Entries Tagged as 'mentors'

The Teacher

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

the teacher

The Teacher
(Pen and India Ink)

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“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

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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.

Why I Paint Trees

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why I Paint The Trees

Yesterday, a colleague asked me why I paint trees. It’s a question I’ve rarely answered because it’s a long answer, and I never know how interested someone really is. So here it is, if you’re interested, as I know it to be: Why I paint the trees.

It has, like most true stories do, more than one beginning.

Years before I started painting, I was sitting on a surgeon’s examination table awaiting lab results. He’d operated on me to remove pre-cancer when I was eighteen. There was a chance it would come back. This was my first confrontation with my mortality, and I was terrified.

I scanned the windowless walls for images to comfort me–a forest, perhaps, or a tree losing its leaves–something natural to remind me that all living things are in transition, that I was not alone. But I found nothing of the sort–no paintings, no posters, no plants, no art, no color.  It was the first time I distinctly remember missing trees–the first time I needed them and they weren’t there.

The incident stuck with me as I went to other appointments, routine and non-routine check-ups in the years that followed. Very few medical offices seemed to take an interest in art, and what decorum was there–a dusty fake plant, an amateur sea-side painting rescued from a deceased grandmother’s attic, a Wal-Mart poster in a shiny plastic frame–these struck me as vapid as the elevator music playing in the background. Why was this, I wondered? What other places did people go frightened and alone, facing the great unknown horizons of their lives, without access to natural light, windows, breathing plants, and other helpful reminders of the natural world? What other places were people vulnerable and waiting without anything close by to remind them of the larger whole?

I thought of prisons and hospitals, of windowless offices and apartment buildings and cells where people lived without access to nature or without art in their lives. I thought of the art I’d grown up with–the elaborate icons along the front of the Coptic Orthodox church of my youth–how many hours I’d escaped into them while the service droned on in a foreign tongue and the incense and fasting made me nauseous. I thought of the time my parents bought a painting at an art festival and arranged to send the artist 50 dollars a month until we paid it off. We were poor but to my parents, that painting was survival; they needed it.

All this made me think about art as necessity rather than as luxury.  I thought of the museum exhibits I’d seen where ancient cultures adorned their everyday objects with extraordinary beauty, using whatever was available–shells, stones, feathers, gems, clay. They didn’t have to make these items so ornate–after all, they were “just” utensils, water vessels, clothes, shoes, blankets–but they did. To me, this pointed to a way of living in which the everyday was sacred, was worth noticing and imbuing with intention, craftsmanship, wonder, and love. Perhaps you, too, know the feeling, the way morning coffee or tea tastes better from a handmade mug.

That was the first beginning with the trees.

Then, early in graduate school, I bought my first original painting for 400 dollars. It was an oil painting by a self-taught Gainesville artist, a passionate and informal impression of purple pines in late peach light. I hung the piece over my couch and spent countless hours staring into it, imagining I was walking through the pines towards the sunset behind them. It was an extravagant purchase; I’d used my student loan money to buy it, and it cost me as much as a month’s rent. But I needed the painting, needed the window it opened over my couch, and ultimately needed the new horizon it opened in my life.  That was the second beginning, but I still hadn’t started painting.

The third beginning had to do with a now-defunct place called the Gestalt Center of Gainesville, Inc. I was in training there for five years, in addition to the training I received in my graduate program. We had a joke around the Gestalt Center that school was the place you went to get licensed, but the Gestalt Center was where you learned to do therapy.  For me, that was the truth.

The Gestalt Center was run by my beloved mentor, the late Dr. Pat Korb, who was a contemporary of Fritz Perls. She was old when I met her, and very wise. On the chalk board at the Gestalt Center, the “rules” were written: 1) Show up. 2) Slow down. 3) When you speak, speak your truth. 4) Put your attention in the process, not the outcome.

I did a lot of my own personal work in those gestalt groups, and got to watch a masterful therapist work with many, many group members over the years. The mascot or symbol of the Center was a hand-drawn tree, with each of the roots symbolizing the theories and ways of being that support gestalt therapy, the trunk as the person-in-relation, and the branches as the skills and techniques available to a gestalt-oriented therapist.  The tree also represented a very important concept in gestalt therapy–that of holism, process, and the continual interaction between a living organism and its environment.  This was a different way of looking at myself and the life around me than the perfectionistic lens I’d been using. For me, trees came to represent a sort of vital acceptance–both of myself and of life as a process that could perhaps be trusted.

I started looking at the trees more intently, noticing their similarities and differences, learning their names. I also saw their scars, the places they’d been pruned or dropped branches in a storm. Places where they’d gotten a disease or suffered a bug infestation. Even the same kinds of trees were so different from each other. Their shape expressed something about their innate forms, but also their interactions with the environment.  I found in this metaphor permission to begin to accept myself. I could find no perfect tree, and no perfect me.  But I loved the trees for their differences, for their scars, for their ability to grow anyway, even if they weren’t quite getting the optimal resources. I began to love myself in this way, too.

When I felt the urge to paint, it was during one of these weekend gestalt groups. I actually got up in the middle of the group, left, and went to the art store right then. All these beginnings had gathered inside me enough to know and trust the urge. I’d wanted to paint for a while, and now it was time. I went home from the art store with my supplies and immediately started painting, trying to follow the same “rules” of process I’d learned at the gestalt center.  I wanted to just show up and paint my truth, and focus on the process rather than the result.  I wanted to allow whatever was inside me to emerge.

And then the trees just came.  They came as my first subjects, and though I painted (and still paint) other things, the trees keep coming. And they mean all these things to me, have all these beginnings, these possibilities for growth, for solace, for acceptance, for process.  I make my paintings thinking of those windowless rooms of my past, and those places in all our lives where we feel lost, frightened, and lose sight of how our story connects to a larger whole. I try to make the paintings I would have wanted to see in that surgeon’s room at 18, and the ones I still want to see today, when I’m waiting, when I’m worried, when I’m hurting, when I feel alone.  I want to bring the trees, and all they mean, inside, so I can be reminded, along with anyone else who needs the reminder, to show up, slow down, share our truth, and put our attention on the process of living.

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