My Feet Hurt

DSC_0473 (2)Quantum Cubist Self-Portrait, graphite, 12×9″

Woke up at 5 for reasons unknown and watched a grainy black and white youtube video of the 1952 Yankees/Brooklyn Dodgers World Series.  Jackie Robinson played second base for the Dodgers and Roy Campanella played catcher.  Young Mickey Mantle led the Yankees to victory.  The batters swatted at pitches with wide, flat swings.  Baggy uniforms billowed and made the athletes seem slow of foot and wide of ass.

Drifted off, woke to my alarm at 7:30 feeling much groggier than I had at 5.  Stumbled through making breakfast, cooking lunch to leave behind for Judy, and packing an apple and a sandwich to take along.  Felt rushed and slightly hassled as I drove to work but arrived five minutes before the doors automatically unlocked at Valencia Building 3.

The classroom was only partially wrecked from the last class and the Friday clean up crew, so it took just ten minutes to move easels and chairs into position.  Set out three models of human skulls on upright wooden boxes for my Drawing I class.  Arranged a complex still life (a skeleton, fabric, bricks, boots, cow femurs, an angel statue, and a lamp shaped like a horse’s head) on the gray stage for my Drawing II students.

2/3 of the students showed up on time.  Did a brief intro for Drawing I and then switched to Drawing II.  I showed them Picasso’s early cubist paintings, had the students draw 9×12″ boxes and divide them into 8 sections using curving lines.  Told them to draw chunks of the still life in each area.  The kicker was this:  each time they drew another section they had to move to another position.  Cubism=multiple viewpoints rammed together into one shifting, churning space.

DSC_0471 (2)Cubist Still Life, graphite, 8×6″

Drawing I drew skulls and learned portrait proportions.  Then they drew me and themselves, and after lunch they paired up and drew each other.  Usual mistakes:  eyes drawn too large, faces elongated, heads turned into bowling balls with facial features attached haphazardly, noses shortened and shrunk to Michael Jackson proportions, necks too spindly to hold up a head, mouths too small and narrow to chew a hamburger, brains shrunk to subhuman proportions, facial proportions of the drawer transplanted onto drawings of other people.  Students struggled for a while, but improved.  A poor student surprised me by drawing an accurate portrait of another student after having butchered my face.

 

Gave my usual speech about proper etiquette when a model is present (our first model comes next week).  Told them not to make remarks or jokes about the model, not to touch the model, not to fraternize (the model is not a future date), not to photograph the model, and in short, to treat the model with respect.  These rules are based on bad behavior by previous students.  I concluded: “If you have an issue following these rules, then I will have an issue with you, and then I will issue you out the door.”

Two students stayed after.  One wanted to show me her latest work in computer graphics.  I gave her a few color theory tips.  The other wanted to convert me into becoming a computer artist.  Told him that I like the tactile experience of working with my hands, of making things out of physical materials.

He persisted, so I trotted out my standard and most effective argument.  I asked him, “Would you rather make love to a woman or look at porn?”  He stammered and said, “I’ll have to think about that.”  Discussion ended.

Put away wooden boxes, still life props and skulls; arranged easels in a circle around the room; erased the blackboard, locked the closet, turned off the spotlights.  The weekend cleaning crew came in while I packed my bag, and I told them that the paper towels were out in both dispensers.

Trudged through the building and met two students in the lobby.  We cringed greetings to each other sharing the hope that neither student or professor would feel obliged to start a conversation.

The day had turned hot and muggy while I worked inside, and the walk to the car seemed long.  My teaching adrenaline faded away, and the effects of walking on concrete floors became apparent: my knees felt numb and my feet hurt.

 

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I’m Not the Boss of This Level and I’m Not Your App

DSC_0452 (3)

Philip K. Dick, the visionary writer who penned “Minority Report”, wrote a story about the effects of games on children.  The protagonist and his team of inspectors examine goods imported from a hostile country.  They search for hidden bombs and poisons, but fail to screen out a seemingly harmless game.  The man gives it to his kids.  It’s a strategy game like chess: players move pieces across a board divided up into contested land masses.  The children love it and quickly master its underlying logic:  you win the game by giving up all your territory.

Now our children play computer games that feature progressive levels of difficulty.  A player moves forward by figuring out a set of challenges and defeating a level’s boss.  Strategies learned in one level do not always apply to the next.  And a highly successful player of one game may not develop transferable skills that deliver triumph in another.

Computers and electronic games have molded our children so that teaching has become a lot more difficult.  Students no longer give teachers respect even when teachers demonstrate mastery of their material. Students don’t apply information and skills learned in one lesson to ongoing exercises.  They appear to have an ingrained pattern of thinking: learn material long enough to satisfy the demands of a situation, make no connections between one skill and another, and forget skills and techniques as soon as they are no longer demanded.

This leads to a second difficulty:  students look at teachers as if they are apps or search engines or youtube instructional videos.  They think of an instructor as a button they can push when a problem arises.  They don’t understand that teachers are not computer programs, that their instructors resent having to repeat simple instructions over and over again.

A third difficulty arises when students think that their instructor is just one source among many.  One night I showed an example of a cross-contour drawing and drew a demonstration using the technique.  One student sat at his drawing board and refused to start.  He Google-searched for other examples of the technique instead.  I tossed him my drawing and said, “Here’s an example.”  He studied it briefly and went back to his phone.  I came over and saw that he had pulled up three images of cross-contour drawings.  One came closest to the exercise I had designed, so I told him to follow that one.  I came around to him five minutes later, and he still hadn’t begun.  I told him to start (we only had a half hour left in class), and he said, “But I’m just looking for another example.”  Things went downhill from there, and I advised him to find another instructor.

The fourth difficulty:  students think of courses as levels in the game of earning a degree.  Instructors are bosses to be outwitted and defeated. Then they can go onto another class and another until they claim their diplomas.  They earn a bonus at the end of the game when they find jobs in their field of study.

They don’t understand, until it’s too late, that the information and skills taught in their courses still apply.  (One cannot function as an engineer without mastery of physics and calculus.)  Courses aren’t temporary challenges; courses deliver resources that apply always.

I tell my students the following at the end of the second class in Drawing I:  “Remember how I want you to block in simple shapes, measure angles and proportions and then go for final lines and details?  I want you to do that for the rest of the semester.  And then I want you to do that for the rest of your life.  When you die and become one of the angels and progress far enough to become cocreators of the universe with God, I want you to block in new constellations and universes with simple shapes, use a cosmic pencil to check proportions, and then put on the finishing touches.”  Half of them smile and nod;  half stare at me blankly as they wait for me to shut up and go away.

Mr. Timpone: Teacher Of Grace and Ease

I saw a man playing the organ at my Mom’s church, and he looked familiar.  He hunched over the keyboard and effortlessly trotted out a soothing bit of church music by Bach.  I thought, “Is that Mr. Timpone?”

Mr. Timpone taught at my elementary school, and took a music instructor position when I was in the sixth grade.  He had just graduated from college and looked like a mature high school kid.  His kind and easy manner put us at ease, and he encouraged an appreciation of music by introducing contemporary works.  Not modern classical music in the manner of Stravinsky or Shostakovich, but rock operas such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.  I still remember enjoying “What’s the Buzz?” from JCS.  I disliked the moments when Jesus felt the need to scream, however, and Judas’ extended freak out near the end disturbed me.  But Mr. Timpone explained the music in terms we understood and allowed us to explore our reactions.  No judgments, no condescension.

Mr. Timpone eventually left my parish school and took a job in the public system.  He married, had children, and could no longer make ends meet on the meager salary he earned at Ascension Catholic School.  He served in other capacities, however.  He was the choir director when my mother got drafted to join, and she also enjoyed his easy going ways.  He could tease relaxed but beautiful performances out of his singers, and never made them feel like a practice was a chore.  Subsequent directors favored a more disciplinarian approach, and my mother had to adjust to the disapproving demeanor of one who turned out to be a stickler for details.  That woman produced tighter performances delivered with much less joy.

Mom confirmed my identification after we took a seat in a pew, and I went over to talk to him before Mass started. I introduced myself, and he squinted with a friendly smile. He said, “The more I look at you, the more familiar you become.” He’d last seen me when I was fourteen, and I felt surprised that I vaguely resembled any memory he may have had.  I had gained 80 pounds and grayed extensively in the 45 year interim.

We chatted about teaching, schools, his children and mine. He said that his middle daughter had given him a grandchild, but the oldest and youngest showed no signs of settling down.  I said that mine had just married.  We talked about his career and retirement, my work, living in Orlando.  He listened carefully to everything, and I felt like we had been friends all these years.

The Mass and sermon did little for me, but my talk with Mr. Timpone lingered.  I wished that I had a similar talent for putting others at ease, but felt grateful that people like Mr. Timpone exist.  They move through our lives making us feel more comfortable in our skins, giving us a sense that all will be well.  Angels of grace may live among us.

 

A Tale of Two Projects

“It was the worst of weeks; it was the best of weeks.”

Max Ernst collage          He Didn’t See It Coming (acrylic, 2017)

The past few weeks I’ve been working feverishly on two contrasting projects: a power point presentation meant to summarize and explain my work and creative process; developing kids craft projects for an Easter egg hunt at Winter Park Presbyterian Church.

Paper Bag Puppets                                   Build-A-Bunny

On the one hand I referenced avant garde 20th century artists, outlined their influence on my work, and discussed three phases in my career. I matched images of my pictures to images by Max Ernst, Hannah Hoch, Balthus, Stanley Spencer and Philip Evergood and hoped that the comparisons weren’t too presumptuous. And then I wrote a text that to tie everything together in what I hope will be a digestible portion lasting no more than 20 minutes.

On the other hand, I designed paper bag puppets, crayon resist drawings, and a collage drawing of a bunny holding an egg. And once I decided that kids from 5 to ten might want to do these projects, my wife and I spent hours cutting up color shapes (bunny noses, ears, legs, etc.) from construction paper.

Both projects have been equally time consuming and wearying, and I’m not sure, in the end, which will provide the most enrichment. But the goal of both is to get folks, college students and kindergarteners alike, to imagine new possibilities.

I first saw this week’s efforts as an exercise in cognitive dissonance, of contrasting tasks that warred against each other.  But now it seems that one was the flip side of the other.

 

Perspective: Blame that Dead Italian

Greatest_architect_-_Brunelleschi

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.