Wednesday, May 23, 2012

let's talk about art class.

When I was a kid, I loved to draw. I did nothing BUT draw. I lived for the days when Mom would take me to work: that meant I got to color with highlighters on those huge rolls of paper with the perforated edges. My mom’s office walls were covered in pictures I drew (some of them are still there). When I went to my babysitter Doris’s house, I would narrate stories to her. She would write them down, and I would spend hours illustrating them. 
Doris was patient enough to write
"beautiful" seven times in reference
to my less-than-beautiful
Christmas tree.
I drew everything you would expect a five-year-old girl to draw: mermaids, cats, rainbows. My animals tended to be quite feminine: I even made sure my cartoon fish had luxurious eyelashes and bright red lipstick.
This is a cat I drew for my mom's coworker Marlys.
Note the stunning use of highlighters and the
copious amount of mascara the cat is wearing.
As soon as I learned to write, I began penning my own stories. 
I created volumes and volumes, most of the stories being illustrated accounts of my own thrilling life. There was a book about how my friend Nick and I found a dead fish on the beach, and there was a book about the time my mom saved my pink silk rose (it was my Beauty and the Beast rose, of course) from the burn pile. During the height of my Lion King obsession, I wrote my own Simba and Nala stories: elementary school fan-fiction, if you will.

All that writing was just an excuse to draw. Sure, I drew plenty of free-standing pictures that needed no explanation, but I wanted my pictures to tell a story. What better way to do that than write my own little books?

For the first few years of school, all I did was draw and color. School supply shopping was eagerly anticipated: it meant that I’d get a brand-new box of crayons. In kindergarten, my favorite worksheets were the ones where you had to read the instruction: color the mitten red. A fast reader and an enthusiastic crayon-er, I breezed through these worksheets, actually disappointed when I had finished: I was a nerd-in-training.

When I learned that we would soon have an entire class devoted to art, I was ecstatic. This “going to school” thing was AWESOME. I eagerly packed up my bright red pencil box and skipped off to my first art class. When I arrived, I staked out the best seat in the house: up front, by the window. I sat patiently, awaiting instruction as to what we would be doing that day. Drawing walruses? Sculpting with colorful clay? I could hardly wait. To my great dismay, I found out that we would be practicing drawing shapes. Shapes? I was way beyond shapes. I knew the difference between triangles and squares; give me a break! I grudgingly drew my circles and rectangles, and I cut them out just as I was told. I’ve never been good with scissors; I can’t cut a straight line to save my life. But when my art teacher singled me out for my poor cutting job, I was mortified. Sure, the edges of my oval were a little ragged, but I was five! EVERYONE’S edges were ragged! To my absolute horror, my art teacher tore up my little construction paper oval and announced that I’d have to start over. Even at the age of five, I was pretty sure art teachers weren’t supposed to do that kind of thing.

This was the beginning of a long and painful relationship with this particular art teacher, whom I’ll call Mrs X. Through acrylic painting and plexiglass etching, she was the bane of my artistic youth. Mrs X had two favorites in each grade: one boy, one girl. Needless to say, I was not a favorite. The two favorites could do absolutely no wrong: Mrs X would praise them loudly, even if their artwork looked like something drawn by a drunk chimpanzee. The two favorites’ artwork would always make its way into the school art show. Mine would, too, but I always felt like I EARNED it.
My fourth grade bobcat made it into the art show, but
under great duress. you see that odd patch of grass under
the bobcat's feet? Mrs X had bawled me out because
"the bobcat is floating." Floating in a big sea of grass. She
insisted I fill in some grass at his feet so he would
no longer be floating. Hence the weird grass. 
Mrs X liked her class to all work at exactly the same pace, which, as any good teacher knows, is a ridiculous thing to expect. There were a few of us who would always go a little faster than Mrs X’s instructions. When we were still supposed to be sketching our mountain landscapes with pencil, a few of us had inched forward to outlining with the fine-tipped Sharpie. Few things could incur the wrath of Mrs X faster than getting things done ahead of schedule. If she discovered you oil pastel-ing your chickadee when everyone else was still filling in the background space, there was hell to pay. And by “hell,” I mean sitting on your hands, staring at the wall, waiting for Mrs X to give the go-ahead to work on the stupid bird.

Despite the teacher, I really did enjoy art class. My duck watercolor got a ribbon at the Duck Stamp contest (the ribbon said “honorable mention,” but a ribbon is a ribbon). I made misshapen cats out of clay, and I learned about the importance of not touching your face when you’ve been drawing with charcoal.

In junior high, a miracle occurred: Mrs X was replaced by a petite, soft-spoken new teacher. This new teacher did something that had never been done before: she taught us about art history. I was captivated. I loved learning about the insane lives of artists past, van Gogh being the clear winner in the crazy contest. I didn’t know it then, of course, but this was only the beginning of my pursuit for art historical knowledge (note: much more interesting than it sounds).

As soon as I hit ninth grade, art was no longer a requirement. High school art was still offered, but you had to work it around the rest of your required classes. In ninth grade, if I wanted to be in band, there was no way I could be in art: English was required, and English was offered first and fifth periods. Band was only first period, and art was only fifth. When it came down to it, I had to choose my clarinet. I missed being in art, but I know I made the right choice: I have so many more band stories than I do art class stories.

In tenth grade, I had the chance to be in band AND art, but only for the spring semester. I can’t remember why, exactly; I was in some class that was only required for half a year, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. Anyway, I had to pick a class to take its place, and my only options were plant science and art. I bet you can guess how long it took me to arrive at that decision.

There was a new art teacher by this time, and she knew her stuff. Unlike Mrs X, this new teacher knew what constructive criticism was. I loved every minute of this art class, whether we were making our own paper or baking goofy-looking vases in the kiln. This art teacher allowed us much more artistic freedom than Mrs X had: when we were doing examples of different types of shading, we had to draw four of the same thing and shade it in four ways. I drew a pterodactyl and got an A. 
Not a GREAT pterodactyl, but a pterodactyl all the same.
Same thing when we made color wheels: I made mini Simons and Garfunkels (this is 100% true) and painted them in reds, red-oranges, red-violets, and all the rest.

Our final project in this art class was a doozy: each of us was to choose a famous artist, write a paper on said artist, and reproduce one of their paintings. Remembering his ear-slicing, insane asylum-living ways, I determined that a paper on van Gogh would be an excellent choice. But what painting to replicate? It didn’t take me long to settle on Starry Night. Not only was it quintessentially van Gogh, but with its thick oils and crazy swirls, it looked like a lot of fun to paint.

“Fun” turned out to be “huge pain in the ass.” The characteristic painting style was incredibly difficult for me to recreate, and I had a hell of a time getting that black tower thing to look right. I got oil paint on everything I owned, including my hair and my brand new winter coat. My friend Allison (who was replicating a Kandinsky) and I even managed to smear oil paints all over the inside of her blue station wagon – we were taking our paintings to Allison’s house for some sorely needed extra work time, and since oil paints take for-freaking-ever to dry, our paintings rubbed off on the upholstery. Oops.

Somehow, I managed to complete my painting before the deadline (deadline = last day of school). 
Ta da!
My Starry Night didn’t look too bad, considering how slapdash it became as the due date approached. My parents had it hanging up for a while, and now I think it should probably come to my apartment. I could use something else on my walls, and I can tell people it’s a one-of-a-kind original.

I began college, fully intending to graduate as a psychology major. Care to guess how long that lasted? If you guessed one semester, you’d be correct. During my freshman year, as I was determining just what I wanted to major in now that psychology was out, I took care of nearly all of my gen ed courses. I needed a fine arts requirement, and about the only class that fit into that category was art history. (You may be wondering why I didn’t just join concert band to fulfill this requirement. It wasn’t that easy in Morris: you needed an artistic performance AND a fine arts class. Artistic performance = band, drawing, etc. Fine arts = art history.) I took a class called Principles of Art, and I remembered how interesting art class had been. The next year, I switched my major to English with a minor in art history. The year after that, I tacked on an art history major to my English major, and I loved every minute of it.

To graduate with a degree in art history, I needed two art classes. I was spending the summer after my junior year in Brookings, so I signed up for a summer class at SDSU. Lo and behold, they couldn’t garner enough interest – so the class was canceled. I didn’t know what to do: since I had declared my second major so late, I had my final two semesters meticulously planned out to the full twenty credits per semester; nothing could be replaced, and to add more than twenty credits would’ve been academic suicide. I sent a frantic email to the art professor in Morris who was offering a summer drawing class, asking if I could set up an independent study sort of arrangement: since I still had my full-time summer job in Brookings, I couldn’t go to the Monday – Thursday, 8 am – 9.30 am classes. The professor, who was incredibly understanding, told me that I could just come for a longer period of time on Mondays and skip the rest of the classes. He’d email me the weekly lectures, and I could just take pictures of the still-life in the studio and work on it in South Dakota during the rest of the week. My boss in Brookings was equally understanding; she had no problem with me taking Mondays in June and July off to complete a class.

I thanked my lucky stars that this was a drawing class for non-majors, aka it was kind of ok if I really sucked. While I loved to draw as a child, I was never that great at it. I loved it anyway, and  I really enjoyed my drawing class that summer. I brought my little sketchbook to Lake Poinsett on the weekends, and I happily created perspective drawings by lying on my stomach on the floor of the UMM fine arts building. 
You get the idea.
I spent most of summer 2008 covered in charcoal dust, but I was happy about it.

I took a photography class during the fall semester of my senior year, which would fulfill my final art requirement for my art history major. I loved taking the photos for the specific assignments; I loved seeking out artistic images within everyday life. I worked at a coffee shop on Monday and Friday mornings that year, and I would bright my camera along and take pictures of the rows of syrup or the little decorative pumpkins. For the final project, I took portraits of James and close-ups of his sheet music as he prepared for his senior trumpet recital. 
They look better in person.
The photography itself was no problem… it was developing the film that almost killed me. The cameras were all 35mm, and the vast majority of my time was spent trying to get decent prints. I would spend hours and hours in the darkroom and maybe get three prints out of it. Thank God for digital cameras.

I haven’t done much drawing since that last class at Morris. I tried my hand at painting one summer, but I never quite made it work. Maybe it was the year of dating the art major that put me off of creating art. 
Maybe it was the fact that art major
boyfriend painted this portrait of
me looking like I've come to drain
the blood of the living.
Or maybe my cameras finally took over: I take tons of pictures, and some of them edge towards the artistic side of things. Who knows. I’d like to think that I have some latent drawing talent that might’ve been scared into hiding by Mrs X. I extracted a bit of my long-lost drawing ability for my summer class, but I’m way out of practice. Maybe one of these days, I’ll whip myself back into drawing shape. For now, though, I’ll probably just stick with my camera.


  1. Oh wow. Mrs X . . . that woman was uniquely unsuited to being an elementary school teacher.

    And I DID reproduce a Kandinsky. I've still got it in a closet somewhere--I need to reframe it. And the station wagon looked better with oil paint on the upholstery. :)

    I do read this, my friend, and I enjoy it always. (We should take a drawing class together. If we fail we can blame it all on Mrs X.) <3

    1. She was THE WORST. It's amazing we're not all in therapy.

      You should hang your Kandinsky up! I think our paintings turned out remarkably well, considering the time constraints and lack of dedication/skill (on my part, that is).

      We should take a drawing class! I can already draw a mean pterodactyl. :)