Okay, so I am retired and I am going to learn new things—I read about that all the time: if you learn new things, your mind will function better, you will be happier, your health will improve. . . . . on and on. And of course this is true. We should be learning things, if for no other reason than that it helps pass the time.
I have always loved being a student, since kindergarten. In fact, during my senior year in high school I was voted “best student” in my graduating class at Titusville High School in 1965. While at that time I would have preferred being “prettiest,” “most popular,” “best friend,” etc., that was the label I was stuck with. Fortunately in life said label has stood me in good stead, as I eventually landed in a career as a teacher and college professor and was quite happy doing that. Had I been “most popular” I might have been been too busy socializing to put in four years in graduate school taking classes in Shakespeare’s histories and writing a dissertation on Russian writer Ivan Turgenev and Henry James. Who knows? It is a moot point.
Oh yes—the point. And therein lies one of my problems. In conversation—and in the lectures I give at Westminster—I tend to ramble. I start on one track and before I know it I have switched to another one—sort of like the old eight track tapes we used to have on those huge tape recorders with the plastic reels. S0—being a good student has turned out to be a huge plus for me.:I am able to tolerate my own company for long periods of time. My mind is geared for learning, and now that I have some leisure hours, I just have to decide what I should learn.
Although I drew and painted as a child, sometimes copying house plans from the Pittsburgh Sunday paper, I never displayed any particular talent for art. I was married to an artist for four years, however, in my extreme youth, and I spent a lot of time looking at art and talking about art and watching people make art, and even, once, acting as a nude model for my first husband’s pinhole photographs, something that made me quite uncomfortable, to tell the truth. But I loved my black and white photography course at Allegheny College. It was the only course I ever took that fascinated me so that I would stay up most of the night working on it—in this case, spending time in the dark room developing and printing photos until long after midnight. (I usually follow Franklin’s mantra, early to bed, early to rise).
After I retired full time from Westminster, I spent the fall taking a digital photography course at the Salt Lake Art Center, from a gentle older man named Grant. He focused on light, composition, and color, and I loved the course, putting what I learned to good use, I thought. I imagined that I might enjoy taking other art classes. I have always loved the look of watercolors, so when we moved to Los Angeles for a year in 2012, I signed up for classes in Palos Verdes, where I spent Tuesday mornings learning to paint in the company of friendly more experienced artists who generously shared their knowledge with me. I can’t say that I produced anything remarkable, but I loved the paper and the colors of the paints that came in little metal tubes. I had no clue what I was doing and I think my teacher and classmates secretly believed I was hopeless, but I enjoyed the process so much that I didn’t care what anyone thought.
And this fall, fortunately, I have found a very competent and patient instructor at a private studio in Salt Lake, Colleen Reynolds. I attend her class every Wednesday morning before I teach my writing class. There are never more than four of us in the class, so I get lots of help in technical matters. I have about 1500 photos on my computer, and I am slowly moving through them, learning to transform them to paintings. Because I am a perennial student, I am more than happy in this role.
Well, again I am rambling. Two weeks ago I heard about a two day workshop on abstract painting. While I like impressionists, abstract art usually does nothing for me. I looked at the teacher’s paintings on her website, though, and I liked her use of color and shape. Always curious, I mused, “I will learn something,” so I signed up.
When you take an art workshop, the teacher posts a list of materials to bring. We could paint in either watercolor or acrylic, and we should bring one fruit or vegetable. Well, it still takes me so long to figure out what I need to bring to any painting class—brushes, tubs for water, paper, paints, tape, masking fluid, a white towel, a portable easel, etc., etc.—that I forgot to bring a fruit or vegetable. The woman across from me had an extra pear, though, and let me borrow it.
I was not sure what to expect, but the instructor told us to look at our object and make designs from it. She gave us 9 or 10 suggested configurations: opposition, radiating, rhythmic, vertical, linear, etc. While her sketches of these configurations were interesting, I had no idea how a pear would fit into them. I looked at the pear and drew it as carefully as I could. I off-centered it on the page, because I had just learned about the golden mean, which suggests that the most pleasing focal points are off-centered on the page. Then, behind the pear I drew a shadow of it, which I penciled in lightly, and behind that a third pear, which I darkened. Well, it looked fine to me, but when we did our critique, I learned that it was not acceptable.
During the critique, despite my high school fame I learned that I was the worst student in the class. Some people drew a desert landscape, one woman geometric shapes and curves with dark lines, another a road curving into a city, yet another kite shapes based on a box of Kleenex on her desk. One sketch looked like a combination of a large intestine and a chambered nautilus. Gradually, as the class raved over these images, a light bulb came on: we were NOT supposed to draw a pear. We were supposed to draw something that was as unlike a pear as possible.
When I put my sketch up, the instructor said that I was thinking about shadows, which was good, but the pears I had drawn did not take up the entire space of the page. Right, I thought: a sketch that looks like pears is wrong. But when she turned to the last two sketches, in raptures over them, I learned that my hypothesis was incorrect. One person had drawn two large pears, one behind the other, with a thick bar going across the top of the page. This was splendid, she commented, and had great potential. Another drew one single giant pear (which she later painted purple) with something small behind it at the top left. Magnificent. It could be a pear after all—just not mine.
Where had I gone wrong? Was it that one or two pears worked for an abstract painting, but not three? I had learned that odd numbers were better in art, so I had thought I was okay there. Was it that mine looked just too much like a pear? The other two sketches had an idea of pear, a whiff of pear, but owed no allegiance to any specific pear. I admitted to myself that I had no idea why my sketch was so bad, the others so amazing and beautiful. It had nothing to do the subject: pear or not pear, that was not the point. But what was the point? I was clueless.
Despite this blow to my artistic ability—not to mention my lifelong identity as peerless student--I continued with the workshop though not at all confident that I would succeed. We painted from our sketches (though I did others, with exaggerations of parts of pears filling the page and a radiating sort of spider web thing) but when we put up images for critique, there was dead silence whenever people looked at mine. The class adored everyone else’s paintings, though: gorgeous, startlingly, impressive, ooh, ah! Might this be a case of “the emperor has no clothes”? Some of the abstractions were beautiful, while others truthfully looked as though the proverbial monkey locked in a closet with paints and brushes had made them. Oh brother, I thought, how I wish I were at home eating ice cream with my homemade “low cal” chocolate sauce. *recipe below
Finally, during the last hour of the class, I slapped some bright violet shapes on top of flowing blue-green paint. The woman across from me looked at what I had done: “You are finally using color, Susan!” Again, we put our final work up for others to critique. The instructor noted, “Look at the use of yellow in between the blue and green lines on Susan’s painting!” Dead silence from the class.
I did learn about color, shape, design these past two days—but most of all, I learned how hard it is to create abstract art and how arbitrary our taste in visual images really is. When I got back to the outskirts of Park City, I ran for nearly an hour on some paved trails. I had not run this far since I was 50. I am thinking that I may have to give back my title of “best student”!
*Low Fat Chocolate Sauce
Mix 1 c. sugar and 1 c. cocoa powder in a deep saucepan. Add 2 to 2 ½ c. water and combine. Cook on high heat until mixture comes to a rolling boil, constantly stirring. Cook on high heat for 3 min. Then reduce heat to lowest point possible and cook 5 more min. Remove from heat and add 2 tsps. vanilla. Cool and refrigerate.