The young artist with papier mache elephant
Growing up, I was an artist wanna be. I drew all the time and everything, including my dog, the trees, fences, the kids I babysat for, my grandmother, the bikes, the landscapes and of course fruit. I was not that good at capturing the person I was drawing, but a pretty good likeness often did occur. I painted too and dreamed of taking painting classes with the real artist across town.
I was finally able to take up oil painting after I stunned my parents with overexcitement when I broke my wrist 3 weeks before a piano recital and would not be able to play. I remember the art teacher fondly, Mary Bell Busher. I was only 13 and her youngest student.
Mary Bell was flamboyant, pretty, smiled a lot and wore a real artist's smock. She said that you could not be neat and create at the same time. Oh, I could have died and gone to heaven!!! Please tell my mother this! We had easels that stood up, tubes of oil paints, and jars of turpentine, canvases, and paint everywhere. It was glorious. We painted birch trees with sponges and knives... everything but a brush. We painted waves and moons and sandy beaches and chrysanthemums in pots. And Mary Bell was everything positive and inspiring.
Again, I was not that good, but there was something there, if not only desire.
Having been trained by a real artist, I was anxious and certain to excel in classes as I continued my art career prep in high school, I banked class after class and took every form of art I could, including the popular pottery class with the very hip Miss "J".
Miss "J", her full name blocked from my mind like a bad dream, had long streaked hair, and wore faded bell-bottomed hip-hugger blue jeans and t-shirts. She always had paint on them, which of course impressed me very much. She was a bit abrupt in style, but I was willing to trade that for learning the art form.
After we made the obligatory bowls and learned the coil, wheel, and pinch pot methods it was time to make a bigger project. I chose to sculpt a bust of a child. I began with a sketch and wanted to see if I could do the same in 3 dimensions. I worked during school and after school and when completed was very proud of my work.
Miss "J", used to say that there are two stages of an art project, ah-hah, and oh-oh. You do not want to get to oh-oh. I was sure I had reached ah-hah. It truly looked like the head of a small child, made you smile to look at the sweetness of it.
Which is exactly why Miss "J" did not like it.
"Trite," she said. I had not even gotten to ah-hah yet, she said. "Trite". Is it not good? Does is not look like a little child? It was hard to hold back my disappointment.
But, she was optimistic that I could "fix" it in time to enter it in the exhibit at the art museum that spring. She said, all I had to do was cut it into puzzle piece parts, paint them bright colors and reassemble them like a mobil from a stand. She said it could symbolize the confusion that today's child faces in the world.
I was aghast, not to mention confused, perhaps I could see her point.
I reluctantly did as she suggested. When complete I hated it, I tried to hold back tears as I handed it in. I asked for an extension to redo the project. I had definitely gone way beyond oh-oh. I told her I did not want to enter it in the exhibit.
But Miss "J" thought it was fabulous. She was not listening, excited I had completed it. She raved about it though I do not recall a word of what she said.
Three weeks later, I was informed by Miss "J" that my entry won 2nd place in the city competition for high school students. This was a city of over 100,000 people.
I decided I would not go to the museum and be photographed next to my entry as I had 10 years earlier in front of my papier-mache balloon and tongue depressor elephant, in hindsight probably "trite". I was not exactly sure why I was so resentful of my piece, perhaps I should be more open-minded, after all, it did win, so somebody liked it. But, I still decided that I would put the experience in my past and carry on.
After the sculpture had its debut at the museum, it was to be sent back to the school. I could not wait to get my hands on it and soak it in water to see if I could reuse the clay. The day it was supposed to arrive, I entered the school and was greeted by my English teacher, with a congratulations on my art project.
I was aghast, as he stepped aside to show me the blue and red "head mobile" in the middle of the display case in the front hall of the school with a big blue 2nd place ribbon on it and a fat lettered sign with my name written as big as life.
I was mortified. NO! I Screamed. It isn't right. I suddenly realized why I hated it so much. It wasn't mine, not the idea or the meaning behind it, or the tone, nothing.
This should not have my name on it. Mine was sweet, innocent, ok. even trite, but not this horrific example of 1970s lunacy. For one week it sat in the display case. One day was all it took for me to realize the importance for standing up for who you are and what you believe in before it is too late.
I threw the ribbon away. I threw the sculpture away. I have left what is most important, though. I have the lesson to strive for and stop at ah-hah, to avoid reaching oh-oh. That was Miss "J"s lesson for art, but I have come to realize that it applies to life.
Miss "J" taught me another lesson for which I am most grateful: Be judged only by yourself, not by the Miss "J"s that surround us. My oh-oh, was not the sculpture; nor was it my ah-hah. My oh-oh was not standing up for myself, my ah-hah was realizing the problem and learning from it. To this day I pass on this lesson to my students. Be yourself, in art and life. Aim for ah-hah in both fields.