Serious Business

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Russ offered a great story about an art class experience. It reminded me of my own brief career as an art student. I was ten years old. And I had some talent, if you don’t mind my… saying so. If I’d had an Evie Coates to mold and direct my genius, who knows what I might have become? But my artistic growth was stunted by a conviction that Art Is Supposed to Be Serious Business. By the time I recovered, it was too late.

B county Board of Education put on a summer enrichment program for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, and I signed up for a painting class. (I signed up for Rocketry too, but that fact doesn’t figure into this story). It was the summer of 1980; the American hostages were still being held in Iran (surprisingly, that fact does figure into this story).

The first day of our class, our teacher stalked in five or ten minutes late. She surveyed the bright and willing faces of her nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-old students. She seemed unimpressed.

The teacher wasn’t much taller than the eleven-year-olds in the class, but she was an imposing presence nevertheless. Her eyes somehow flickered back and forth between heavy-lidded indifference and an artistic wildness that I have since decided was mostly affectation. ut it made an impression on me at the time, I don’t mind telling you.

“If you’re here because you want to paint pretty pictures for your mama…” she began, then she paused for effect. Her gaze fell on me; she could see on my face how much I loved my mama, and it disgusted her. “If all you want is to make pretty pictures for your mama, I’d suggest you leave this class right now and go get yourself a camera.”

My mama, of course, was paying for my art lessons. She was expecting to get at least one pretty picture out of the deal, and who could blame her? There was an artist in town who made a good living painting pictures of derelict barns and outmoded farm equipment, all in neutral tones. He was one of my mother’s favorites, and I secretly planned to surprise her with a painting in his style.

“Art isn’t just pretty pictures,” the teacher was continuing. “Real art says something. Real art makes a stand. Real art is political.” She had made her way to a large stretched canvas that faced against the wall, and even I, the naive ten-year-old, could see a Dramatic Flourish coming.

When the teacher whipped the canvas around to face us, it electrified the room. It was a life-sized portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Only when you looked at it closer (the teacher invited all of us to come up and get a closer look), you could see that the pupils of his eyes were actually the silhouettes of people running for terror, and his flowing gray beard was actually the smoke of a burning village at the bottom of the canvas. There were more people running in terror out of the village houses. They were naked, for some reason. Lurid flames licked in the background.

It was a political painting, the teacher explained. It took a stand.

I don’t know how many Khomeini supporters there were in Middle Georgia at the time, but I had to admit, this painting would definitely give them something to think about. It was strong meat.

I gave up on my idea of painting a barn and a rusty harrow. That didn’t Say Anything. I soon realized, however, that I didn’t have Anything Much to Say–not at ten years old, anyway. I ended up painting a picture of a football player. He was the last person remaining on the field; even the stands were empty. In the top-right corner of the canvas, a blue balloon was floating away into the ether. The balloon was supposed to Symbolize Something, though I don’t think I knew what, even at the time. My teacher was not very impressed (see–she wasn’t entirely lacking in judgment). Mama wasn’t impressed either, though she was polite about it. Shortly thereafter I put away my paints and moved on to other interests.

Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


10 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, once wrote:

    “In most men there exists a poet who died young, whom the man survived.”

    Thanks for the post.

  2. evie

    Is it okay if I smack a total stranger, assuming that she survived the toll that a mean spirit and a grim view of Art and children can take on one’s soul? Where is she? Is her name Viola Swamp? Miss Minchin? Let me at ‘er…

    My mom is in her twenty-second year of teaching music to young people, kindergarten through fourth grade. Through all of these long years, her mantra has remained, “I never want to be that teacher who made someone hate music.” She doesn’t chant it under her breath while spinning in circles and stroking a string of beads or anything, but it is what I remember hearing her say, many more times than just once. And this has become my underlying theme as well.

    I became an Art teacher when I had no formal education toward that particular end (I’ll try to stay really ambiguous about that fact), but I do have an Art degree, for the record and for my ego’s sake. The headmaster, in his very nice suit and with a firm handshake, asked “Can you handle a classroom of sixteen children?” “Yes I can,” I replied, confident and standing-up-straight on the outside, but hollering and running for the distant hills on the inside. “Alright then. Welcome.”

    Cue the goosebumps and the gag reflex. Did I mention that I was hired the week before faculty inservice?

    Now, four years later, the issue of paramount importance for me as an educator is to make sure that the kiddos that walk into my classroom are having a positive interaction with the creative process. I am not aiming to broadcast that I’m doing this job the right way while this dour instructor of yours was completely without virtue. What I am saying that a child’s self-esteem as a growing, creative being is a soft, pliable material, and must be handled with the warmest, most tender touch. I hope and pray that the children who come to me view this as a safe haven for triumphs and mess-ups alike. I try to interject, as often as I can, that this journey of Art is never about the end, it’s about what we learn in the process. Perfection is not required, only effort and enthusiasm. Do I sound like a teacher or WHAT?!

    As for handling a classroom of sixteen children, I must say that it has come naturally. My interactions with these little people are some of the most joyous and unique ones of my life. Seeing the lightbulb brighten and blaze above a kid’s spiky-haired bed-head in the morning is truly life-giving. We laugh a lot in Art class. The kids chuckle when I call the boys “babydoll” or when I draw cartoons with mohawks and buck teeth on the board. I digress…

    May I take this opportunity, Jonathan, long-winded as it may be, to apologize on behalf of Art educators everywhere for the way you were made to perceive creativity as a political tool or a cold means to an end, even if the skewed view you were given lasted only until some smart, well-adjusted adult informed you otherwise.

    I’d like to see the paintings you did for your mama, because I’m sure they came from a heart brimming with warmth and love. I have experienced, on more than one occasion, that the heart’s contents can’t help but magically gush forth from the paintbrush and flood the canvas with fantastical color.

  3. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Evie, I did an author visit at your school last spring and I did notice some very impressive art on the walls. It looks like your kids are having a great time.

    I didn’t really mean for my story about art class to come across as the cry of a wounded heart. I thought I was playing the scene for laughs–an art teacher whips out a portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini (with nekked people!) for a bunch of kids who thought they were going to be painting still lifes and ponies. That is funny…isn’t it?

  4. evie

    Yes, it’s funny, truly. I and my co-teacher were just laughing ourselves silly about it. But I suppose my protective, slightly righteous nerve was also struck, nay…thwacked. That nerve was violently thwacked. I can be a bit of a mother hen sometimes. But what woman would be considered complete without that killer “hurt-my-kid-and-I’ll-hurt-you” instinct?

  5. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    My art classes make me want to pull my hair out half of the time. The kids I have are teenage boys with all various sorts of behavioral issues and I feel good if I can convince even one of them that art isn’t about whether or not you’ve achieved perfection. A couple of months ago a boy drew a posterboard-sized picture of Ghostrider (superhero) and had it nearly all done in colored pencil and marker when he decided it wasn’t good enough and wadded it up and threw it away. I was so mad at him. I made him dig it out of the trash and iron it out. In retrospect, probably not the best reaction, but I get so tired of kids putting down their own work because they think it’s not good enough. Wonder where that kind of attitude comes from? Hmmm, I wonder. Sometimes parents are a kid’s worst enemy.

  6. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Jonathan,

    In high school I had a great psychology teacher and really good English teachers. At least partly through their communication of their passion for their subjects, I’ve had a lifelong interest in reading/writing and all things psyche, especially as regarding the Christian life. On the other hand, I had a history teacher that communicated little but that history was a series of sleep-inducing facts unrelated to anything in the real world. He may have had passion for history, but was unable to communicate it. And in thinking back, I remember before high school I was fascinated by the Revolutionary War, by Custer, by Lincoln, by the colonization of America; I read a lot of history. But a single teacher who communicates boredom with a subject, or in your case the ridiculous idea that art is merely a political tool, can have a huge influence on a young person. That’s one of the things I’ve seen with my kids: If I am passionate about a topic, it’s likely that they will catch the passion from me, or at the very least will be passionate about their own interests. A while back I committed to getting up early to read the Bible; my son would come down when he woke up to sit on my lap. It wasn’t but a few days before he was getting out Bible books on his own during the day. The idea is “If this is so important to a grownup, it must be exciting and interesting and necessary and fun.”

    I had the same impulse as Evie. Quite a few less-than-charitable terms came into my head when I read about your teacher, terms which I will keep safely to myself.

  7. Micah Pick

    Right now I’m sitting in a classroom learning how to become a teacher. In fact right now we’re talking about art and music teachers. But this essay, and the discussion that followed was more educational that what the proffesor is saying. As a music education major, I found this post very interesting. I laughed quite often, but it is interesting how one teacher can keep a person from enjoying art, or music. I know in my grade school no one liked either the music teacher or the art teacher. So very few kids that I grew up with had an appreciation for either. I know I was only saved because I had a marvelous piano teacher who taught me to love music. I didn’t start to enjoy art until just recently. Thank you all for making me think more about my future in teaching than my proffesor is doing.

  8. Amanda

    Wow…I feel like I just got invited to sit at the “cool kids’ table” as I read these posts and enter into your lives and minds…

    I read an article once that seems to apply to this discussion (here’s the link: http://homeschooloasis.com/art_biblical_sats_of_learning.htm). It is from a homeschool mom (like myself) who said that all things in life have a science, art and tools. It revolutionized the way that I thought about life, my relationship with God, cooking….and a few other tasks. Art is something we all create. Unfortunately, some of us don’t see ourselves as very creative. Or we’re afraid our art will make people laugh and we never share it. I love to think about studying something and then applying myself to artfully share my take on that thing with others. I have God-given tools. It’s like “Snoodle’s Tale”…the Veggie Tales movie. All of us have a pack with paints…we just have to learn what to do with it.

    I sometimes (as a homeschool mom) find myself teaching my daughter to do things “right” all the time. And I realize that art is one of those things that doesn’t have to be done “right”. I shouldn’t congratulate my 6-year-old only when her bird looks like a bird.

    Anywho, I wanted to share the insight that I received about the S-A-Ts. Science, Art and Tools. Changed me!

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