When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

After serving eight years in the Marines, Drew Tilton found the re-entry back to civilian life ‘frustrating,’ so he took an art class to let off some creative steam. Little did he know it would open up a whole new path … helped along by his canine muse and the teacher who became a friend and mentor, Dana Van Horn. In August 2023, the work of both men was on exhibit together at the library.

Read on to learn more about Drew, his creative journey, and the challenges of stepping into a new identity…

When did you know you were an artist? 

When did I know I am an artist? Not until my late 30s (I turned 40 in 2023). Also, I remain skeptical of myself from time to time on whether I am an artist, and I question what I mean when I describe myself as an artist.  But it helps, and feels good, when others refer to me, and see me, as an artist.  I’m learning to accept the title with more confidence.

When and why did you decide to pursue art as a career? 

Practicing Art is new and unfamiliar territory. It is mysterious, and my intrigue to understand and comprehend it drives my pursuit. The idea of committing to art as an occupation snuck up on me. I hadn’t considered it in my past. But during my frustrating transition out of the Marine Corps, trying to plug back in to civilian life, I sought out an art class at the Baum School of Art in Allentown as a sort of creative therapy. There I met my teacher (now mentor, friend, and co-exhibitor at EPL), Dana Van Horn, and he’s been a constant guide and source of encouragement. The creative bug bit me in his watercolor class and soon I was filling my downtime with painting and exploring art history. Then, when I lost my job, I realized I didn’t want to seek another one. I acknowledged a common thread throughout my life, and knew I didn’t want to pursue a conventional civilian life any longer. With the right support, I have been awkwardly navigating a new approach to living.

What’s been your hardest challenge?

As an artist, my hardest challenge is confronting and overcoming self-doubt, and to accept my choice of lifestyle. I fight with myself regularly, which can lead to an empty time period of not fulfilling my exploration and work.

What successes or achievements are you most proud of?

My accomplishments in my eight years of service in the Marines are far and away the proudest moments of my life thus far. As an artist, I have received a few awards in exhibitions for my paintings which have been a tremendous confidence boost, but the first time I was able to complete a convincing painting that resembled my dog (my first muse) just made me smile and launched me onto a journey to see how far I can go on the creative path.

What’s your advice for anyone who wants to explore art, but can’t seem to find the time or feels intimidated by a blank canvas?

When it comes to finding the time, I believe it’s the ‘simple’ (but not simple) task of ‘making the time.’ Others’ mileage may vary, but I have found that if exploring a creative interest is important, then I have been willing to sacrifice lesser wants/desires to have the time to be consumed by confounding muses.

As a helping hand, I recommend joining a class, a local group like the Lehigh Art Alliance, or any regularly scheduled meet-up with others who share the interest. The routine and desire to be around peers has helped draw me out and remain involved, especially when I am dreading a blank canvas.

Did the pandemic have an impact on your work or how you work?

The pandemic worked for me and against me. It hit two months after my first major show with the Lehigh Art Alliance. I was dipping my toe in the water, expanding my exposure. It was a practically perfect early experience. I was quickly welcomed into a new support group, and one of my paintings won an award. Then Covid hit. I hadn’t realized how much I relied on my weekly art class, and with classes being canceled, I slumped and didn’t pick up a paint brush for a year. Ironically, it was during that lapse of output that I first began using ‘artist’ to describe my occupation to others.  Between my pre-Covid boost in confidence, and society at large adjusting to a ‘new normal,’ I began feeling more comfortable embracing the idea of committing to this new pursuit.

Anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your art with readers?

One of my early discoveries about the mystique surrounding art and its impact on culture has been its role in communication. I have a perception of myself that I struggle to interpret/describe what I am feeling with words. I feel clumsy with words, and can become frustrated not explaining myself well — not just to others, but also to myself. I am finding that a painting is a powerful vehicle to communicate what I am unable to verbalize. If I was to describe this show on display at EPL, I would say it is ‘a collection of things that make me smile.’

[You can view more of Drew Tilton’s work at his Instagram.]


ART@EPL is the library’s exciting partnership with the Lehigh Art Alliance and the Lehigh Valley Arts Council. The series is funded through a grant from PA Partners in the Arts, making it possible for area residents to enjoy free art lectures and workshops from local artists working in pastels, charcoal, sculpture, and watercolor among others.

Visit the ART@EPL page to see all the artists who have led workshops and exhibited work at the library as part of ART@EPL.