It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” -R.E.M.



On Losing and Reclaiming My Identity as an Artist and Educator


In April I wrote about the death of American University of Myanmar, the only non-profit, non-religious, non-sectarian university in the country set up for the benefit of the Myanmar people.

I had been involved with it since I moved to Yangon in 2016 and relished teaching students, designing new programs, and helping to open and run such an institution in this troubled country.

When the university closed, it was also the death of an identity I had been cultivating since 2000, the one of “university professor.” And it was the first time since 2002 that I was no longer a full time faculty member affiliated with any specific university.


With colleagues at AUM’s final graduation

Deepak Chopra of course warned me when I was 26 when I was listening to one of his audio books driving to my academic home at the time, William Paterson University in New Jersey,  that we should NOT become so attached to labels and titles.

I agreed with him

Who would ever do such a thing? Someone very unenlightened clearly.

Someone like me, it turns out.

As all the signs pointed to my university, AUM shutting its doors forever, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. No university? Who would I be anymore?

It was frightening.

About three weeks before our final graduation and the onset of the moving trucks to take everything away, by chance I met a woman in my Monday yoga class (*yes, I am that stereotypical expat woman in Southeast Asia meditating alongside Buddhist Temples) who just happened to have a gorgeous studio space for rent.

It happened to be everything I could ever want in a studio space and the price was just right.

I was in.

Since last summer I had been dreaming of having my own studio when I met up with my old friend and Boston-based fiber artist, Stacey Piwinski.

In the late 90s we went to art school together. We lived together as painting/ gallery intern/ waitress/ shopkeeper/ worker-bee beings for several summers in Provincetown, MA.

We both started out identified as artists. Then one day somehow I morphed into “professor” and my art always took a backseat.

Stacey also turned into an arts educator, but I noticed that she became what I used to call, “a real artist.” For me that meant someone who exhibited their work year-round, had a studio complete with open days, and traveled to far flung locations to participate in artist’s residencies.

Here she would point out that I am being too hard on myself. Of course I was exhibiting all along too, albeit in film festivals instead of galleries.

I used to be a traditional artist, a painter. But since around 1999 I morphed into a digital artist, an animator, and a designer. Essentially, I became someone who could not or would not make art without the help of electricity and computers.

Before American University of Myanmar closed, of course I kept teaching all around Yangon. At the urging of an enthusiastic colleague, I created a studio in my office and commanded myself to “be a real artist” and paint using real paints.

“Paint dammit!” I would  snarl to myself.

By my studio, just outside the door

By my studio, just outside the door

And yet all I could do was stare at the blank canvases. It was a strain and struggle.

And then I lost my office because I lost my university which also meant I lost my identity.

Hmmph. Now what?

When April started, I moved into my beautiful new studio space.

I set up a digital work station area and also a table for drawing and painting. The “analog” area is pretty and inspiring to look at, but I ended up back behind the computer.


A Double Blow

After our final graduation at AUM the first Saturday in April, I found out a few days later that I also did not get the Very. Fancy. Very. Big Deal. Fellowship that I had learned I had been short-short listed for.

Did I mention I made the short list?

Alas, it’s not one of those awards you can actually put on your CV that you were shortlisted for like an Academy Award Nomination or The Booker Prize. It would have been like writing down “Almost got into Harvard.”

In this fellowship I was looking again for external validation from some external source. It was meant to be a sign that I now had permission to finally be “a real artist.”

New studio in Yangon


The Happy Ending

But lo and behold, here I am now almost two months later happier than I ever have been.

Seriously? It must be some sort of synthetic happiness as described by Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness.

In his popular Ted Talk he teaches that “synthetic happiness is just as real and enduring as real happiness and that our longings and worries are overblown because we have the capacity to create happiness within ourselves rather than depend on experiences.”

So what am I up to now?

Tomorrow I leave for Germany for a month-long stint with TAKT Berlin Artist’s Residency. My sons will be coming in tow, but it just happens to be a family-friendly residency. Plus we have their grandparents just a few tram stops away.

I’ll be writing more about my TAKT experiences this month on my blog.

The project I am working on now is a new fine art multimedia animation that I care deeply about. It’s actually me revisiting an experimental documentary called “Lucky” that I started in 2001 about one Indian-American girl’s experiences before, during, and after her arranged marriage.

It covers the span of 18 years and this July, during the USA leg of my trip, I will visit her in South Carolina to get new footage and updates on her story to be added in.

With students at Thalun International School  (see student work

In August, along with my Thalun International School students (grades 7-11), I’ll be teaching Myanmar police officers social media skills and best practices for the EU  and MYPOL as well as university students in Mandalay about Online Marketing for Myanmar Metropolitan College.

I also have a blossoming online business teaching 35,000+ students from 175 countries around the world through the UN-Mandated University For Peace’s Centre For Executive EducationEdu Evolution, and other platforms that provides a safety net allowing me to explore non-traditional job and employment options.

It’s been a rocky but varied and rewarding experience teaching in Myanmar, even though my university got shut down. However if the police don’t like my teaching, you may need to look for me in the local prison.

So that’s what’s up with me at least for the next few months and year ahead.

In July of 2019 we expect to move again.

I still get the occasional person who pats my hand and asks about my university closing down with a look of concern in their eyes.

But thankfully I am in a great place and I thank Myanmar for the challenges and learning opportunities.

I’m almost ready to graduate and move on.