“Draw something from your life,” I told the students. “A place where you enjoy spending time, a place you want to remember.” I intended to stay hopeful amidst their slump into hoodies, the yawns and whispers. It takes a certain type of core strength that has nothing to do with sit-ups when substitute teaching. And middle school art class was a particular reminder of a personal long-standing weakness.
For I too once groaned when my own middle school art teacher greeted us in the cellar room of a century old building. A room that was accessed only by a back stairwell of twisting, polished steps, I steeled myself against panic when she whipped out the template of whatever we were about to make. I’d only had one primary school art triumph- an image of my cat, Tiger, carved into a thin sheet of tin. My mom even framed it.
On this morning, I was at the beginning of a two-month assignment I’d begged to refuse.
“Art? I can’t teach art,” I said to the nice secretary who called me on the late spring day just two days earlier. I’d been napping on the couch and was bummed I’d answered the phone. I liked when she emailed me about things.
“You are so creative, you will be perfect,” she said.
I argued back, launched into whatever I could remember as proof of my disastrous art history.
“Actually, I have no spatial awareness and can’t draw things from memory. And my pottery — none of the pieces I’ve ever done in Family Camp have ever worked out. They all crack!”
I happened to know that the middle school art teacher did a lot with clay. The kiln was always going. I knew nothing about kilns. I imagined myself accidentally burning down the school.
“You know, creativity is not the same as artistic ability,” I added to what was becoming a personal anti-sales pitch.
Surely, she was confused about me because I wore cowboy boots and once owned a knitting shop. I’d given off the wrong impression. I needed to set her straight.
“I’m an ideas person. I need other people to execute them.”
“We are in a real bind, everyone else said no.”
That shut me up. I paused. I calculated that I’d be a hero for just saying yes, especially since I’d told her the truth about my drawing limitations.
“I’ll think about it,” I said, and then, wondered aloud, “maybe I could teach them how to knit?”
“I’ll have her call you,” the secretary replied, referring to the art teacher who had just taken an emergency leave of absence.
“You are going to be fine!” the art teacher said to me minutes later, as if she could just will it so and then rattled off the names of artists the different classes were studying.
“The fifth graders are beginning their Mod Podge guitar projects; they are in the front closet.”
“Mod Podge?” I had a friend who was always talking about Mod Podge. I never paid attention.
Art teacher kept going.
“Do you know how to use a kiln? The sixth graders are finishing up their Bas-relief. Then starting…”
“Wait, what again is Bas-relief?” I pictured the animal inspired clay things that rested on our bookcase that my boys made years ago. Was that it?
“You know, the sixth grade Greek unit.”
A goddess painting, made by one of my boys, floated into my awareness, the gold crown.
I scribbled the words she spoke.
“And the Pop Art project, the eighth graders, you know Roy Lichtenstein, your boys did them.”
“Lichtenstein. Roy Lichtenstein. You know, the pop art project.
This was not the time for me to agree that of course I remembered even though it would have been easier, less embarrassing. Of course, I should know Roy.
“Pop Art? Can you remind me again what exactly makes something Pop Art?” I was cringing as I spoke. I had a sense of pop art but not in the way that I fully understood its parameters. Art was slippery like that.
“You know, pop art, the…. Lichtenstein, Roy”
Her voice was now tailing off and I wondered if it was her pain medication or that she finally got me. That I did not know her friend Roy Lichtenstein no matter how many times she repeated the name. And that I should. And she knew it and I knew it.
“What about-” she paused “-maybe you should do something you are comfortable with,
Blick.com” she says and then “check out the different projects. Pick one that appeals — to you – you know that resonates.”
“Great idea! I’ll do that. I’ll check it out- I’ll call you when I find something. You know, check it with you, see what you think.”
It was there, on that art website a couple hours later, that I did stumble on a project that sparked my curiosity, sent me on a trail of discovery. It was a project inspired by Faith Ringgold’s story quilts. Ringgold’s painted quilts merged personal story with history; they were quilts that included text. I knew a little about quilts, was born from generations of women who sewed.
I knew that no one could say a story was wrong like they could a drawing of a scene that did not have perspective. Stories are personal. Turning stories into art was something I understood.
I went to the library that weekend, took out books on quilts, on Faith Ringgold. I called on my two friends who worked with fabric and asked if they had any scraps to donate. One of them, an interior designer, offered me a bag of richly colored and textured European squares. My other friend had a surplus of her own tie-dyed cloth. The fabrics, on their own, were inspiring with their vibrant expressive palettes; they made me feel like the project was nearly half-way done. I would have the kids use the fabric to make a colorful border on canvas that would frame their scene.
I remembered a particular moose, from three decades earlier, also that weekend. I had taken a “Teaching of Art” class for a Master’s degree. The professor had given us a directive that profoundly altered my approach to drawing. He pinned up a picture of a moose in front of the class and took his hand and traced the outer edges of the body.
“Look at the outline,” he told us. “Follow it with your eyes.”
He gave us the next instruction.
“Don’t look at your hand, just put your pen on paper and follow the edges of the moose all the way around.”
I did this, kept my eyes on the moose, letting my hand go as slowly as I dared. With no expectation about this exercise, the outcome – we weren’t supposed to look, so of course we would fail, or so I thought— there was freedom, a letting go. He was watching us, making sure we looked only at the painting. I was forced abandon judgement on my progress, forced to keep going.
When I finally came to the end of the outline, I looked down. Three decades later the moment is still fresh.
In front of me, on my paper, stood a moose.
On the first day of my art assignment in middle school with sleepy eighth graders, I tell them about this professor, my miracle drawing of a moose. I tell them it is a magical exercise, they must trust me, that if it worked for me it will surely work for them – because no one is as bad at art as me, I brag. I put up a poster with a moose while they snicker.
Some of them try. There is a lot of looking down at the paper despite my admonitions. They laugh about their attempts as they compare with each other and I am so glad I am not them, as I once was, terrified that my lack of competence on the paper reflected some sort of deeper inadequacy about me.
I introduce Faith Ringgold. We discuss her life and I am proud to have her by my side, grateful to have found someone who put words on paintings that leave no doubt what the art means, what it symbolizes.
I hang the fabrics that were given to me from my friends around the room; I display a variety of quilts. The room transforms from this textile art and I am already more comfortable with Bas-relief out of the picture. I bring in my mom’s fabric shears, and I show the kids how fabric rips in strips. They are delighted by this discovery.
One day, a month in, I wear my blue moon dress to school, a long, indigo soft washed dye of crescents and stars. I throw on long dangly earrings, my funky boots that don’t quite match. But now I’m the art teacher. And when the whispering girls compliment me –“fancy,” one of them says, (as if I know what I’m doing) — I realize that artists get away with anything.