I had been there before—though I was most interested in the swords, armor, and tank—but it may well have been George’s first time. I can remember her taking us into a gallery, showing us the painting St. John the Baptist by El Greco, and talking to us seriously about it. We glanced at it and wanted to turn away, but she insisted we stay, study it, and talk to her about it. Did we notice the colors? The stormy sky? The way El Greco elongated his figures? This was neither accident nor clumsiness, she assured us, but an intentional part of his style.
The painting frightened me. The extra examination that came with the discussion meant a deeper but initially unwelcome involvement with it. On reflection, it showed that art could affect people profoundly, and that a painting could communicate deep feelings that could not be put into words.
Miss Aramian helped awaken something in me. In hindsight, one might say that my parents’ involvement in the arts and living in a studio would have led me to art anyway, but the kindness this teacher showed me made a great difference. From that point on, art became even more important to me.
By the seventh grade, I knew that I wanted to be an artist, and I pursued that goal as much as possible. I also discovered that others in middle school did not know what career they wanted, and especially that few people were interested in art. What happened for me with complete constancy was frustrating and confusing for others. Being an artist meant having an ability few people had. That also meant being an outsider.
Sometime during my high school years, I told my mother that I wanted to be a professional artist. She looked at me sadly and said, “You’ll never be rich.” But she did not oppose the idea. It was also at that time that I decided to use my given Chinese name, Deng Ming-Dao, as my artist’s name.
I liked my name. It tied me to my family, because my paternal grandfather had selected “Ming” and my maternal grandfather had paired that with “Tao.” For a while after I started using the name professionally, I felt that it was both a curse and a blessing.