A valentine for teachers

14

Dear Artist,

When I was 12, I had two art teachers — Jenny, a sculptor and ceramicist, and Carolynn, a printmaker. When Jenny emailed this week, I wrote back with a question: “Do the Great Teachers know the depth of their impact and all the crystalline memories and indelible moments of encouragement and example they imprint?” She replied with photos of a painting I had given her at my graduation, with a love letter written on the back that read, “Thanks for pushing.”

Music, Pink and Blue II, 1918 oil on canvas 35 × 29 inches by Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)

Music, Pink and Blue II, 1918
oil on canvas
35 × 29 inches
by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

Jenny and Carolynn ran their art room like a small fiefdom — a kind of independent city-state tethered to the rest of the school only by a low-grade tension that flared up during report card time. The rest of the year, the room’s purpose was powered by demands for quality and desire. If perhaps a little undemocratic, the vibe weeded out people looking only for a place to nap.

I remember Jenny sitting behind me at the potter’s wheel, a lump of clay in her hand and her foot on the pedal. “You’re standing at the top of a ski hill with your skis on, and you don’t yet know how to ski.” And the day Carolynn cut a set of delicate grooves into a sheet of linoleum, then inked it with a brayer, laid a sheet of Stonehenge on it and pulled a shiny, wet print. “It needs to be graphically legible,” she said. “Start practicing.” They opened my eyes to the distinction of being a woman and making art and took a small group to New York, where I stood before Music, Pink and Blue, which I’d lionized in the privacy of the art room library. Now it was real strokes in oil — the still early stages of O’Keeffe’s masterful edgemanship and colour work — she was 29 when she painted it. “You cannot teach writing,” said writing professor Gabe in Husbands and Wives, “You can only expose students to good work and hope it inspires them.”

Absraction, Blue, 1927 oil on canvas 40 1/4 x 30 inches by Georgia O'Keeffe

Absraction, Blue, 1927
oil on canvas
40 1/4 x 30 inches
by Georgia O’Keeffe

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” (John Steinbeck)

Esoterica: An artist friend once told me that when artists who are exposed to plenty of opportunity are not reaching their creative potential, it is often because they lack the love of a champion who will tell them the truth about their substandard work. “Your novel is unreadable,” said the young Ernesto Guevara to the doctor who gave him lodging in The Motorcycle Diaries. The doctor replied, “You are the only person who has been honest with me,” before sending the future Ché on his journey. When another artist friend met her hero, Judy Chicago, she handed Judy her book to sign, and when she read it later, it said, “Never Give Up.”

Pelvis II, 1944 oil on canvas 40 x 30 inches by Georgia O'Keeffe

Pelvis II, 1944
oil on canvas
40 x 30 inches
by Georgia O’Keeffe

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14 Comments

  1. Hi Sara! Thank you once again for another wonderful letter. I love teaching painting and drawing, almost more than making art myself. It’s a great encouragement to see it celebrated here.

  2. Thank you , Sara . I laughed at the “fiefdom”which is how I run my large studio located within a long term care community- it exists free of disease and worry , total autonomy for each person over their work ,
    Truth telling and challenge for what’s reading and what isn’t and love, and respect for the sacred creativity with which each person is gifted .
    I loved reading this letter , felt supported , appreciated and reminded of the reality of the ripple effect into creating a different quality for lives .

  3. Always thoughtful and inspiring. I have found teaching to be an art form so especially appreciate the quote. The arts are not subject to the data needs of an excel spread sheet,

    • Bobbie Thompson on

      Linda Graham, thank you for perfectly stating my thoughts on the issue of wanting to pidgin hole art education into data collection. I can’t understand it!

  4. What a great sharing! My gift, as a teacher, I believe was modelling and assisting children in group discussions of literature until they could carry on by themselves. It was magic! I still marvel at how involved, excited and capable they were!!! Even at a year 4 or 5 level. I made videos of their discussions to show them and interested teachers just how impressive and intelligent they were! I still get butterflies!

  5. What a great sharing! My gift, as a teacher, I believe was modelling and assisting children in group discussions of literature until they could carry on by themselves. It was magic! I still marvel at how involved, excited and capable they were!!! Even at a year 4 or 5 level. I made videos of their discussions to show them and interested teachers just how impressive and intelligent they were! I still get butterflies!

  6. Charles Eisener on

    The essence of this post for me is that we are all potential teachers. The real question is whether we accept the challenge. When in Grade 10, I bought my first microscope and asked the science teacher for guidance regards its proper use. Miss Phillips put a scope on the table, plugged in the lamp, and beamed -“This is how you turn on the light, this is where you put the slide, and this is where you look to see the image, and that’s all there is to it!” I did not have the heart to explain that my microscope had been completely taken apart within hours of receipt just to see how it was constructed and how it worked. It was painfully obvious that she knew far less about microscopes than did her student. She lost a lot of respect that afternoon. Many who “teach” are not true teachers; my gratitude to all that do teach in the truest sense of the word.

    I would not make the cut teaching a class, but I do enjoy challenging individuals and seeing that look on their faces when the light goes on. Such a joyous moment! Learning is about pushing our boundaries and exceeding our horizons, not simply achieving a specific grade level in standardized tests. We seem to spend so much time learning facts but precious little learning how to use them or learn from them. Art and good art teachers can bridge that gap as can few other disciplines, and show students how to look beyond obvious realities and perceived limitations. Seeing and expressing cannot be memorized or explained by multiple choice questions. Theory is one thing, but understanding is another.

    I still love playing with microscopes – Miss Phillips had no idea what pleasures and explorations she was missing.

  7. Michel Reynolds on

    I remembered a lot of mind scenes of art classes when I read your letter. And yes, those memories stand out in my life choices because of those special teachers. At 76, I am still doing art and have finally achieved some personal success. I love your writing and your art. Please keep doing what you do so the rest of us can get some inspiration when we need it. Thank you so much!

  8. Thank you, Sarah. I have recently left a 32 year teaching career to pursue my own art career… and I am fortunate to have ex students who let me know that I left an impact. It was a very rewarding career, and many of my favorite people are those who I taught. I think the most important parts of teaching are honesty and passion. I carry that with me now, in my new direction. But I thank you for acknowledging the importance of my previous career. Teachers often have to live with the shadow of “those who can, do and those who can’t , teach” . It’s nice to be supported, occasionally!

  9. Thank you, Sarah. I have recently left a 32 year teaching career to pursue my own art career… and I am fortunate to have ex students who let me know that I left an impact. It was a very rewarding career, and many of my favorite people are those who I taught. I think the most important parts of teaching are honesty and passion. I carry that with me now, in my new direction. But I thank you for acknowledging the importance of my previous career. Teachers often have to live with the shadow of “those who can, do and those who can’t , teach” . It’s nice to be supported, occasionally!

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