The familiar sound broke the sleepy silence of the early dawn calm almost every morning in their Harrisburg, Pa., neighborhood – the sound of the basketball bouncing, repeatedly, on the driveway, followed by the soft swish of the net suspended from the basket. While her classmates slept, Monica Welborn ’07 was up, launching jump shots at 5 a.m.
As she perfected her release, Welborn thought about the day that awaited her at the city’s Central Dauphin High School. Friendly, sociable and athletic, she liked school, particularly the art program.
“I found it was something that really felt like me,” she recalled of painting and sculpture. “By my senior year, I knew I was finding my passion. I loved doing it.”
The trouble was, her passion was not yet her identity. Though she enjoyed basketball, Welborn resented the long hours her father, Robert Welborn, a strict ex-Navy cook and retired Pennsylvania state police sergeant, made her devote to the game. To him, it was an avenue to a college education. Work at it, he said, and you will reap the rewards.
“It got to the point where I hated it. What teenager wants to get out of bed at 5?” she asked. But, when I saw that colleges wanted me for basketball, I worked even harder. Art kind of fell to the side, and I focused on the next step.”
What Welborn didn’t yet realize, however, was that the two things were already inextricably linked. By her senior year of high school, the 5-foot-10 guard had established herself as a proficient scorer, and with scholarship offers coming in, she decided to enroll at Rider.
She got off to a fast start on the court, too, scoring 12 points in her first game, against Seton Hall. But, at the same time, Welborn was laboring to find herself away from the hardwood.
“It was hard at first, being there as a scholarship athlete and figuring out how to manage my time and find that balance,” she explained. Looking to restore that equilibrium, Welborn enrolled in a class taught by Professor Deborah Rosenthal, an acclaimed New York abstract painter who has taught in the Department of Fine Arts at Rider since 1989. In Rosenthal, Welborn soon recognized someone familiar.
“Because of the way my dad is – he pushes you hard, but with love – I knew how to react to Deborah,” Welborn explained of her instructor. “I knew that she saw something in me.”
As she began to devote more and more of her time to painting, she began to see other similarities between it and the game of basketball. “You have to really push yourself in both things; art is very physical,” Welborn said. Her professor saw it, too.
“Monica had the talent, but at the same time it was clear, as soon as I challenged her, that she had drive and what I would have to call character – because it’s not just talent that makes someone an artist, finally,” said Rosenthal of her pupil. “Interestingly, her experience as an accomplished athlete seemed to me to stand her in good stead: she clearly had already had the experience of self-discipline, of finding it in herself to be self-critical and understand her own development.”
Rosenthal allowed Welborn to remain in the art studio late into the night, painting and shaping the images that struck her, particularly the forms of the head and face. Even as her athletic career was waning during her senior year in 2007, Welborn understood where her future lay.
“You get to the point where you know yourself, and you know you’re not going to play in the WNBA,” explained Welborn, who, fueled by Rosenthal’s challenge to explore her creativity, was accepted at the competitive New York Studio School to pursue a Master of Fine Arts on a full scholarship.
After earning her master’s in 2010, Welborn returned to the classroom at Rider – as an art instructor. “It was completely nerve-wracking at first, but so fun at the same time,” she said. Now, working as an adjunct professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York’s TriBeCa section, Welborn teaches an Introduction to Abstract Art class while she carves out her own niche as a painter. It’s not an easy world to penetrate, but she is exactly where she wants to be.
“If not for basketball, I would’ve still gone to art school, but I don’t how I was going to make it happen. That scholarship changed my whole life – not even just in terms of art, but in every aspect,” Welborn said. “I think it made me go after art even harder. That scholarship was a blessing, so how can I not give 100 percent now?”
At her master’s thesis show in New York, Welborn was eager for her father to witness what she had done with her talent – and with his prodding. “He finally saw the whole picture. I wanted him to see it and appreciate it,” said Welborn, who sold her first painting that night. “He said, ‘Now, what would you have done without me,’ but he was smiling as he said it. He knew sports, and that played a huge role in my life, but he’s got all my thesis art hanging up in his house now. I love him for making me get up at 5 a.m.”
A version of this story appeared in the spring 2012 issue of Rider magazine.