Monday, January 12, 2009

Forgetting Myself

"In art the self becomes self-forgetful" - Flannery O'Connor

When I graduated from college as a philosophy major, I found myself, by a process too complex and frankly weird to explain right now, as a Teacher Corps intern in Hawaii. Teacher Corps was one of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, and under its auspices I was working as an elementary school teacher while simultaneously getting my master's degree in education from the University of Hawaii. The best course that I wound up taking in that program, and in many ways the best course I have ever taken at any time, was an elementary arts methods course taught by Dr. Alex Pickens.

None of the people in my class were artists, and none of us were really yet educators. But the course was driven by the assumption that some of us might find ourselves asked to teach art in an elementary classroom, and so Dr. Pickens walked us through a series of units on printmaking, on clay, on making papier mache masks, on guache painting using pigments made from different colors of earth, and so on. His method, which I was only later to discover was the method at the heart of all good teaching, was to break each unit down into constituent parts that were essentially impossible to screw up too badly, even for a bunch of artistic zeroes like ourselves. For example our first clay assignment was to roll out the clay with a rolling pin, cut the rolled clay into a tile shape, and then create light and shadow on the surface of the tile by pressing on it with our fingers. Well, hey, even I could do that. From there he went to showing us how to pound out air bubbles so our pieces would not explode in the kiln, and how to use slip (a mixture of clay and water) to join pieces of clay together. One of our first "major" assignments was, using what we had learned to this point, to make a three dimensional piece which would not explode in the kiln. Well, it turned out I could do that too. Several classes later, when he came in, gave us each a hunk of clay,  and told us to make a human figure, I was by that time confident enough to figure that if he thought we were ready, we must be ready, so I set to work.

What happened next was something of a mystery to me. I lost all track of time. I lost all sense of where I was. I became totally absorbed in the figure I was making. When I finally finished the piece, every one was gone. The two-hour class had ended an hour ago. Dr. Pickens was in the back room cleaning up, and probably because he was too polite a man to tell me to put away my work and go home, already. But I'll tell you what, that human figure was the first piece of artwork I ever completed that was clearly beyond my capabilities and expectations. It was a sort of gift. It was given to me to make that piece. I have it on the shelf in my office to this day.

The reason I bring this up: for reasons that I am not quite sure I understand, I've found myself having the impulse to paint. We happened to have some acrylics and some brushes lying around from when my son was in high school, and I was reading The Gift which got me thinking about art again, and I'd been spending some time in the local galleries, and the next thing I knew I was down at the art store laying in supplies and slapping paint on canvas.

I don't have any pretensions. I don't really have any idea what I'm doing. I'm just fooling around, trying to figure out what I need to learn as I go along. I didn't start out to do a sequence of collages, but that, it turns out, is what I have done, perhaps because I don't have the drawing skill yet to simply start cranking out landscapes. But I have a friend who does really interesting collages, and so as I began to work on the surface of the canvas I guess I was primed to start thinking about what else might go on there besides the paint. The first one was the odd-looking thing in the previous post, and the next two are reproduced at the top and bottom of this one.

I'm noticing three things. First of all, it's a hell of a lot of fun. I find myself thinking about what I'm going to do next while I'm doing other things, like eating lunch or walking to meetings at work. Second, I find myself seeing everything differently. I was having a conversation with Susie Anderson at Gallery at Ward Center the other day and she was describing how not long after getting back into painting after a number of years in which she hadn't painted, she was driving in her car on a wet street and suddenly she could see the colors again. I don't think I can see them yet, but I am definitely seeing everything in sharper focus. I remember back when I was living in Massachusetts and working during the summers by helping a close friend who was a carpenter with various remodeling jobs. I remember that if we had been doing siding, suddenly every house I passed I was noticing the siding. It's been a little like that the last week or so. I'm noticing more about what's in front of my face. Third, I'm amazed at how time just melts away when I'm working on something that interests me. Tonight I started at 5:30 and it was close to eight when I finished up, and the only reason I even stopped was that I had promised myself to get out to the gym tonight.

So that's where I am tonight, at the intersection of art and writing and education, waiting to see what comes next.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

I agree. One can forget one's self in art, and then again, I think in letting go of that conscious self we find another part of ourselves. I know I sound really philosophical, and I'm no philosopher by trade... it's just that I've experienced this for myself. Reading this post has inspired me to revisit my artsy ways.