Entries Tagged as 'lessons'

The Teacher

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

the teacher

The Teacher
(Pen and India Ink)

* * * * *

“Life in the classroom is real, adventuresome, thrilling, and demanding. How do we get ourselves out in the open? How do we wake up?…Let us acknowledge that a school is more than a place or a staff or a student body; it is a process: of bringing to birth, of awakening.”

–excerpts from Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, & the Person, by M.C. Richards

* * * * *

Ninth grade was a difficult year for me, as it is for so many ninth graders. I’d started a new school, my parents were divorcing, and that thing called adolescence was underway. But it was also the year I met someone who forever changed me, the year I took my first art class with Dr. Dianne Skye.

Dianne was the art teacher at P. K. Yonge Developmental Research School for many years, and I recently attended her retirement celebration. She was a tireless instructor, a strong artist and potter, and also had trained in the same counselor education program from which I later received my PhD. Other teachers had loved me before, but Dianne was the first who loved me openly, without apology. While I believe that she loved all of her students, I know that her love saved me.

Sometimes I’d arrive at school unable to compose myself. The divorce was painful, and I engaged in a good bit of uncontrollable sobbing. I’d stumble into Dianne’s classroom before the first bell and take refuge in her tiny office, where she’d light a candle, position tissue, and quietly close the door before leading students through home room. She didn’t ask a lot of questions, but we gradually became close.

Later that year, Dianne gave me The Artist’s Way, a book that has since become very popular. At thirteen, though, I’d never seen anything like it, and I was profoundly impacted. Dianne had inscribed kind words on the inside cover and signed her name, “Love, Dianne.” Those gifts, the book and her love, are still with me today.

I devoured the first chapter and immediately committed myself to Morning Pages–three pages of stream-of-consciousness long-hand writing every morning, first thing in the morning, without fail. On weekdays, this required waking up at 5:30am, which I did.

I filled hundreds of pages while I worked my way through the book. It’s a big undertaking, and not necessarily one I’d opt for at this age or stage of life. But back then, the book meant survival. I’d always kept a journal, but writing each morning formed a lifeline, a way to consistently put overwhelming, chaotic life experiences in a safe container. My journal became my own candlelit office, my own refuge. I wrote Morning Pages for the next fifteen years, and I still revive the practice when I need new direction and guidance.

 I took art classes with Dianne until I left for college, most of which I spent in the potter’s studio throwing pots. Sitting at the wheel and centering clay, I learned to center myself, too. Periodically, Dianne would check on me, give me a few tips if I needed them, and then return to teaching her classes. When I’d leave for the day, she’d hug me and tell me she loved me.

I never tired of hearing those words, and I carry her influence inside me. She’s there when I teach, when I open my office as a refuge,  when I encourage my students and clients to write or paint or otherwise express their overwhelming experiences in the safe container of creativity. In this way, her love continues to multiply.

Perhaps at the heart of every great teacher is love.

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.

Kids Know

Friday, July 25, 2014

Kids Know

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Pablo Picasso

Another reason I didn’t want lessons: I believed Picasso. I wanted access to the spontaneous, natural quality of play that children bring to art-making. I’d lost it, and I wanted it back.

Today, some of my favorite studio visitors are my nephews and the neighborhood kids. They walk in and immediately want to get involved. They pick up my brushes and pallet knives and start poking at the piles of paint. They walk up to my canvas and slide their grubby hands across the surface, feeling for the wet parts. Of course I have to intervene, but I do this by acknowledging their curiosity and excitement, their desire to participate in the action. I grab a sketchbook and the jumbo box of crayons I keep for just these occasions. I lay them out on the floor and say, “Here, make something too. Let’s make stuff together.”

Their pictures amaze me. Usually, they’ve looked up at my painting for inspiration and made a simplified and highly creative interpretation of my composition. I look down at their work and think, “I wish I’d made that. I’m stealing that.” Their work is innocent yet sophisticated, confident without the slightest hint of ego. That’s the purity of children for you–and that’s art enough for me.

On Lessons, Part 1

Thursday, July 24, 2014

On Lessons

I was wary of lessons. I was wary because I’d been a dutiful, studious girl since I was five years old, and I had a lot more lessons ahead of me. I was twenty-five when I caught the painting bug (or it caught me), waste-deep in student loan debt rising all the time, and six years out from Phinally Done. I couldn’t escape the desire to paint and ultimately succumbed to the call, but the last thing I wanted was to take another lesson before I could do what I wanted to do.

This posed a bit of a problem, though, because I didn’t know how to paint, and everyone around me suggested, kindly enough, I suppose, that I take some lessons to get started. They had a point, after all: I’d spent my high school art classes shirking the still lifes and nudes for the potter’s wheel, and during undergrad, I’d studied political science. Between high school and grad school, I only made some personal, abstract, and frankly disturbing pen-and-ink drawings. I was neither talented nor skilled at realistic rendering; nor did I derive any enjoyment from it. To me, realistic art felt like copying.

The way I saw it, why try to paint realistically when I could just take a picture? I know, I know–the capacity to depict something realistically is supposedly one of the artist’s finest tools.  And if I’d had a whole life to lead alongside the one I was living, I’d have happily studied formal painting while dressed in a fine corset, big hat, and high-laced boots alongside beret-clad, bad-breathed flirty Frenchmen on the shores of the Seine. Only I didn’t have that other life, I just had the one that I was in, broke and busy and full to the brim with lessons and homework and rudiments and administrative hoops and boring lecture upon boring lecture.  I didn’t want to study painting. I wanted to paint.

I knew from prior exposure that even beloved trailblazing artists were deemed more respectable because they’d birthed realistic art babies before they abandoned them.  This notion, however, sounded rather like hazing to me. Why spend years trying to acquire skills that my favorite artists had gleefully abandoned? Besides, I didn’t particularly like realistic art. The finest realistic stuff I’d seen in the museums wasn’t art I’d actually want to live with, work under, or even gaze at while recovering from a serious illness. I could certainly appreciate the Renaissance masters, marvel at how uncannily life-like their depictions were, to say nothing of how much time that must have taken, but those paintings, drawings, and sculptures didn’t move me. There was almost a chilly quality to that kind of precision, an absence of the soul, save for subtle distinctions in brush strokes, pigment quality, lighting, blah, blah, blah…

It was all so…safe.

I much preferred the wild, off-kilter work in which the artists had broken free of their formal training (if they had any to begin with). Those artists seemed to have gone off shrieking naked through the fields to get to new places where they found themselves reborn and brought us back the same tired world through their glowing never-to-be-alive-again eyes. That art wasn’t safe. That art made me want to rise, wiggle and shake. That art moved, and I moved with it.

I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to move and be moved by my own paintings.

Which brings me back to the matter of lessons. I was clear I didn’t want them, and equally clear that I wanted, possibly needed, to paint. What to do?

The first thing I did was buy some paints and canvases from the local art store with a little of that wonderful student loan money I keep mentioning. The second thing was to sit down on my floor, spread it all out, and put some paint on a brush and then on the canvas. The third thing was to keep going when I made work I didn’t want to live with, and the fourth thing was to accept that if I wasn’t going to take lessons, I would have to make my peace with learning on the job.

Making my peace with learning on the job meant that I had to define what success meant to me, since I wasn’t going to be defining my work against the work of others or assessing its merits according to other people’s standards. And if I wasn’t comparing my work to other people’s standards, how could I know if my paintings were any good? Indeed, without this external frame of reference, how could I even know if I liked my own paintings or not?

How I sorted this out could fill another dissertation, but I promise I won’t do that to either of us. I will write a little more on this later, but for now, suffice it to say that I did, gradually, stake my claim to a self-directed creative life. The liberation involved me stepping, one by one, through a substantial array of stinky piles, piles I didn’t even know existed until I was in them, piles I didn’t smell until I was learning to paint, learning to trust myself, and learning to clean my shoes.

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