ArtCenter, kid. Go to ArtCenter if you want to be the best.”

So I applied. And I was immediately rejected.

I remember my mom saying to me, “What if you don’t get in?” In my mind, this simply wasn’t an option. Later that year, I somehow found my way into a meeting with New York-based ArtCenter legend Chuck Davidson. Chuck proceeded to coach me on getting my act (and entry portfolio) together. I reapplied and was accepted.

Once in, my fear stopped revolving around the question of being accepted to the question of whether I could survive.

Fear became my creative bar. It was a bar whose height changed depending on where I was at, what my peers were doing, what my teachers were praising, and what I was emotionally ready for. That bar always seemed slightly out of reach, but not impossible to reach. I guess that was the whole point.

Looking back, I now know it’s absurd to hold yourself to the standard of a genius if you’re a know-nothing novice. You can’t play like Thelonious Monk after a weekend of lessons. The problem was the novice (me) couldn’t understand that. Fear was an incredible motivator, just not the healthiest one.

So when did the fear go away?

It was the last day I walked the concrete halls as a student. I knew then that being at ArtCenter had pushed me to be better than I could have ever imagined. The school, the teachers, the students had helped me to replace my fear with concrete skills, not to mention determination, and a portfolio that told me I could compete not just with other graduates looking for work, but at the highest levels of my profession.

I was ready.

Fear and courage are just two sides of the same coin.

Tracy Wong
BFA 84 Advertising
Co-Founder, Chief Creative Officer WONGDOODY
FullCircle Board Member

You can’t play like Thelonious Monk after a weekend of lessons. The problem was the novice (me) couldn’t understand that.

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