Perspective: Blame that Dead Italian


I’ve covered perspective in drawing classes several times these past weeks. I say that an architect named Brunelleschi wanted to accurately copy Roman and Greek ruins.  He invented perspective in the late 1300 to early 1400s so that he could rip off the designs with precision.  I tell students that they can blame that dead Italian if they find drawing boxes and hallways frustrating.

I repeat, “Parallel lines appear to converge as they move away from your position,” until I’m nearly dead from boredom. But some students still insist on making objects get larger as they recede, smaller as they approach.  Even when I make corrections on their drawings, they’ll drift back to the original mistake in a series of tentative erasures and line markings.  They can’t quite believe that I’m telling them the truth and revert to notions that are wrong but comfortable.  Our perspectives on perspective stubbornly clash.

I also tell them that other cultures have different systems for depicting space on two dimensional surfaces.  The Chinese and Japanese scroll painters used isometric perspective (parallel lines on an object are drawn parallel on the paper), and Egyptian wall paintings used mixed viewpoints when depicting human beings.  A pharaoh would be drawn with a profile head and hips, a frontal eye and shoulders.  I tell them that all systems for showing space on a flat surface are lies, but that Renaissance lies allow an artist to create a convincing illusion of depth.

I go on to explain that early Renaissance artists used perspective fanatically and cite Perugino, Raphael’s instructor, as an example.  I say, “Perugino once did a painting called, ‘The Marriage of Joseph and Mary’.  The painting showed a black and white checked plain the size of Kansas.  In the middle of the plain was a tiny church.  In front of the church were two tiny figures, Mary and Joseph.”

I tell them that Western artists faithfully used perspective until Cezanne decided to shift around a bit as he painted still lives and people in interiors.  He went slightly Egyptian.  Braque and Picasso saw his paintings, looked at African masks, and decided to push the idea of a moving viewpoint further.  Forms fractured into geometric bits, and figures and still lives seemed to be part of a spatial continuum.  A splintered pear encountered a fragment of a table disrupted by a curtain and a hand.

I sometimes go on to explain that modern artists continued to throw out key elements of traditional art until they reached a dead end in the 1960s and 70s.  At that point artists were using paint rollers to paint monochrome canvases and doing conceptual pieces that offered little tangible evidence of production.  One man wrote to Art Forum magazine and reported that he planned to think the word “blue” for an hour or two on a Tuesday in July (I don’t recall the actual date, and apologize if his color-thought piece had an important connection to a precise day and time.).

I conclude by telling them that artists have continued to paint realistically using Renaissance conventions and perspective.  Avant-garde artists in the 1980s began to dump elements from multiple art history periods (traditional and modern) and cultures (Western and Eastern) back into their work, and now there are no true artistic movements any more.  A mishmash of styles and influences roll in and out of favor like oil slicks on sluggish tides.

While they stand there mulling over the information overload I just delivered, I offer them an out.  I say, “But we’re not going to worry about any of that.  Today we’re just going to draw boxes and halls.  And remember, none of this is my fault.  Blame that dead Italian.  He started this.”



Making the Grades

I paged through another portfolio in my studio and gave grades to each drawing.  Classical music played in the background, and from time to time I looked up at unfinished paintings that I hadn’t touched in a week or two.  So many classes to prepare and give.  So many judgments to make and advice to give.

Some portfolios were well organized with no missing drawings, and the work showed effort and talent.  Some showed talent but little effort.  Some showed no talent whatsoever but a desperate need to get something out of the course.  (I respect the students in the latter group and wish that I could give them higher grades.)

When I work my way through a stack of portfolios I get indirect feedback from my students.  I’m making a grade for myself as I review the successes and failures of my students.  I take mental notes about which exercises worked better, which bombed, and which seemed easy only to the highly talented.  I think about other classes where a usually successful assignment caused despair in this class, and try to figure out what led to the different outcomes.

When I get to the end of grading a group of portfolios I usually feel great relief, but also regret that the relationships I’ve built with my students will come to an end soon.  I’ve gotten to know their quirks, their weaknesses and strengths, and sometimes it seems a shame to let all that go.  I know that a new semester will give me an opportunity to build new ties to a fresh batch of students, but sometimes wish that I could keep working with the ones I have.  It’s like parenting in that success means an eventual bittersweet departure.

Of course I’ve gotten an occasional class that made me happy to see them hit the exit for the last time.  I get dreams that repeat for years following this scenario:  students ignore me, mill around the class, and find my mounting anger and frustration amusing.  A Drawing II class from two springs ago was the living embodiment of this nightmare.  And when these students spent a large portion of the final critique complaining about assignments, I cut the proceedings short and deleted my final speech.  I hoped that most of them would never cross my path ever again and knew that many of them thought the same thing about me.

But all things pass, good or bad, and I like to recall the times I shared a joke, helped a student figure something out, got to know someone better.  Teaching is about sharing knowledge while making a human connection.  And even if the connections get broken as students go on, I like to believe that traces survive, that a moment of giving echoes through time.

A Professor’s Dream

Last night I dreamt that I was teaching math to a college class.  The lesson involved finding a way to analyze cargo manifests to determine how a shipment had been packed.  I didn’t fully understand the formula myself until I went through it with them for a third time and was pleased when the light fully dawned on me.  And suddenly I realized that this was my last class with them and began to give a closing speech.  I told them that I was really pleased by all the hard work they had put into learning the course material and that I had enjoyed our interactions, but half way through the speech they grew restless and began to talk among themselves.  I raised my voice to regain their attention, but was interrupted by a young man who started to complain loud and long about the treatment he received when he bought, say, shaving cream at a local drug store.  He grew increasingly vehement and wouldn’t let me finish the class.  I yelled at him, told him to shut up, but he kept going.  I walked toward him and explained that I had nothing to do with the drug store and his purchase of shaving cream, but he refused to stop.  I snapped my fingers and turned him into an apple pie.

The apple pie began to rant about shaving cream, however, so I put it on a picnic table outside.  The students were still friendly when I returned to class saying that Brian, the ranter, had been acting like an ass.  Snacks had appeared during my absence, and everyone helped themselves to a treat.  One woman said, “I’d sure like to have some of that pie.”

I realized that I hadn’t turned Brian into an apple pie, but had merely entrapped him inside a pie someone brought for our celebration.  I decided to retrieve it and release Brian, but they were no longer directly outside the classroom.  It turned out that I had placed the pie in a location far away.  I hopped into my car and drove down a highway.  I spied a pie sitting on a table at a roadside park on the opposite side of the road.  I turned my car around but didn’t drive all the way back to the park.  I got out and began to run.  I took off my shirt (it was hot) and noticed that my chest and belly had become chiseled and that I had the endurance of a twenty-year-old man.  I sped up as I saw Brian (freed from his crusty prison) near the pie.  I feared that he would eat it.

When I arrived, I saw that all that was left was a bit of crust and a smear of filling.  I carried the dish up a hill to return to class, and students milled about on either side.  Buildings sprang up around me, and I took for granted that I had instantaneously returned to campus.  I plotted ways to flunk Brian or give him a much lower grade, but realized that he had hurt himself by eating his way out of the pie from the inside.  He had consumed most of his body and spirit and greatly diminished himself.  There was no need to punish him further.

I woke up with an ache in my lower back.  I had fallen asleep fully clothed with the lights on, and the alarm clock read 5:30.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep and blearily stumbled off to the bathroom to take my morning piss.  I sat on the toilet, thought about the dream and realized that “Brian” looked a lot like Brian Ferguson,  a guy who attended Fairmont East high school with me forty some years ago.  High school Brian had never treated me badly.  His appearance as a rotten student in a teaching dream must have been the odd byproduct of reading Facebook posts about our recent fortieth class reunion.

The Instructor

Once upon a time there was a drawing student named Henry.  He worked at Disney and believed in Jesus.  He drew Bibles, crosses and mouse ears when given the chance, and he hated the instructor.  He knew, just knew that the man had no faith in Christ or Walt Disney.  And the instructor frowned every time Henry brought out his pictures of his lovely wife and two darling children.  Didn’t he like children?  Or didn’t he believe that Henry was their father?  Why couldn’t he be the father?  He had the right equipment and knew how to use it.  The instructor didn’t care that Henry did his absolute best, had put his past permanently behind him.  Jesus saved him, and then he found Lisa, and now he was happy.  Really, really happy…What did the instructor know about anything but drawing bottles and boxes?  He could talk all day about perspective, but did he have any?  Did he understand true suffering, the suffering of Jesus for mankind, the suffering of mankind trying to be like Jesus no matter how much it hurt?  That smug bastard was the king of his classroom, but not King of the Universe.  Henry wanted to be there when God gave the instructor his Final Grade.

Helen sat next to Henry.  She hated the instructor too, but wasn’t sure why until Henry told her that the instructor was arrogant.  Helen hated arrogant men, and this teacher (He wasn’t a real professor, was he?) was dirty minded too.  The instructor had asked her if Robert bothered her and didn’t believe it when she told him that she liked Robert.  Robert was funny.  The instructor said, “I saw you bend over to pick up your back pack off the floor, and Robert bent over your back, hugged you from behind, and whispered in your ear, ‘See you next Tuesday.’  You’re okay with that?”  Helen was fine with that.  Robert just kidded around, and she hadn’t felt anything sexual.  The hug had been funny and nice, and she didn’t care whether Robert had pressed up against her butt and his hands accidentally grazed her…The instructor was the real pervert imagining filth when grown people were just having a bit of fun, horsing around.  She wasn’t a weak woman like her mother who let men do what they wanted and pretended to like it.  Helen could take care of herself better than some fake professor who saw harassment in one harmless little hug.  Arrogant bastard.

Robert sat two easels away from Helen, but he’d already decided that she wasn’t the one for him.  Too old and lean.  Stringy blond hair.  There were several girls in the class, younger, juicier, who deserved his attention.    But one stood out:  Charlotte.  She was a tough chick who wore work boots, skinny jeans, tank tops, and pink lipstick.  She smoked cigarettes with him during break.  She liked his jokes, dirty girl, and paid close attention when he got close to her and touched her shoulder and told her about his mother, the artist.  Most girls thought that he was weird when he went on and on about Mom, but Charlotte listened…Mom knew that he was a special and had lots and lots of talent.  Robert didn’t care that the instructor gave him Cs.  He knew that it didn’t matter if he drew abstract textures while everyone else drew still lives.  Real artists didn’t bother with anything but abstraction and the human form.  He loved the human form.  And it didn’t matter that Charlotte asked him to stop touching her arm, her shoulder, to stop bumping his hip against hers (“Oops again, hah-hah!”) when he passed by her easel.  She pretended to be pure but acted like she had plenty of experience.  He could tell.  Girls liked to put up some resistance at first, but gave in eventually.  Most did.

Joseph knew that the instructor didn’t respect him.  The instructor was annoyingly tall and walked around like the giant god of the world.  But Joseph had talent, more talent than the instructor, and he would show the man how good he was once the instructor brought in models.  Joseph had signed up to draw nudes, but that man made him draw bottles and boxes, toys, a doll and a beach ball.  Junk didn’t inspire him, and an artist needs inspiration to do his best work.  At midterm that prick had given him a D and told him to do some homework in the second half.  He might get a B if he applied himself.  Joseph did not do B work, but he did choose what kind of work he did. And he didn’t do homework.   Homework was boring.  Homework was useless practice when he, Joseph, already knew how to draw his hand, a still life, the interior of a room.  Couldn’t the man see that?   Maybe he was too tall to look down and see Joseph.

Mary was tired, really tired of being told what to do.  She worked as an airline stewardess and took the class for fun, as an escape.  She spent the week slaving for people who acted as if she were a servant, and now she wanted things to follow her terms.  She’d paid good money for this class, and technically, though he’d never admit it, the instructor was her employee.  And he was so rude to her, never saying anything nice about her work when it was obvious that she was the best drawer in the class.  Oh, he gave her As on nearly every assignment, but he always slipped in some nitpicking criticism about any little mistake he could find.  He must spend hours finding a line that wobbled a sixteenth of an inch, a tone that smudged slightly.  Why couldn’t he tell her just once how good she was, and then shut up and go away?

The instructor could tell that half the class hated him.  Henry was meticulously polite but sneered at him when he thought that the instructor wasn’t looking.  He whispered like a conspirator with Helen during breaks.  Helen glared at him as if his very existence offended her.  Joseph stared stone faced whenever the instructor looked at his drawings.  Nothing he said made an impression on Joseph.  Mary thought that she was running the show.  She lectured him on his duties as an instructor.  She told him one day, “First you have to greet me, say ‘Good morning, Mary.’  Then you have to praise me.  Then you can tell me all the things you think I’ve done wrong!” Robert oddly enough, thought they were buddies.  But Robert was a loon and a lecher who had taken the class to harass women.  And Robert’s sketchbook had odd little poems about suicide, about using a piece of glass to slash his wrists.  The instructor had reported him to the dean’s office, but they were worried about legalities and seemed to think that the instructor showed a negative bias toward Robert.  Thank God there were a few students who took him seriously, who worked hard and tried to improve.

The instructor’s wife pretended to listen when he complained about the class.  He joked, but wasn’t really joking, when he said, “My quest to be loved by everyone at all times has failed once again!”  She sighed and said what she always said at times like these: “There’s always another class.  There’s always another semester.” Continue reading

Naked People

DSC_0132 (2)Hillary (charcoal, 20 minute pose)

I took a Drawing I class at the University of Dayton, and we drew boxes the first class.  The second we drew a model wearing a bathing suit.  By midterm the models wore nothing, but by then I had become habituated to seeing nude men and women on the modeling stage.  The problems of figuring out basic proportions and drawing hands and feet outweighed any shock I felt from seeing body after body.

I took a life drawing class the next semester.  The process was familiar, but the instructor demanded more.  And my classmates drew on a much higher level.  I felt intimidated, so I learned to steal from the best.  Gary drew like an angel–I couldn’t figure out how he captured a human figure and it’s surrounding space with a few lines.  But I noticed that he always included a rug or the section of the stage on which the model stood.  He showed a bit of depth that way.  I stole that.  Dave made bravura marks for emphasis after he had the main forms down.  I stole that.  Violet accented junctions where two planes came together, pop-pop-pop all around the drawing.  The accents created points of tension that countered the long lines flowing along the length of an arm or a leg.  Beautiful.  I stole that.

The models had varying attitudes toward their work.  One emaciated woman cringed before dropping her robe.  She slumped onto a cushion at the shadowed back of the stage, stared at the floor the whole time she posed, and answered the professor in monosyllables.  I felt guilty drawing her.  A short man with a muscular body held his head high and relaxed into his poses.  He lost his detached composure once when he caught me glaring at his groin.  I was trying for a third time to correctly draw the juncture where the thigh inserts into the hip, but he mistook my frustration for an odd reaction to the sight of his privates.  I shifted my gaze and drew his knees after I saw him frown back at me.  A redhead struck long, languorous poses.  Her lips curled in a lazy smile as she directed inappropriate jokes at the male students.  She’d say, “Well, boys, what are you looking at?” and “See anything you like, boys?”  During breaks she’d don a robe and walk around the class to inspect our drawings.  She didn’t bother to use a tie, and her garment gaped open as she stood next to us.  She had a crush on Gary and lingered at his drawings.  One day she exclaimed, “You make me look so beautiful!”  After she returned to the stage Gary slowly, deliberately erased her face off the drawing.

I eventually became an art instructor and taught life drawing with nude models.  I learned from painful experience to give my students a lecture about art room etiquette before a first lesson.  I say, ” One:  the model has not come to class to socialize with you.  I am not running a dating service, and you will not ask for a phone number.  Two:  you will not touch the model.  Three:  you will not make personal remarks or jokes about the model.  Four:  you will not photograph the model.  Five:  treat the model with respect.  If you cannot follow these rules I’ll kick you out of class, and you’ll have to find a way to make up for the missing drawings on your own.  That will cost you time and money.”  Then I give them examples of bad behavior.  “A student stood three feet away from a model and told me that the model was too ugly to draw…A woman in a figure painting class made a bad sketch of the model.  When the model returned to the stand after a break the student tried to twist the model’s arms and legs to match the mangled contortions of her drawing…A student, an older woman wearing a baggy sweater and bifocals, confronted a model on the first day of class.  She shouted, ‘Jezebel!  Jezebel!’ when the model opened her robe.”

I believe that the close study of a face and body (scars and all) is a way of honoring an individual’s history and humanity.  But some of my beginning drawing students refuse to draw from a nude person, even if the model is of their gender.   Religious faith trumps acceptance of the human form.  I give my moral protestors an alternative.  I send them out of the classroom to draw nudes from old master prints and paintings.  They never complain about that form of nudity–it’s second hand nature doesn’t compromise their principles.  I no longer bother to tell them that Raphael, Rubens and Da Vinci drew directly from models, that Western Art is based on the unembarrassed study of naked people.  If I did they’d only think that I was making excuses for my sins.

DSC_0133 (2)Joyce (oil on canvas)

Teach, Breathe, Relax


My wife, Judy, gets worried about me when I come home after teaching a rough class. My reddened face tells her that my blood pressure is elevated once again. She speaks to me in a quiet voice suitable for calming an angry dog and steers the conversation toward topics having nothing to do with teaching.

Lately I’ve been encountering students who do not listen to instructions, fail to understand instructions but do not ask questions, cherry pick one part of the instructions while ignoring the rest, and who do random things unrelated to the assignment even after getting further instruction and clarification.  This occurs after I’ve shown them examples of correctly finished drawings and done demonstrations of techniques.  I’ve sometimes had to sketch the beginning steps on their drawings to get the basics established.

They think that I’m odd and damaged when I show signs of irritation and frustration after they self-sabotage their work by further acts of blind incomprehension or bored indifference. One student cannot follow any verbal instruction.  I told him last Saturday to start a tonal painting by working from dark tones to light tones.  He responded, “Okay, light to dark.”  This was the third or fourth instance of communication failure between us within a few minutes.  “No,” I pleaded, “dark to light!”

The other night a student nodded along when I gave her instruction, and then proceeded to do the opposite of what I had told her.  She advised the women next to her to follow suite, and I had to deal with a minor insurrection.  She began to do the assignment correctly after I gave her a series of increasingly curt orders.  I relaxed as the class began to go as planned, and she asked me if I felt better.  She spoke to me in a patronizing tone as if illness had been the cause of my irritability. I suffered a relapse when I growled in response, “Don’t worry about how I’m feeling.”

I’ve been talking with Judy about all this and have realized a few insights about teaching and my frustration:  1. I get a sense of personal satisfaction when a student learns something–I’ve made a difference; 2. my classroom is a place where I feel in control; 3. I put a lot of effort into preparing and presenting a class.  When students fail to learn my sense of satisfaction disappears.  When students react randomly to my directions I get anxious because I feel like I’m losing control.  When my efforts are ignored I feel disrespected and unappreciated.

I realize that it’s a fool’s game to rely on others for self-worth.  I can only do my best and let the results come in as they may. Getting churned up over a weak group of students is pointless.

A few months back I tried the technique of watching my breath during times of stress.  If I slowed down and paid attention to air passing in and out of my nostrils I had a chance to relax and reset my emotions.  Recently I read a passage from Yogananda where he advises his devotees to keep their calm throughout the day, and to watch for the instances when they fail.  He says that progress can be judged by how well we live in peace with our surroundings.

And that sounds like a good goal to me.  If my focus is on maintaining a sense of peace and calm while I teach, and not so much on ego driven ambitions (control, accomplishment, praise), I might be a lot more effective…I need a tattoo on the back of my drawing hand that says, “Teach, breathe, relax.”  And on the other it could read, “Keep the calm.”

Teachers’ Disease: The Scourge Refusing to Remain Silent


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No one warned us about this malady when we were children, but we were exposed to it every day.  I remained largely blind to its insidious effects even when I was an undergrad in college.  I should have realized that an American Art History professor was a sufferer of Teacher’s Blathering Disease (TBD).   She droned on after one of her students fainted in front of her and never bothered to help while another student caught the stricken man and propped him up in his seat.  The professor simply couldn’t stop herself from making one more point, one more appeasement to her anxiety to be heard and understood.  Or perhaps the sound of her voice had become so sweetly intoxicating that she simply could not cut off the flow.

Years later when my children started to attend grade school I noticed another symptom of TBD:  a kindergarten teacher at a school gathering could not distinguish between students and parents.  Her daily communication with five year olds had created habituated neural pathways that rendered her incapable of complex speech.   She talked to us adults slowly…with…simple…words…that she carefully spaced so that we had time to comprehend their meaning.  She used big, enthusiastic gestures and facial expressions even when talking about mundane topics (REMEMBER to bring in BOXES of TISSUES and extra PENCILS!!!).  She repeated herself several times as if concerned that her audience couldn’t remember and follow simple instructions:  “The Thanksgiving Holiday starts on Wednesday, not Thursday, next week.  So don’t bring your kids to school on Wednesday…or Thursday or Friday.  No one will be here on any of those days, you know, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.  Have a happy holiday next week on Wednesday, Thurs–”  (The principal led the poor woman away at that point.  The kiddie chorus jumped in and sang about a Thanksgiving turkey who wanted to live so that he could achieve his dream of learning how to fly.)

And I encountered a variant of TBD mostly found in the retired professor host population:  the need to be the most knowledgeable person in the room.  I attended a church in a university town that was lousy with white bearded coots who suffered from an insatiable desire to impress any victim who came within earshot.  And they didn’t rant just about subjects in which they had been trained.  They could bloviate about sundry topics while basing their arguments on hearsay they had just read in the local paper.  A few catch phrases and some unfiltered facts were all they needed to construct a tower of biased opinions held upright by the will to assert their intellectual dominance.  A correction by an actual expert in the field being discussed did not humble the blowhards into silence.  They would simply bend the discussion away from the damaging point or question the breadth and authenticity of the expert’s knowledge.

The sad thing is that TBD sufferers rarely know that they have a disease.  They remain blissfully  unaware that they have cleared out a room or drained all the joyful energy from a gathering.  They even follow after their victims as they flee out the door.  They want to give the desperate escapees a few thoughts to take with them.

I too suffer from this disease, but have become aware of my condition.  I use simple words, repeat myself, and suck the air out of a room when my need to dominate a social gathering takes over.  I can hear myself rattling on, interrupting others, saying the same damn thing over and over with slight variations in the hope that the latest iteration will capture the fine distinction in meaning that hovers in my mind.  I suffer from the delusion that its elusive elegance must be communicated at all costs.

But I am in recovery.  I will never truly kick my teachers’ disease habit, but hope to learn how to live a productive life that will do less harm to myself and others.  Teacher’s Blathering Anonymous tells us that we are powerless over our addiction and must surrender our thoughts and speech to a higher power.  Now, with God’s help, I am able to fight the urge to babble and can wait patiently while someone else speaks.  Now I can use three syllable words and give my audience time to figure out their significance for themselves.  Now I can go days at a time without hunting down victims and forcing them to listen to me rave on about how I would solve the crisis in Syria or broaden the economic base of Central Florida.  And I can spend time alone and simply keep my mouth shut.

The temptations are still there, of course, and I still suffer occasional relapses.  But the improvement has been real and the rewards great.  My children visit me again.  My wife no longer talks about taking separate vacations.  The neighbors no longer cringe and flee when I happen to meet them at the mailbox.

And I am able to finish an essay without summing up and restating points I have already adequately explained.

You’re welcome.