Getting Exposed to French Art at a Young Age

(Me as a teenager, striped shirt, in France)
I grew up in a small farming town in Missouri, and I often felt completely out of place. Of course now that I'm older, it seems downright dreamy to live on a small farm outside of a small town. But back then, I was an awkward teenager trying to survive in a world that I couldn't relate to on any level. So I was drawn to whatever "culture" I could find, including art, music and FRENCH classes. 
I was probably on my third year of French in high school, which was listed as "independent study." This mostly meant working on various translation papers at my own pace. I was completely fascinated by foreign exchange students. There were usually one or two at my high school every year. They were cool, different, fashionable, traveled and cosmopolitan. I was just some poor, horribly shy, underweight, kid who didn't fit in anywhere. When I say poor, I mean, a step below the bottom end of lower middle class. Also known as -- dirt poor. So there was virtually NO WAY I could ever travel to another country. But when you have nothing to lose, it can be much easier to take big risks. 
At the time, there was a group called the Experiment in International Living. I think they had a small local charter. They would coordinate incoming exchange students, along with outgoing local students for trips abroad. They would sometimes give small scholarships to the local students to help with the expenses. Keeping in mind, to send a local student to another country for a couple months might be $5000. So they would kick in a couple hundred dollars to help with the expenses. In return, these students would give presentations when asked over the following year to discuss their trip and what they learned from the experience. 
I don't know what reality I was living in, but I decided I would apply for this trip. I knew full well that my family had NO money at all to pay for this trip. There was no logical reason for me to apply, no chance in hell I was going anywhere. 
So I filled out the paperwork. Went to an interview. Some time passed. And I got the call. The local group decided that based on my family income, they were going to pay the ENTIRE cost for the trip. I only had to come up with spending money for basic expenses like meals. By some miracle, I was going to be spending three months as a 17 year old in France!
Here was this kid from some small Midwestern town being tossed in with a group of other teenagers from all over the US, going to France. All of the other kids came from wealthy families who could afford these kinds of trips. When I showed up for orientation, I had one small suitcase of clothing. I was horrified that everyone else had several suitcases each. This oddly made me some kind of minimalist hero who was deliberately doing it so I wouldn't have to drag a ton of outfits all over Europe for months. Not someone who only had two pairs of paints and three shirts to his name.  And many of them shipped most of their clothes back home after seeing what I brought. I was an inspiration. 
There is so much more with this trip than I have time to tell, but it sort of set the stage for a profound influence in my life with the arts. All these rich kids were well educated, many from the best private schools. Some of them knew art so well they could probably teach advanced college courses. And guess where we were going? France. Talk about going directly into the heart of art history.
At the time, I wasn't a huge museum fan. I liked them, but I didn't LOVE them. But I kept tagging along as these kids hit some of the most amazing art museums all over France. I was learning and taking mental notes. Da Vinci. Check. Van Gogh. Check. Toulouse-Lautrec. Check. 
At one point, I was walking through the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris and came upon this painting by Edouard Manet called The Fifer. 
It was a profound moment for me, because my grandparents had a print of this same painting in their farm house that I had seen many times growing up. Even though I had thought my life was completely void of all culture as a child, there were bursts of brilliance scattered everywhere. Brilliance has a way of finding its way into every corner of the human existence. It's inescapable. Sort of like that blue shirt monologue in The Devil Wears Prada. By the time something moves far enough away, the "source" is completely forgotten. 
After my trip to France, I came back with a first-hand view of some of the most genius art ever created. To this day, it still guides choices I make in the artwork I create. It's hard to believe that artists who were alive a century ago, or more, can impact artists living in a different time and in a different corner of the world.

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