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.”
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.”
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.”
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“To be free of fear is to be full of Love.” (Adyashanti)
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Henry Yan has been teaching at Academy of Art University in San Francisco for more than twenty years. His book, “Henry Yan’s Figure Drawing – Techniques and Tips” published in 2006, has been widely used by art students and professional artists in the US and internationally.
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