On Lessons, Part 2

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Lessons 2

My First Mentor

 “Anything good you’ve ever been given is yours forever.”
Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, from Kitchen Table Wisdom, Stories that Heal

Previously, I wrote about my reluctance to take lessons when I started painting. Here’s the second half of that story.

After I’d painted steadily for a year and exhibited several times, I ran into an acquaintance from high school who’d studied painting in college. I was excited about my painting practice, and I thought that perhaps she was the right person to give me some additional painting tools, without upsetting my painting style or growing self-trust. I shared my fears that lessons would change how I approached painting, that I would lose my intuitive and permissive way.  She seemed to understand my concerns, and we agreed to start informal bi-weekly lessons. The only condition, she said, was that I’d have to switch from acrylics to oil paints.  She said she knew how to use oil paints, and that they were more versatile than acrylics, and possibly more respectable, too.

I did what I was told. I became a good student.

In terms of painting methods, I learned some useful things. She reminded me about the perspective basics–to make background objects look distant, make them blurrier than foreground objects.  She encouraged me to make studies, small quick paintings of tree parts I loved–bark, roots, leaves. She got me thinking about paint texture and brush strokes, whereas before, my painting surface was smooth, simple, and clean.  She suggested I consider scale and showed me good brushes to buy. She helped me set up a painting station with a glass pallet and an industrial paint scraper, an arrangement I’ve found endlessly useful. I’m grateful to the ways she expanded my understanding of paint.

There were, however, some problems, and ones I write about here in case a budding artist is considering the question of lessons.

* * * * *

 In my mind, I’d hired this my painting teacher as a consultant, so going into the lessons, I felt in charge. I wanted help with the tools of painting–with the how–not with what or why to paint it. She assisted with the how, but, in retrospect, it was a setup for us both. I was her first student, so she was learning about teaching painting as much as I was learning about studying painting. I came into the relationship feeling empowered, strong about my own paintings, but the shift to oil paints immediately disoriented me. I was out of my native language, scrambling to learn hers. There was no way to retain my original impulses as I followed to my teacher’s instructions to use the slow drying, toxic, foul-smelling, mushy paint. Nothing worked the way it had before. Nothing was intuitive. From this place, I had to submit to her knowledge, her way of doing things. It was the only way to move forward with the lessons. I complied.

Eventually, things got complicated, and we dissolved the relationship. I got the sense that no matter how well I painted in her eyes, or how many of my paintings sold, she would always be the teacher, always be the “better” artist. There are few relationships in which this kind of rigid top-down dynamic truly benefits both parties.

I went my own way artistically and socially, abandoning oil paints and returning to acrylics with joy and relief. I set about re-learning a way to paint that was authentically my own. But I struggled. There seemed to be no going back. I couldn’t pick up a brush without hearing my former teacher’s commentary in my head. She was full of rules and suggestions, full of judgments. When it came down to it, she was better than me; I was not really an artist but a student, an amateur, a hobbyist. In her eyes, I still had much to learn from her, and I’d given up. These were the messages that played in my head when I approached the canvas. It was hard; I wasn’t free.

I had to accept that whether I liked it or not, the lessons had changed me. Painting would never be the same.  I would have to find a way forward, a way to take the useful things I’d gathered and leave the rest behind. Eventually, I found my way, and those lessons and my memories around them have softened over the years. I learned as much from that teacher about what kind of teacher I don’t want to be as about what is helpful, and both learnings have been invaluable.

Recently, after a big exhibition downtown, I ran into her at the grocery store. We hugged, exchanged niceties, and she said she’d seen my recent show. “I was pleased to see that my little pupil is still painting,” she said. My skin crawled. It all came back in a flash. I wanted to defend myself and run away. I just stood there, feeling small and angry. The truth is, I was painting well before her, and haven’t stopped painting in the many years since. She was not responsible for my art, then or now. Sadly, I don’t think she realized how condescending her statement was; such a notion just came naturally to her. I let it pass without comment, and we said goodbye.

* * * * *

 I’ve been a teacher for awhile now, too–over a decade teaching in college classrooms.  The roles of teacher and therapist are sacred to me, and ask me to hold a particular intention. That intention is to help my students and clients awaken to their own inner guidance, wisdom, and authority, at which point they no longer need me. I’m a humanist by nature, which means I believe people  know what’s best for them better than I know what they need. My job is to help remove barriers and tangles. Once that’s done, people are off and running on their own, in ways that surprise and even amaze me. What they need to live and thrive may have nothing to do  with what I imagine they need. It’s humbling, in the best possible way.

Teaching and therapy are, for me, positions of service, not of superiority. In fact, I measure my effectiveness by how quickly I can make myself obsolete. I want my students and clients to outgrow me and teach others what they have learned and know from their own lives. Then, learning and growth are truly mutual and lifelong.

All of my best therapists, teachers, and mentors have worked with me in this way. They’ve given me what they had to offer with great love, and without asking for acknowledgement or credit. Their pleasure came from watching me begin to thrive. Both then and now, I am not their little pupils carrying on their wonderful influence, but rather a fellow sojourner in touch with a greater life force that is guiding me along my path.

* * * * *

At the Gestalt Center of Gainesville, Inc., my mentor, the late Dr. Pat Korb, would mail readings on Gestalt theory to participants before a weekend intensive process group. When group started, we’d gather in a circle and check in. She’d say a few things about Gestalt theory and practice, and then take questions. Folks would bring up theoretical concepts they found confusing. Pat would explain a little, shift in her chair, maybe even yawn. Then she’d say, “You know, we need just enough theory to get into the process. That’s all we ever need from theory–just enough to get us to the process. So, who has something coming up right now  you’d like to explore?”  Pat loved theory, but only to the extent that it supported the process. The latter was where the magic happened, where people transformed into more alive,  honest beings right before her eyes. When I hired my painting teacher, I guess I wanted her to be like Pat. But she wasn’t Pat, and she wasn’t a therapist, and she hadn’t even been a teacher before. So I cut her, and myself, lots of slack about the way that all went down.

In the Gestalt group, when Pat asked who had some personal work to do, my hand inevitably shot up.  I was carrying around a lot of stuff from childhood, a lot of restrictive “shoulds” and shames that had little to do with who I really was. Pat would expertly guide me to the feelings and sensations in my body until we’d arrive at my own knowings, my own truths. There’d be no judgment, no superiority, just profound respect in her eyes.

Each time I’d leave the group, I’d be a little more untangled. I could listen more closely to myself, and learn from the teacher who really mattered, the one who really knew. It’s that teacher to whom I try to reconnect my students and clients, the one who lives inside them already. Then, I enjoy watching them head off to grow into who they already are, people whose development I could no more take credit for than I could claim credit for the growth instinct of life itself.

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