Closing the door

Yesterday was my last day as a classroom teacher.  After 15 years I’m ready to “graduate” from high school.  I’ll be closing that door, but opening another door to a secret garden– my life as an artist.

On the other side of that door are mornings watching the sun rise and move across the pasture– the most beautiful time of day on my farm, and one of the things I most look forward to.   There will be long days in the studio with music blasting, and colors colliding.  I expect there will be expeditions to creekbeds and hillsides, and sandwiches drawn from a backpack and eaten over  half finished paintings.  But yesterday, teaching stood up tall and asserted itself to remind me of all that’s good about it– sharing the magic, alchemy and inquiry of art with hundreds of kids.

Yesterday my sculpture students pulled together an extravaganza– they showed off their body sculptures and light sculptures in a fashion show, complete with a red paper covered runway.  They blacked out all the hall lights and the hall windows and brought in the perfect hip hop recordings for an ultra-hip show.  They recruited willowy girls to model, and lined one side of the hall with their Noguchi inspired light sculptures.   The lights and music were so magical that many people  sat in the hall just to soak it in.  I found myself hanging out there too, enjoying the transformation of the cinderblock public school hallway.  The body sculpture assignment had been to create  something that related to the body, but was not intended for actual practical use.   They’d been plotting this fashion show for weeks.

At the assigned hour students started appearing, having found ways to persuade their teachers to release them from class, or having tricked their teachers into not noticing.  They assembled along the wall opposite the lightshow.  The first model hit the runway moving at a high rate of speed, but once she realized she was the center of attention, she slowed down and started to enjoy it.  The mood was contagious, and each model seemed a little less self-conscious and more inspired by the music, the lights and the admiration of the audience.  Eventually they achieved the kind of strut that the show’s organizers had been encouraging.  Among the creations were a headband with a bow on top, and a metal mustache attached;  a mirrored shield which hid half the face from view and had large metal archs attached, bearing more mirrors; an apron with a barbed wire neck piece, and detergent labels sewn all over it;   a piece worn on the torso that looked like the orbiting moons of some far away planet; a headpiece with a medieval quality;  a bracelet that looked like  an exploded atom on the arm.  There was a headpiece made of peacock feathers and a chest piece made of forks.  There was a metal beard, which I preferred used as a breastplate.

I had doubted that we had enough energy and work to put together a show worth skipping class for, but I was wrong.  And on my last day of teaching it felt great to have this ebullient, raucous, funny and imaginative experience.    What a spirit, and what a sight on which to close the door.

Conversations against a brilliant background

 

 

Nick Cave Soundsuit 2007
Nick Cave Soundsuit 2007

Today was what I always refer to as “the best day of the school year”–the day I take a group of students to galleries and museums.  These students are members of the Art Club at my school, the purpose of which is to explore the work of artists out in the bigger world. Sometimes we get lucky and we  meet artists, walk into their studios or listen to their stories and explanations.  Many times this is the student’s first trip to an art museum.  I hope that when these young people graduate they will have a high level of comfort in art venues and will continue to  enjoy them and share them with their own children.

It’s hard to beat starting your day at the hospitable McColl Center (www.mccollcenter.org)  with two towering costumes by Nick Cave  backed up by videos of the costumes dancing.

A. The moves are good

B. The costumes are both ravishing and goofy– an unbeatable combination.

My students were enchanted.  That was a hard act to follow, but we forged ahead.  We were spellbound by the giant woodblocks by Kenichi Yoknono.  Instead of creating prints from them, the blocks  stand as the finished work.  They are 6 feet tall, inked in red, and beautifully tactile.

One of my students got up close enough to read the text inside the KKK hoods created and decorated by Willie Little visible through the tiny eye holes.  The hoods were treated coyly as if they were as innocent as  a halloween jack o’ lantern.  They still engaged her hours later.  She was unsettled by the angry/sad messages hidden inside.

Having explored the subject of quilts in class this past week, and Gee’s Bend Quilts specifically, we saw a  quilt show at the Craft and Design Museum.  Part of my problem is that after seeing Gee’s Bend quilts I will never be the same again, or  ever again be intrigued by “pretty quilts”.  I pointed out to the girls who were looking with me, the tedium, and the intensity of the work ethic involved in these quilts.

I always see some yawns and perhaps even have to listen to complaints when we delve deep into an art historical era as we recently have the Harlem Renaissance and its aftermath.  But I heard no such complaints when we stood in the midst of the comprehensive exhibition of the work of Lois Mailou Jones at the Mint Museum on Randolph (www.mintmuseum.org).  Carla Hanzal, curator of contemporary art,  has assembled a whole visual biography of this important artist who defied so many conventions.

Lately I have been doing small paintings of the vegetables that have survived the first frosts, against the background of various textiles I have.  That seems to have really forged some neurological connections for me.  For that reason, I believe,  the textile designs of  Jones’ early career pulled me in. At that place she and I  met and merged as artists.  I wanted to wander around those patterns for hours.  It felt like some kind of meeting of the minds– beyond words and deep in the land of color.   They were painted in velvety gouache.  My students and my colleague pointed out to me the complex skin tones, and her remarkable command of color in her  portraiture.  One of my students asked (astutely I thought– as we’re just finishing up Cezanne) about how Jones’ landscapes painted in Europe relate to Post Impressionism.  What serious fun for the two of us, teacher and student, to dig into the painting and list every way we could find.

Nothing in art is ever more fun than hearing the reactions of the young learner and seeing that tiny glow become a flame– of curiosity and respect .  It’s the beginning of the ignition of new and freer ways of thinking.  It’s the birthing of a mind encouraged to listen to its own voice and the reaching across time and space  of one artist to another.