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.


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)

Dysfunction: One Thing Leads to Another

A few months ago I drew a charcoal drawing entitled, “She Spurned His Advances”.  It showed an gawky looking monster hovering near a woman who was not thrilled by his amorous attention.  I used a Surrealist technique to develop the suitor, and based his lady on a 19th century daguerreotype.

She Spurned

After I finished this piece I got the idea to show a couple responding to a man’s unfortunate tendency to spontaneously eject his internal organs at inappropriate moments.  (I know what you’re thinking:  when is there an appropriate moment for involuntary self-evisceration?)  This idea evolved into “Eruptile Dysfunction”, an oil painting of a man responding to his wife’s sexual overtures by suffering a volcanic eruption to explode out of the top of his head.

dsc_0015  Eruptile Dysfunction, Oil on Canvas

I decided to satirize the erectile dysfunction pharmaceutical ad campaign (the commercials annoy me), and I played around with puns.  I first came up with “T-Rextile Dysfunction.”  I envisioned a T-Rex couple in bed having unsatisfactory relations, but this idea seemed too cartoonish.  I found some illustrations of T-Rex running, and one of them showed a dinosaur looking back over one shoulder.  I wondered what could possibly make a giant predator look behind itself with apprehension, and I remembered a documentary about aviation disasters.  Judy and I watched an old report about airliners losing tail sections and wings in mid flight when their metal under structures failed from repeated stress. I got the idea that the T-Rex’s tail, elevated off the ground as the monster ran, might break off.

dsc_0034T-Rextile Dysfunction, Acrylic on Board

I’m brewing up a few ideas for more paintings in this series.  “Electile Dysfunction” could feature a prominent player in our current presidential race.  An angry couple could break up in a vivid way in “Rejectile Dysfunction”.  “Ejectile Dysfunction” could illustrate a faulty ejection seat in a jet fighter.  An architect might stand by the collapsed ruins of an unfinished building in “Erectile Dysfunction”.

I’m not sure if I will actually make these paintings, but it amuses me to think about them.

The Digital Cocoon

I’ve taught college classes in drawing and painting for the last fifteen years and have noticed changes in students as the generations have passed by.  The X generation was rebellious and sometimes lazy, but would engage directly with me.  I could tell them something and get a response that let me know whether the message had been accepted, rejected, scorned or appreciated.

The Millennials wanted me to be their buddy.   They wanted me to praise their efforts first and then introduce a few minor suggestions for improvement.  They sometimes felt hurt when they got a bad grade because they thought that we had built up a relationship that precluded any negative judgment of their work.  One young man broke down in tears when he got an F on a homework drawing that was supposed to be a realistic depiction (fully developed in tone to show light and volume) of a still life object.  He turned in a sheet of paper with three smears of charcoal on it that signified nothing.  He told me as he dabbed his eyes that he thought we had such a good relationship in class, but that it upset him when I turned against him when I graded his homework.

The latest generation is somewhat like the Millennials.  They still want a lot of praise (sometimes for very little effort), and any negative assessment of their progress has to be introduced slowly, carefully and with endless tact.  They’re less concerned, however, with being my friend.  They are much too busy managing their existence inside their personally customized, digital cocoons.  With some of them I don’t truly exist as a physical entity–I am a ghost fading in and out of their awareness.

The worst cases are lost in a haze of stimulation and see me as just another instructional video playing on a multilevel platform in their brains. As I do demonstrations and give them personal instruction they sneak peeks at their iphones or gaze off into the distance while lost in their daydreams.   And they seem unable to work in a calm, quiet environment.  They constantly wear ear buds.  They bob their heads slightly to the beat of the noise blaring in their ears, and the world around them becomes passing images in their private music videos.

It takes longer, obviously, to build up a good working relationship with this new generation of students as I have to constantly compete for their attention.  If I get impatient with them when they don’t follow directions after failing to listen, they look at me as if I’m a programmer who has presented them with a puzzling and unpleasant video that they wish would run to its end and stop.  They see no cause and effect relationship between their self-absorbed inattention and the bad grades they receive.  They seem to think that I am the source of their vague discomfort, but they can’t figure out what they’ve done to merit my disapproving response to their lackluster efforts.  They’re sure that I’m the one with the problem, and that the class would go much better if I let them alone so that they could get on with being geniuses.  And being a genius means that they can ignore class rules and my instruction while maintaining an intent focus on their digitally mediated life.

Last semester I had a student who was always an hour behind the rest of the class.  His work wasn’t too bad, but he produced it at a snail’s pace.  I went over to discuss his drawing, a charcoal rub-out of a still life on a stage in the middle of the room, and he nodded vacantly as I pointed out the five things he had to do immediately.  I attended to a few more students and came back to him ten minutes later.  Nothing had changed.  As I repeated my instructions I happened to glance over at his easel.  He had his smart phone half hidden under the ledge on the cross piece of the easel.  I saw movement on the screen and realized that a movie was streaming on the phone.  I told him (not quite believing that I had to say it) that it was impossible to draw from life and look at a movie at the same time.  He never came back to class again, and I had to drop him from the course.

This semester I have a young man who pouts and stops working if he feels that his drawing hasn’t been praised enough.  He tried to leave the classroom one and a half hours early the first day this happened, and I warned him that I would take points off his grade for attendance if he continued on his way out the door.  He trudged back to his easel, made a few desultory marks to a drawing that had several gross errors in the measurement of proportions, and then pulled out his phone and texted.  He frowned at me whenever I made eye contact with him, and I got the impression that his mentality was that of a five year old boy who resented being put into a time out for an offense he didn’t understand.  I’ve come to realize that he believes that when he’s finished a drawing to his satisfaction, or when he’s gotten bored with a long project, that my demands on him to refine and correct his work are excessive and possibly cruel.  His only refuge is to pull out his phone to escape from the torment I visit upon him when I attempt to get him to go back to work.

Not all of my young college students have succumbed to digital addiction.  They don’t all wrap themselves in electronic cocoons.  And the ones who do may be somewhat aware of the problem.  A young woman recently told me that she and her friends play a game when they go out on the town.  They put their phones in the middle of the table, and whoever reaches in and grabs a phone first has to pay for the drinks.

I plan to teach my students who still pay attention as best as I’m able, and to let the media zombies stumble along on the path they’ve chosen.  I realize that I can’t help an addict until he/she realizes that they are compromised.  My current class is about one third addicted, and the two thirds who are still functional are mostly older and more mature.

I only hope that this class isn’t a harbinger of things to come.  I’m not sure how I will handle it when I’m addressing a class of twenty and just three of them are paying attention.


We See What We Expect to See


DSC_1215Portrait Bust

When I first learned to drive I was worried that I might hit a pedestrian. My neighborhood had narrow, car lined streets, and I anticipated a moment when a little kid might run out between two parked cars. A few years went by without an accident or incident, and I began to relax. One night I drove home from work at about two in the morning after a busy, hectic shift at Godfather’s Pizza. I was aware that the bar patrons were headed home after closing time and kept an eye out for drunks along the curb. I saw a hulking form in dim light in the distance that looked like a large man standing by the road. I slowed down when I approached him, and the half-lit shape turned out to be a mail box.

Years later I attended my nephew’s wedding near Cleveland. My daughter Annie and son Alan came along for the trip. My daughter has similar hair and skin color to her mother, but is 33 years younger. On two occasions Annie was mistakenly greeted as my wife by relatives who saw her standing near me. My uncle was about three feet away when he asked her about her teaching (my wife was a professor). My daughter, of course, was mortified to be misidentified as my spouse, but that wasn’t the end of it. At the wedding she wore a dress that bloused out at the waist that inspired a drunk woman at the reception to spread a pregnancy rumor. The tipsy matron’s family had had its share of forced marriages over the years, the inebriate was on the look out for distended bellies among the young women at the gathering, and she saw what she expected to see.

I’ve spent years teaching beginning drawing to students with little or no background in fine art. Most are graphic communications majors and prefer their computers to a stick of charcoal. I teach them the basics of perspective as best I can, and have said “Parallel lines appear to converge as they move away from you,” on countless occasions. I explain that the side edges of a table appear to converge so that the back edge looks smaller than the front edge, that an illusion of depth can be created by following this rule when drawing the table on a two dimensional piece of paper. But many students insist on drawing the side edges so that the back edge of the table is exactly the same width as the front edge. They know conceptually that the front and back measure the same and draw them accordingly. When I follow up and show them that they’ve lost the illusion of depth these students often look at me in disbelief. Some challenge me. One women told me that I must see things differently than she did.

And perhaps I do. Observing colors, tones and lines in still lives, landscapes, portraits and figures has taught me to doubt my assumptions. What I think I see and what is actually there are two separate things. Painting and drawing realistically can be an investigation into What Is. As an oil progresses in several layers I begin to notice colors I hadn’t seen at the beginning and details that appear to emerge from nowhere. I get the impression after working on a subject for an extended period of time that the visual world is nearly infinite, that more and more can be observed if I am willing to put in the time.

But I am mainly aware of the open possibilities of experience when I am painting. I still make assumptions in social situations about another person’s character and intentions based on my past experience. I interpret behavior and assign motives without waiting for an individual to fully reveal their qualities. I do this out of self-protection and a need to prepare myself for all eventualities. But this narrows my experience down to seeing what I expect to see.

And there have been times when my expectations have been fulfilled and my suspicions have been confirmed. But at others I’ve been surprised by unforeseen depths in a person I had assumed was shallow, by kindness hidden beneath a rough exterior, and by playfulness in a man who appeared to have no humor and imagination.

I believe that the world can open up and reveal immense vistas if we simply wait, watch, and observe without judgment. Then a girl with a bloused out dress isn’t pregnant, a mailbox is simply a mailbox, and the back edge of a table appears to be smaller than the front edge. And the student who appears to be fairly thick says something insightful and intelligent. And the light on a curve of my wife’s temple reveals her beauty to me once more. And the neighbor who appears to be a heartless and cold reveals his gentle nature when talking to his dog. There’s more out there to be heard, seen, felt than we can ever fully take in, more abundance than we can ever appreciate.

I have a cold this morning that has been lingering for several days. My joints ache a bit and my head feels like it has been stuffed with cotton. But the sun is bright today and the trees outside my window are swaying gently in a breeze. The red pick-up truck parked on Chilean Dr. adds an exclamation point to the surrounding green. A man in a white hoody walks past with quick, determined steps as two garbage men clad in fluorescent green safety vests collect the garbage at the end of the driveway. A car passes by in a blur and I briefly see a sixty year old man with a fringe of white hair speed past in a silver sedan.

The world looks strangely beautiful, even though I’ve seen this view before, and I feel a sense of happiness until my nose begins to run and a cough begins to collect at the back of my throat. I get trapped in the mental loop of wishing that I felt better. But then I listen to my exhalation of disgust, to the click of the keys on my laptop, to my wife is stirring in the living room and to the garbage truck rumbling in the distance. And in this particular moment it feels good to be alive.