When I was a kid, my mom bought a ping pong table and set it up in the basement. I thought it was kind of a strange thing for her to do. Not that she didn’t do fun things, just not fun things like buying ping pong tables. Our idea of fun was to make stuff, tinker, make messes, etc. We did it all the time. Not in a “Hey kids! Grab the yarn and pipe cleaners and let’s make spiders!” kind of way. It was more of a habit we had.
While my older sister was still toddling around, my mother an artist and my dad an engineer who had just started a company built a house together, and I think they just the kept up the habit of doing stuff all the time after that. So, as I was growing up, mom and dad continually created things to do from whatever new ideas they had. My sister, having grown up watching my parents build the house, caught on to this act and then I did too.
In the process, my dad taught us things like how to solder circuit boards and fix the car, and my mother the artist Janet Tuck taught us to paint. Again, not in a “Let’s sit down and I’ll show you this technique” kind of way, but just by being around her always painting or by trying something that didn’t work and having her help troubleshoot. Most of all, they taught us problem solving, and creative thought. There were also many lessons on maintaining ones stick-to-itedness. There was the “If people think your idea won’t work and is totally crazy, it’s probably a good idea.” lecture from my dad. From my mom, I learned that a project often doesn’t come out the way you had pictured it when you started because unexpected things happen along the way. If you use those unexpected things, the end product will turn out even better than what you had pictured in the first place.
My mom waited while we tried our hand at playing ping pong for the couple of weeks that it took to lose interest in it, and then tossed a couple of sewing machines on the table and boxes of stuff underneath, and we used it as a gigantic project table. Then we used the ping pong table constantly.
So it made sense that I became a mechanical engineer, and of course it wouldn’t do to sit behind a desk all of the time. I had to go out into the field and work directly with the equipment, and besides, I had a fairly serious travel bug at the time.
I programmed logic that controlled plant equipment and then went out into the field to help start up the plant. I got a kick out of pushing little buttons that in turn started enormous motors and tamed huge boilers, being one of only a handful of women working on a site with a few thousand men who didn’t speak my language, and trudging through construction mud. My company kept me moving every several months and I ended up living in 20 very obscure places around the world including a hotel in Chile, a shipping container in India, and an old post office in Pennsylvania Amish country. By the time I met my husband, I had set foot on every continent in the world.
My career as an engineer is actually where my journey as an artist began as well. Everywhere I moved, I brought my art supplies and used an overturned chair as an easel to set up my studio. With every place that I lived, my palette and approach to painting changed, as did my perspective of the world.
When I married (to a guy who designs board games on the side), I stopped moving around and my company put me in management. Then when we moved for my husband’s job, my company asked me to continue my job working from home. The guys I directed were scattered all over the world anyway, so it didn’t really matter where I was.
The tricky part came when I became pregnant. I just continued doing my job and travelling to visit the sites that I was looking after, but then one day the guys I worked for asked me how much maternity leave I wanted to take. Almost all of the people I worked with were men, and most of them had started their families well before I started working there, so I didn’t have much to go by. I thought about it and said, “Well I’m working from home anyway, so just a week or so”, and they said, “Hmm…Are you sure?” and I said “Well yeah, I’m working from home anyway, so a week should be fine”. I’m sure they went off and had a good chuckle about that.
Eventually a woman from HR called me and tried to explain what I was getting into, and I told her the same thing. “Well, I’m working from home anyway, so yeah, just a week is fine”. I was used to people telling me all of the things I wouldn’t be able to do, and they were wrong 100% of the time. My dad was right. The world is full of people who are glad to tell you that what you are trying to do is impossible. I still find that true today, but BOY was I wrong about the maternity leave! I was used to working 7/12’s for months on end, in high- pressure situations, but I suddenly found new respect for teenage single mothers—How on earth did they do it? I still haven’t figured out how my parents managed to build a house with my sister toddling around, or how my sister re-did her kitchen by building all the cabinets herself from scratch while working full time when her son was still toddling around. But, needless to say, my maternity leave was a tad longer than a week.
I soon traded in my engineering job for another thing I did well. Art. It wasn’t a decision to pursue my true calling. I just had some time while my kids napped, and I saw that time as a little gift that I never had before. Well…I should have been using that time to keep the house clean, but I grabbed the chance to make art instead. I painted and got gallery representation, fed my love of math by creating tessellations for textile designs, kept enjoying programming by doing websites, built furniture and stuff for the house, and taught others how to paint. I thought I was an efficient worker before, but I really become handy after having to squeeze all of my work into a nap time. Looking back now, I’m surprised at how much I got done, but at the time it always seemed as though I was spinning my wheels.
People often say that they are happy for me now that I am able to do what I truly love to do, but that's not what I'm doing. I truly love both engineering and art, and I see them as one--Art as just a branch of engineering or engineering as just a branch of art. In fact, it even seems that I’m using the same part of my brain to do both. There is more problem solving in art and more creativity in engineering than many people realize.
In India, people are asked to “do the needful”, to do whatever needs to be done to make something happen. I’m just “doing the needful” here.
Just don’t expect much from my ping pong game.