Identifying defining moments (positive or negative) in my art education is difficult. It would be easier to treat the subject in the abstract, focussing on the overarching transformative power of the arts in my life. My involvement has given me new eyes—made me more empathetic, more engaged, more interested, more involved, less apathetic and less ambivalent. It’s given me hands to work, ears to listen, a mouth to speak and a heart to feel. It’s been an adhesive, of sorts, binding me to the world and the people in it.
Despite the difficulty, I’ll try to identify a few defining moments in the positive and negative throughout the years. As a child, my mother advocated every art form. We sung, danced, drew, painted and sculpted. Before I walked or crawled she held a crayon in my hand and we drew pictures together. My early memories of her are limited to a few brief glimpses of my hands in hers, working and creating. When she passed (I was three) the arts took on a new meaning. They became therapeutic. I felt near to her when I was making. I subscribed (though I didn’t know it) the the Romantic ideology that art can be an intermediary between the seen and the unseen worlds. I felt my mother’s presence when I participated in the creative act. Art became my medium. It helped me to communicate in ways that I otherwise could not.
In school, some teachers cultivated the arts while others seemed much less comfortable with them. I remember being reprimanded in third grade for doodling pictures of Lewis and Clark instead of writing a story about them. To me, the picture told a much more vivid and compelling story. I remember wondering why the two forms of storytelling weren’t completely synonymous.
Ironically, my fondest memory of early art-making in school wasn’t encouraged by an art teacher—it was by a librarian. She was a sweet, hunched over woman who perceived in me a budding affinity for drawing. She asked for permission to have me come into the library to help with a special project. The library, she said, needed posters of literary characters to help the younger kids “get their imaginations going.” So while my class went to the computer lab to practice typing, I went to the library to draw. I thought that was a marvelous trade. That librarian always had the kindest things to say about my terrible drawings.
Later, in high school, I had a one art teacher that made the whole world new, and two art teachers that made it somewhat stale. The two that made it stale focussed on craft, while the other focussed on concept. Perhaps that’s a drastic oversimplification, but while I was in class with the two, I created hollow works of art, devoid of emotion or feeling or depth—technical exercises that, although necessary, never actually spoke. Spelling lessons without ever composing a sentence. And the other teacher elicited so many stirrings that we leapt at the chance to respond. We simultaneously craved technical practice because we recognized that our command of the craft was merely vocabulary to help us communicate. He perceived that we had opinions and ideas that were bubbling beneath the surface, and he cultivated them.