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View from the Top: Stacy Handler

Published: March 2, 2012
Section: Features


One of my most beloved pictures is of my dad and me wearing matching Brandeis sweatshirts. I was two years old and sitting on his lap with my cereal bowl not far away. Sometimes I look at this picture and think how amazing it is that this otherwise unremarkable baby picture ended up predicting the next 20 years of my life, which is why I make a point to buy Brandeis clothing for all of my baby cousins.

If this picture is any indicator, Brandeis has always been an important, yet subtle part of my upbringing. My father came to Brandeis in 1971 to escape the daily anti-Semitism of his small Missouri town where his was one of the only Jewish families. Brandeis was a transformational experience that exposed him to diverse people and ideas for which he has always been grateful. Through my father’s experience, I grew up with Brandeis values of social justice, inclusion and academic excellence. I don’t recommend that people do this, but Brandeis was the only school to which I applied and, two years later, my little brother followed in the family tradition. With all the family members who have gone through here, I joke that one day there should be a Handler family bench in some inconspicuous location.

While choosing to come to Brandeis was easy, very little about my Brandeis experience has been so clear-cut or straightforward. The most formative parts of my Brandeis experience have been unexpected, including the personal relationships I’ve built; studying abroad in Spain; and my extracurricular involvement in The Blowfish, Hillel, English Language Learning and PERC (Peers Educating about Responsible Choices). But perhaps the most radical change during the last four years has been the transformation of my lifelong love of art from avocation to a serious career path.

At the first Shabbat at Brandeis, the upperclassman assigned to my table at Hillel dinner asked us to go around and say what we hoped to accomplish at college. I said somewhat naively that I hoped to find what I was passionate about and what I was good at, which I hoped would be the same thing, and do that. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant or where it would lead me, but a part of me thought it meant ending up at law school. Four years later, I still don’t quite know what I am going to do, but I will pursue what has always made me truly happy, which at the present does not involve law school.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year that on a whim I took my first art class, High and Late Renaissance Art in Italy with Professor Unglaub. I ended up loving the class and the discipline of art history. That class inspired me to take another art class and then another, which put me on track for an Art History minor. While I was studying abroad in Madrid, I visited the Prado, the finest museum in Spain, at least once a week, and I traveled to Italy with the explicit purpose to see all of the pieces I studied in class. I was so moved by the experience that tears came into my eyes when I entered the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and the Uffizi in Florence. When I returned to Brandeis that spring and started seriously to think about plans after college, I realized that the times I had been happiest during the past year were when I was studying art. I decided that if art was something I truly loved then it was worth pursuing, even if it was outside of the doctor/lawyer dichotomy modeled by my professional parents.

Of course, no serious study of art is complete without hands-on experience. I strongly believe that everyone should take a studio art class. Ever since I was a first-year, I wanted to take a drawing or painting class but never thought I had enough time or talent. It was not until I was at Brandeis this past summer that I took my first drawing class with Sean Downey, and I am so glad that I did. I am currently in my fourth studio art class, and I regret not taking studio art sooner because what I’ve learned from these classes has not only changed the way I think about art, but has also made me a more confident, observant person.

I’ve learned that art, as with any other skill, is not something that happens overnight but rather is the result of years of practice, experimentation and making mistakes. You have to draw something and then erase it and draw it again, and each time you do, you get better. You need many, many layers of paint built up in several sessions to create a work that is rich and dynamic. I’ve learned that great artists always feel a little unsatisfied, a little ambivalent with their work and are always pushing themselves to do better, which as a deeply self-conscious person myself, I find incredibly reassuring. Moreover, great artists must also be conscious of what has come before. As with any other discipline, you need to be well-versed in its history before you can contribute to its future.

Life is short, and college is even shorter, so I would encourage all of you underclassmen to spend your college years taking chances, following your passions and being honest about what you truly want.