Today I had my little art class. I was worried about it since last week I came up against some problems that I wasn’t sure I was equipped to deal with, mainly that one of my little students has a physical problem that gives her challenges learning, the same little girl for whom I wrote the book, “Are You Smart?” Last week she struggled to fold paper correctly to make a little folder for her art cards. (You can learn what that means here) and struggled even harder to write the notes about the card she’d chosen.
So today I thought I wouldn’t make them write. If we did the art cards today (as was on their calendar) they could just tell me. The lesson plan was to make a watercolor color wheel using only red, blue and yellow. I got there and said, “We’re going to do magic today.”
“I like magic!” said the little girl.
Mom had set up the table with baby food jars filled with water in front of each of our spots and paper towels. I brought watercolor paper for them. I’d drawn a circle and divided it into six “pie” pieces. I wrote Red, Yellow and Blue over the ones they needed to paint those colors. I had one too. We did it together.
They were 100% into it. Then we got to the part of mixing the colors, and they thought it really WAS magic (it is). Then the little girl said, “We’re making a rainbow!”
When we finished, the little boy said, “What are we going to do now?”
I said, “I don’t know. What do you want to do? We can draw…”
He and his sister both said, “The cards.”
I said, “OK. Do you want to talk or do you want to write?”
The little girl said, “Write.” I was happy. They even had their folders ready. (Thanks mom)
I spread six cards out on the table for them to choose. My favorite was a painting by Kandinsky but I said, “I don’t even know what is the top.” The little boy is AMAZINGLY attentive, saw printed in faint gray on the card an arrow pointing and the words, “This is up.”
They did their worksheets writing in the name of the painting, the artist, and why they like the picture. The little girl didn’t follow instructions and I called her on it. I said, “You need to read. See? What does it say here?” So she fixed her mistake. I learned today that she responds very well to inductive teaching, and I will do that with her as often as possible from now on since it compels her to focus and she’s rewarded when she reasons correctly.
Then her mom said, “We’ll figure out a way to pay you.”
I didn’t say anything directly to that. Something heavy and profound hit me, something about art and me.
I have been thinking about that all day. Art is two things. It’s something people look at and appreciate, a language across time and culture that adds an important dimension to humanity, maybe even defines humanity. But what it is to the artist? I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but art very literally saved my life. I didn’t get support for it from my mom, though as long as he lived, my dad nurtured both my brother and me as artists. I didn’t get much support in school, either. I had a couple of teachers who saw something in me and were encouraging, but most of the rest? Nope. But it didn’t matter. Art is a thing inside of me, an inexplicable, indomitable something that is in and of itself all the reward I need.
When my brother — an extremely talented artist — threw his life away on alcohol, one of the many things I couldn’t understand was why he didn’t turn to his art instead of booze. There’s the theory (which may have a basis in fact, though I doubt it) that artists are tortured souls. That may or may not be true on an individual basis, but I don’t think it’s art that tortures them. Maybe money? Maybe wishing they could be famous? I don’t know.
When I think of art — my own art — this is a story that evokes the magic for me every time. Making art is an experience that doesn’t always have something to do with the end product. For me the end product is just what happens if you finish something.
My mother hated that I am an artist, but toward the end of her life there was a moment. At the end of her garden there was a large wild plum bush. It grew in a field that belonged to her neighbor, the man and his wife who’d owned and farmed the land before it was developed. They Davises were were well into their 80s. My mom said to me, “Why don’t you go pick those plums for Mrs. Davis. She wants to make jam and she can’t pick them any more. She can’t leave Mr. Davis alone very long and she can’t walk well now.”
I picked up a paper grocery bag and went out and picked plums. When I looked at them in the bag I thought they were so very beautiful. Red, pink, golden, purple, plum (duh). I took them inside and said to my mom, “I want to paint them first.” She didn’t say anything. I had paints there — maybe my brother’s, I don’t know.
I did a watercolor of the plums then took them to Mrs. Davis’ house and left them on the back porch. They weren’t home.
Several hours later she called my mom and said, “Tell Martha Ann to come out.”
Mrs. Davis stood in her yard, white hair back-lit with late afternoon Montana light (there’s no light like that anywhere) holding a plate with a big white cake she’d made for me. I was still living in the painting I’d just finished, and the scene was just one more enchantment brought by those beautiful plums.
I sold the painting to a friend sometime later.
I don’t know if I’ve conveyed “art” the way I want to. It’s — for me — the enchantment of life. It’s a gift I have been given by the creator or DNA or whatever, helped by some good teaching, natural curiosity, pleasure in doing it, travel, excellent museums. I’ve held onto it like Ariadne’s thread throughout my life. Art saved me when I was in a major depression, suicidal, terrified, fragile. Drawing every day, just that, a magical ladder of color out of the abyss.
My body, my abilities, all I’ve learned? I’m just a vessel carrying this around for this moment in time. Like every artist. Every single fucking artist who ever lived has done nothing more than say, “Here is the world as I have seen it, as my hands can depict it. Here.” From the first cave painter to me. It’s ONE thing. THIS is what I am teaching the kids. To be paid for that? No. It’s my honor to hold it in my hands and to be able to share it at all. It’s Mrs. Davis holding a beautiful white cake, behind her Montana’s afternoon summer sun breaking against the Beartooth Mountains.