I’ve heard so many times the old phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, applied to art. In some cases I must agree. Such as when I’m standing in front of a large red canvas with a small green dot in the center accompanied by a hefty price tag. I find myself wanting to analyze the work in hopes of locating a secret message, something I truly dislike other people doing to my work. After standing for what seems like an hour, I walk away after admiring the smooth paint application, consistent color, and courage the artist had to produce such large work. Basically, I appreciate the piece for what it is… artwork. Perhaps if others would be more open to accept the beauty of art in any form and not be so quick to judge, there may not be so many discouraged artists.
One of my summer students stopped by the studio for a short visit. His face was quite gloomy, is somewhat normal for teenagers and artists. I noticed he wasn’t carrying his portfolio. I immediately asked if he was ready for the scholastic art competitions coming up.
“I’m not entering anything,” he mumbled with downcast eyes.
“Why bother? My art teacher at school says I’m not good enough.”
O.K. Stop right there! Let me pick myself off the floor. Here is a very talented artist. He has a natural gift for drawing with pen and ink. He has manipulated professional artist pens better than many artists I know and he has just began his formal art training. “Not good enough”! Bah! But then again, perhaps he just misunderstood his teacher. I asked for a more detailed explanation.
As it turned out, the teacher had limited resources to work with and a lesson plan she couldn’t waver from. Unfortunately, her lesson plans didn’t seem to include encouraging the young artists in her classes to use their imagination to experiment with their personal talents. The fellow explains with a contorted face, how they paint and draw still life displays, landscapes, plants and flowers. They simply study the master artists and what the school system deems “respectable”.
The young man’s talent lies with pens, creating wonderful images from his mind and according to his work I have seen, he seems to have grasped the concept of the human figure and machine. His grades, he complained are lower than most in the class and wondered if the teacher doesn’t like his work or him. Sadly, he stated, he still has hopes of continuing to college to study art.
I reminded him, that as his summer art teacher, I can give him information on other ways of exhibiting his work and thus giving him a step up on his classmates. I saw a sparkle of interest in his eyes and a cunning smile slide into place. This young artist has great potential but just needed a little confidence by the knowledge that some one out there likes his work.
He reminded me of some one I knew when I first started out as an artist. This young man was a doodler. His doodles consisted of monsters and super hero-like beings. These creatures even turned up on his math and English homework. A practice I definitely don’t encourage! This fellow was a junior in high school, a science fiction lover and a player of the game Dungeons and Dragons. Once he and his cousins ran out of characters for their game, so he began to draw new ones. Most adults worried about this strange fascination with the horrible but one encouraged him by consistently complimenting the beauty of his gory characters. By the time this young man graduated from high school, he has sold three of his characters to the makers of Dungeons and Dragons.
Subject matter for many artists is not the only hurdle they must overcome to feel that their work is accepted. Some times, it is their ability. I am bothered when I see young developmentally disabled people (to be politically correct) being told they can’t do something. They are only being held back from growing by people who care about them.
One day I saw a sweet disabled girl, probably around 9 years old, wandered into my studio. She looked through the drawing kits with keen interest. She explained, with great excitement, she had just received some money for her birthday and her mother was allowing her to spend it on anything she wanted. When I told her the store was having a sale on the kits, her face turned into a giant smile resembling the Wal-Mart price break happy face.
I opened a kit so she could see the various pencils, markers, and tools. She asked how to use the colored pencils like the illustration shown on the instruction booklet. I wasn’t sure if she had the capability to read and comprehend the lessons in the book so I gave her a few demonstrations then let her try the pencils on a piece of scrap paper. She drew a picture of her dog. The little illustration was a collection of brown circles and squiggly lines, but I could see the dog’s eyes, tail, feet and tongue hanging out of its mouth. Mostly I saw the effort and love go into this sketch. When the girl was finished she looked at her work and was obviously pleased with herself. In her eyes, the drawing was perfect.
Her mother came in and apologized for her daughter taking up my time. In an attempt to move the girl from my drawing table, she told her there was nothing in my studio she would want to purchase with her birthday money. The girl spoke up.
“But I want this, Mommy!” her face beamed as she presented the kit to her mother. “It’s on sale, too! I’ll even have money left over to buy an ice cream.”
“Honey, you don’t want this. You can’t draw.”
“I can too, draw. See!” she proudly handed her mother the drawing of the dog.
“What is it? I see nothing but a bunch of scribbles.” The mother’s curt reply just reinforced the idea of not being able to do something and indirectly stated that she didn’t like her daughter’s work.
The girl looked at me, the deep hurt in those eyes struck a cord. She seemed to beg me to help her and I wasn’t about to stand back and watch a new budding artist fade away simply because somebody didn’t like her work. The girl needed her mother to see the beauty of her attempt to draw.
I explained to the mother that I had seen potential in the girl and with a few lessons the natural talent would probably appear. I also added before the mother could ask, “How much?” that with the purchase of the kit I would give the girl a few free lessons on my own time. The kit was purchased for $10.95 and a wonderful hug.
During one of my sessions with the little girl, a woman in her late 60’s stopped to watch the instruction at my drawing table. People are always stopping to watch an artist at work but while most move along after a quick comment or two, she stayed longer without speaking a word. She sighed, and then commented on how she wished she could draw or paint. I invited her take classes, but she declined saying she was too old to learn. I teased by saying, age is a state of mind and that I know a few tricks to teach a dog of any age. I soon found out she had take formal classes forty-five years ago but gave up because her parents didn’t like her work and told her to get a real job. She slowly walked away.
She returned after my extra special student left with a small painting she had done for her husband many years ago. The painting was of a fisherman purchasing freshly caught fish from a young boy resembling Tom Sawyer in a straw hat. I immediately fell for the humor. She said her husband kept it in his office because he was nice. Not because he loved it, but because he was nice! She had been told too long that she was no good that she was now blind to her own talent.
After some convincing, she decided to take a few “useless lessons” she called them. It didn’t take long for me to see she definitely had a talent, but it took longer for her to see. The lessons seemed to be almost like therapy for her. She was a retired elementary teacher, whose husband passed away, and she was looking for a hobby. On one particular day, she became so busy talking; she wasn’t paying much attention to her painting until after she had cleaned her brushes, I asked her to look at her work. A few moments went by, and then her lips formed a slow smile.
“Pretty good, ain’t it?” she said to me with a youthful look in her eye. She left that day with a spring in her step. I knew she had finally faced her ability with a new outlook.
Life as an artist is never boring. I’ve always enjoyed helping artists of all ages and abilities to find their personal artistic talent and develop it. It is sad when talent is pushed away because somebody doesn’t like the artist’s work. An artist puts a lot of him or herself into a piece and when it is rejected the artist may take it personally. (There are ways of artists to overcome that, but I’ll save it for another day.)
In conclusion, the young man who was a genius with the pen has earned fame from his peers by redesigning the school logo, designing various school program covers, and has even earned money by doing illustrations for his church and a few community clubs. The fellow, who sold the characters to Dungeons and Dragons, after a tour in the U.S. Marine Corps, now is a commercial artist and copyrights everything he does. My very special student is drawing every chance she gets during her spare time. I’ve informed her mother about Very Special Arts Michigan, an affiliate of a national program that provides opportunities for people of all ages with disabilities to grow through the arts. My older student has become the teacher. She now teaches painting in the retirement community she lives in as well as creates wonderful gifts for her children.
Altogether, I put a call out to everyone to see the beauty in the art a person produces and for all artists to mentor aspiring artists. When mentoring, I not only discover and help develop a new artist; I also make a wonderful friend. As for that oversized red canvas with the green dot, I still don’t understand it, but I do understand what the artist went through to paint it. It’s beautiful in its own way.