Sunday, August 06, 2006

How to make a cube

I have always had a desire to express myself creatively, but did not pursue visual arts as such an outlet for most of my life. I enjoyed the feel of drawing with colored pencils, oil pastels, anything that leaves a mark on paper and found working with clay to be a calming, sensual experience, but felt I had no natural talent and, therefore, was discouraged from trying much in that realm. Still I've always liked working with my hands and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a project.

I continued to consider myself artistically inept until I had a conversation with an art teacher at one of the schools where I taught for a while. I believe we were at lunch, and I said something to her about how impressed I was with the school's art program. The kids were always working on some interesting project, and the results were consistently spectacular. I believe I finished by saying something along the lines of, "I couldn't manage even half of what they do." The art teacher smiled and told me that the success of the program was based on their philosophy--every student is an artist, they just need to be equipped with the proper skills and tools to dicover this. She went on to remark that she knew of so many places where the approach was to cultivate only the students with 'natural' talent and generally to ignore the rest.

Epiphany! That was my problem. Nearly every art 'lesson' I'd had in school had served to beat me down. With our regular classroom teachers, we did some freehand work, but only representational work was praised. And most of our 'art' time went to coloring in worksheets. Sometimes I'd work hard to accomplish the laudable 'stays between the lines,' but it was boring and took forever. We also did a whole slew of projects involving cut-out shapes that were filled in with tissue paper squares placed over a pencil eraser and then glued down--pumpkins, turkeys, hearts, shamrocks, name the holiday, we made it. Then the 'real' art teacher came about once a month. The one we had for most of my elementary school years was a short, skinny man who didn't seem to particularly like us. Since he visited all of the grades in something like 5 different schools, he never remembered the names of any of us beyond the most obviously talented. I am able to recall the details of three projects in total that I did for him: 2 because I was proud of the outcome, 1 because, really... this is an art project?
  1. Creating a royal portrait. We were told the basics of drawing faces, but the real fun of this project was the glittery gold and silver paint. One baseball-obsessed guy painted a player from the Kansas City Royals. I painted a princess and was quite pleased with her proportions and the judicious use of the special paint (so that it wasn't garish).
  2. Making a ceramic animal. One of the few pottery projects which I've had the opportunity to fully finish, including kiln and glaze. I was so happy mine didn't crack in the kiln, having been careful to avoid the dreaded air bubbles. I was also elated that several other students thought my design was so cool that they decided to make the same animal--and mine still had the best detail.
  3. Making a cube from cardstock. It may be that we decorated them, but the bulk of the project was taking our piece of cardstock, measuring out prescribed distances with our ruler, creating right angles with our protractors, and then cutting out and folding something that, if executed properly, would match everyone else's. It seemed more like a project for math class.
I didn't take any more art classes once it became a choice--those classes were non-academic, thus a waste of time, especially for someone without any talent. I occasionally did little craft projects on my own, and once I became a teacher, incorporated such projects into my lower-level classes. But I refused to think of it as art or of myself as having any artistic ability.

Until my discussion with the art teacher. After our conversation, she invited me to help out with a winter term project. Along with helping her set up and control the middle-school aged students who had signed up, I had the opportunity to plan and execute my own project. She sincerely, I think, complimented my eye for composition, and I took away additional tips from watching her help the students refine their plans. I helped with the same basic project over a few other winter terms, and usually completed another project for myself each time. A couple hang in our place (or hung in our last place and will hang again soon), and I've sent out a few gifts as well. Since those experiences, I have attempted a number of different media and now have the confidence to share them, at least with friends and family.

It's amazing what an impact, for better or for worse, adults' words can have on us as kids. And it can take a long time to question their validity, especially when it's about what we CAN'T do. (And if you're lucky, I'll break out my old traumas about singing and handwriting.)

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