Art, Joy and Teaching Art

So this is a little different sensibility than my usual rantings.

I worked as a substitute art teacher yesterday at a local high school. In spite of being an artist, I don’t have an art credential. It was just the luck of the draw that they put me in this classroom.

Being a substitute is generally incredibly boring. But since it was art, and I care deeply about art, I pushed through students’ resistance to paying any attention to a substitute, demanded that they be quiet when I was speaking, and spent a little time (like 2 minutes) with the two drawing classes talking about drawing. What I said was something like, You think the hard part of drawing is getting the lines on the paper. But really the key to drawing is seeing what’s there.

Then I told the class I would be coming around and seeing if they were stuck, and whether I could help them. They seemed slightly taken aback that a substitute would do anything but sit at the desk. I was able to squeeze through the narrow aisles (43 students per class), and engage in conversations. The students’ task was a hard one. A still life of empty wine jugs and either shoes or small shiny home appliances–with cords wrapped around them, I might add.

Many of them were beginners. One boy sat for most of the class with a blank paper. “I can’t draw,” he said. I’ve been here a week and I can’t do it.” I wish I had said something different, but it was, “Anyone can learn to draw. You just have to be patient.” Then I sat down next to him and showed that the tall cowboy boot was a tall thin shape at a slant, and that the bottle next to it was perpendicular. I sketched in the roundness of the heel. He seemed to feel a little relieved that at least there was something on his paper. As an artist, I find the hardest thing do deal with is the blank canvas or page. Just get some marks on it.

A lot of kids were having trouble with representing the bottom of the glass bottles. As I went around I asked them to look at where the circle at the bottom actually appeared to be in relation to the sides. Over and over I said, “Look at what’s there, not what you think is there.”

Walking around looking at the drawings I was filled with joy. I tried to point out things that I liked about each drawing. One of the problems beginning artists have is knowing when something is good and I think negative critiques do a great deal of harm to beginners. I could see that some of them didn’t believe me, but there was a little bit more energy in their pencil marks as they got back to work.

There was one interaction that inspired me to write this post:

I walked by a girl who had a decent drawing, but was having trouble with representing the way the jug handle attached to the neck. I asked her to look at it. I pointed to her drawing and then at the jug. “Look, there’s this nice graceful curve.” Meaning in the jug, and then noticed that the lip of the opening was further toward the viewer than the handle. “I know,” she said, “but I don’t know how to draw it.” “Just look,” I said. “Draw what’s there.”

I came back a few minutes later and the girl and the boy next to her, who were friends, were now struggling with the cord wrapped around the iron that was the other object in their still life. I said that I really liked the way she had drawn the beginning of the cord where it exits the iron. On my next pass, the boy had drawn the plug. There was something about the drawing of the plug that sent a little thrill of joy up my spine.

“Wow, I really like that plug.” I laughed just because it was wonderful. The boy looked downcast. “See, she laughed,” he told the girl. Oh my God, what have I done, I thought. “No, I laughed from joy. I love what you did. A beautiful line on a paper makes me happy.” They likely thought I am a little crazy, which maybe I am. Joy in school?

Maybe we need a little more craziness in school. Philip Jackson, a scholar, wrote that life in schools is emotionally neutral.

I’ve been thinking about what happened ever since, and about the jug with the graceful curve. Maybe I helped some kids actually look at commonplace objects in a new way. I thought about the designer of the jug who intentionally or not put that little graceful curve into the mold that was used to make millions of cheap wine jugs. Last night before sleep I read a poem which I connect to my experience.

A Hundred Objects Close by
by Mira, 16th Century Indian (woman) poet

I know a cure for sadness:
Let your hands touch something
that makes your eyes smile.

I bet there are a hundred objects close by
that can do that.

Look at
Beauty’s gift to us–
her power is so great she enlivens
the earth, the sky, our
(translation by Daniel Ladinsky)