Why a Bad Teacher Couldn’t Break My Spirit: Lessons From Art School

Young Collage Art Student Elli Milan

I'm 21 years old and wrapping up my last year for my BFA in painting at the University of Georgia. I find myself in a dreaded, mandatory critique session in my oil painting class with Professor Anderson. Normally, I love critiques. They offer a chance to see what I'm doing right and what needs work. I found them constructive and empowering, but not Anderson's critiques. They're a different beast altogether.

Meet Professor Anderson: A Cruel Art Teacher 

He seems to relish the sport of sniffing out our deepest insecurities and jabbing the knife in, twisting it with a smirking glee until we're emotionally bled dry. He seems to think it's his personal mission to make every artist he encounters quit forever.

No matter how much I prepare myself, telling myself that his words don't matter, his knives still cut deep. It felt the same as when I was a kid and my dad would send me into the forest to find a stick to spank me with. I'd try to choose something lightweight, hoping it would break easily.

I adored and respected my dad, who showered me with pony rides, books, and so much love and care, but I had no respect for Professor Anderson. He rarely showed up for class, never taught us anything, and I doubt he still painted. I've never seen his art, nor heard about any artistic achievements he may have had. When he did show up for class, he waddled around the studio, chain-smoking and stuffed to the brim with self-righteousness. And yet, none of us questioned why he was our teacher or what qualifications justified the thousands we were spending for a class he rarely attended. Not one of us stood up to him or flipped the script.

Preparing for Judgement Day

If I only knew then what I know now. How I would love to confront him and tell him he has no authority to critique, teach, or even call himself an artist. He lost the right to teach when he stopped painting or selling his art. He's just a mean-spirited man, projecting his misery and self-loathing onto his students, instead of dealing with his own issues. Just as I prepared for the sting from that stick and told myself not to make a sound or shed a tear, I prepped for Anderson's critiques, determined not to flinch, redden, or drop one tear.

As the critique began, Anderson told us we weren’t allowed to leave the room and anyone who did would be dropped from the class. We were halfway through, my stomach churning in anticipation and I knew I was next. A couple of girls had already cried, and some guys were staring at the floor, their clenched fists barely concealing their urge to punch Anderson out. The man sat there like a self-satisfied king, drunk on his own authority, suffocating the room with his smoke and sarcasm."Elli, you're next," he sneered. "Go fetch your crappy painting and let’s see if it's even worth fixing."

My legs wobbled like noodles as I made my way to grab my painting and set it on the display easel while everyone’s eyes glared at me intently. Truthfully, I really liked what I’d been working on. Inspired by Albrecht Dürer, I was painting a series of self-portraits with gold Christmas lights wrapped around my head like a crown of thorns. I was exploring the tension between self-love and self-sacrifice. Maybe the painting was a bit melodramatic and overly ‘art school,’ but it came from an earnest place in my heart.

I took my seat, reminding myself to be strong and hoping the spanking stick would break. Anderson stared at my painting for an uncomfortably long time, taking an extended drag from his cigarette as its end crackled in the room's silence. Finally, he started to laugh—a nasty, fiendish laugh. Some of the kids looked away; others looked at the floor, while a few looked directly at me. I braced myself.

Reeling From the Emotional Blow and Cruel Teaching Style

“You actually believe this laughable monstrosity was worth the sweat and tears you put into it? It’s not only worthless—it’s an insult to art itself! Who the hell do you think you are?” he sneered. “Ah, I see it now. You think you’re some sort of messiah, right? Allow me to shatter your delusions. You’re so insufferably arrogant that you think you can lecture us with this saccharine, holier-than-thou, trash heap of a painting. Don’t bother. You have nothing to say, nothing to offer. Do the art world a favor: paint little barns or pretty little landscapes and spare us from your pitiful, religious musings.”

The stick didn’t break. I didn’t know why I was crying, but I sat there wanting to hide my face. I didn’t respect this man. I didn’t believe his words. Yet, why did I act as if they were true? Why did they cut me to the bone? I was angry with myself for crying. It signaled to everyone watching that I believed him, that his words had hit their mark, and that there was truth to them.

Rejecting Negative Voices for a Greater Purpose

Artist Elli Milan standing next to her large painting of Roman columns


All my life, a voice in my head chanted, “Who do you think you are? You’re so arrogant to think you can be somebody, that you could be great. Just shrink back, and stay in your corner; no one wants to hear what you have to say.” This was the lie I lived with every day. I knew it was a lie, but it never left me alone.

After class, I lugged my painting back to my apartment. My classmates from the critique told me not to take the professor's words to heart. They said he was just cruel, that his words shouldn't matter. I knew that, yet I still felt humiliated and defeated. I abandoned my series and never revisited the Christmas light crown, but I didn't give up on painting—nor did I resort to painting red barns.

It wasn't until a decade later, after spending years painting pretty pictures for the décor art market, that I realized I had a voice. I knew that my art could deeply touch someone's heart. I found that beyond self-sacrifice was self-love, and even more beautifully, love for others. I came to see that artists are among the bravest souls in the world, willing to bare their hearts, spill their guts, and let the world judge them—all in the name of letting a painting speak its truth. It's the vulnerability of an artist—the gamble of being laughed at, ridiculed, or mocked - that creates a connection. It allows a painting to bypass the intellect and speak directly with the soul. These kinds of sacrifices and risks have the power to transform the world.

Turning Pain Into Purpose

Artist Influencer Elli Milan looking boldly off in the distance holding Christmas lights.

The words that have cut you to the bone and may still haunt you are intended to rob you of your destiny. The real author of these words isn't the person who spoke them; it's the enemy of your soul who wants to keep you from fulfilling your purpose. Turn these words on their head and embrace the opposite as your truth. You have a voice! You're destined for greatness! You are loved, accepted, and worthy. You have power. You are significant. You are capable. You are beautiful. This is your truth!

Share your experience in the comments below!


  • Zenda Rawlings

    My first thought was the art teacher, if you could call him that, was speaking to himself. It reminds me of an experience I had years ago when no words were spoken but cut to the core, when a coworker passed out cookies to everyone in the building but me. I’ve been trying to discover the lesson in it. After reading your story I have finally found it. Like you, the lesson is that I believed whatever message he was trying to send. Perhaps that I was insignificant. Maybe your instructor’s whole purpose for being there was to see who would rise above his criticism and keep going in spite of the hurt, to find their true purpose, although that’s sure a crappy way of doing it. Those cutting words never seem to be forgotten nor does the pain. I’ve just found your videos on YouTube. I’m really liking what I’m learning so far, so thank you.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    I’m so glad you found us!! It seems like we get targeted for the same wound feeling a lack of significance or maybe rejection over and over bc the opposite is our superpower. 😊

  • LauraR.

    Hi Eli
    Thank you for sharing this. I too had an encounter with a professor who said I would never make it in the art world. I was pregnant left the class turned around and went back and spoke to him about his comment in the office. How hurtful… I became an art teacher because I want others to never experience that. About 8 years later I saw him cleaning out his office cause he was retiring and told him that I teach art now.
    I am in your mastery program ( just started it a few months now ) and super excited. I am enjoying your book. ( you just got engaged )😊. I too am traveling right now 2.5. Hours each way to work.( like you once did ) It’s exhausting my soul and have to give my soul what it needs. You are a big inspiration for the amazing artistic journey and new changes that will one day be coming my way and I want to thank you immensely for that.

  • Aruna Mettler

    Dear Elli,
    After reading your experience with the Monster Professor I clearly saw that he was threatened by your talent. I hope he is alive and can see what a diffeence you have made and changed the lives of thousands of artists. I joined the course after I saw you on uTube and heard you talk. I immediately connected with you and joined the Mastery Program. I was taking oil painting classes fro m a man who was just like your professor. Very rude. After 6 months with him, I was still apinting black and white rabbits. You are a gift to the world of art. You soul and spirit are pure. I love you and thank you.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Thank you Aruna! So glad you stuck with it even after a discouraging 6 months! what ever words stung, they are our fuel for overcoming and accomplishing our destiny. Thank you for your kindness. Elli

  • Raymond Brill

    I am not sure if your skill in writing exceeds your skill in painting. It is such a joy to read your descriptive writing an how you successfully evoke emotion and imagery.

    I, too, had naysayers as a young student. An uncle would comment that I had straight A’s but no A+ grades. Then, with all A+’s, the commentary would change to that I was doing this in grade school but could never do this in high school. Well, I proved him wrong by getting all A’s. through the honors program in high school. I did get one B, however, but was working 20 hours a week managing a Burger King, being President of our National Honor Society, being a student council representative, and a thespian acting in plays. With all that success, my internal voices have drowned out all the naysayers, as did yours. Hopefully, your audience can draw from your experience without actually being the victim of talent degredation by those who build themselves up by putting others down.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    wow! Raymond. What character and resilience to persevere and succeed in spite of such discouragement! Bravo! It would be so interesting to see how this translates to your life today. Elli

  • Snezhana

    Dear Elli, thank you for sharing such a heartfelt story. It’s an inspiration to face light and not be fooled by “Professor Andersons” and like. Amen.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    yes. true. We have all unfortunately had these types in our life and the opportunity to overcome them. Elli

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