Thursday, May 24, 2007

If only I'd had an art teacher...

Even though my father was a professional musician (a drummer and band leader in the circus - yeah, I know, but that's a story for another day), I've always traced my creative inclinations to my mother's side of the family. For a long time my mother made her living by sewing clothes for people, including some pretty fantastic over-the-top square dance outfits. My youngest aunt and her husband ran a "rock shop" where they sold geodes, arrowheads, and jewelry made of large chunks of polished stone. (Once she gave me a beautiful faceted quartz crystal - I thought she'd given me a priceless treasure, until she told me it was worthless because it had a line of gold running through it. I couldn't understand how having a line of gold running through something could decrease its value.)

My other aunt, Mary, is the one I always thought of as irrepressibly creative though. She crocheted more lace tablecloths, afghans, baby clothes, and toilet paper cozies than she knew what to do with. She also made things out of those plastic mesh baskets that cherry tomatoes come in, empty bleach bottles, the tubes inside toilet paper and paper towel rolls, egg cartons, all kinds of stuff that people normally threw away. My Aunt Mary practiced upcycling before it was cool. My Uncle Frank was another crafter. He made sculptures and wind chimes out of old silverware and hardware, used woodburning to decorate boxes, and could paint a paint-by-number canvas so that it looked like a real painting.

A couple of years ago I collaborated with the art teacher at a local private school on a project that still brings me great joy. His students, ages 10 - 13, designed and painted a series of very large (5' x 6') paintings for my work place. The paintings are terrific, but seeing the kids take ownership of the project was even more exciting. These kids are incredibly lucky to be going to a school that has the resources for a real art program. Maybe none of them will grow up to be full-time artists, but they've had the experience of creating in an environment that is not just supportive of their efforts, but is also rich in resources. Their confidence in their own creative abilities was thrilling to see.

I've been crafting since I was a kid, but never thought I could be a real artist because I couldn't draw. Art class in my school was what you did when it was too rainy to go outside for recess and, as far as I can remember, consisted of making things out of books of wallpaper samples. I don't think anyone in my family thought that "real art" was something that had any relation to our lives. I wonder what my Aunt Mary and Uncle Frank might have done if they had grown up in a place and time that encouraged their artistic tendencies - hell, I wonder what I would have done. Maybe they would have lived their lives in exactly the same way, but maybe they would have felt more empowered to create on a larger scale, to identify themselves as artists, to explore the talents they clearly had. Maybe I would have started painting at 12 instead of 52.

You can probably tell I have this thing about the importance of art education. And in case you're inclined to think "art education is nice but what's the payoff?" there's all sorts of research that demonstrates what a good investment it is. So, you see, when I heard on NPR yesterday that the Navy was hoping to build another aircraft carrier at a cost of $20 billion, it made me incredibly sad. How many art classes in underfunded public schools would that fund? I have no idea, but I'll bet the answer is in the vicinity of "a lot". I've got no quarrel with the Navy -- it's been the service of choice for men in my family for generations. The story just reminded me of the criminal imbalance between defense spending and education spending in this country -- and of how happy my 10-year-old self would have been to have an art teacher to show me that I could draw.


Ellen said...

oh my goodness. i love this blog entry! i got all teary-eyed. as a child always labeled as "artist" growing up when it was time for me to think about what i would do when i grew up art was suddenly not an option according to my parents. my stepmom actually laughed at me and mocked me for thinking of such an outlandish thought. what an ass she was. another thing your blog sheds light on is how people don't develop and accept their own style/skill with artforms as "real" art. i've had so many people show me a doodle or something that they created years ago and i've been completely delighted by their talent, yet they don't feel the same. nothing in our world or lives are perfect, if you want to learn a new technique or just draw...then DO IT! often, it is the kooky or unusual design that is so much better than an exact rendering of a landscape.

thanks for sharing tru :-)

D.C. said...

Oh Maggie I often wonder what I would of done if I hadn't been discouraged from art classes after my freshman year of high school. I actually won some drawing and painting awards in middle school but then my skills became so rusty with neglect. I think thats why i love polymer clay so much. I'm finally allowing myself to be an artist like I always wished to be.

Luckily, my elementary school still has art. Its amazing to see what the kinder kids come up with. I had a little girl this year who at six years old already had a defined style and voice to her work. He drawings were of course child-like and whimsical but they included such detail and perspective that I've never seen in a six year old. She made me a camera out of construction paper on the last day of school. She walked up to me and snapped my photo with it. She then pulled out of a strap she had taped on the back a blue square of paper. She drew me on it and said, "Here's your photo!" Then she gave me the camera and "film." I kept it because I'm sure it will be worth something someday when she is famous.