The last time I taught a formal, academic painting class was in the fall of 2008. I looked forward to Painting 1 with great anticipation and excitement, remembering the thrill of taking it for the first time at a community college in 1983. I firmly believed my very small liberal arts college students would embrace the color theory, still life and landscape projects, work hard and enjoy everything about oil painting, as I once did.
But from day one, I endured exasperated looks and whispered complaints about boring subject matter and tedious color mixing (why mix a brown when I can buy a tube of it???). I witnessed many students painstakingly rendering considerably out of proportion boxes and bottles, and felt their resentment as I pointed out errors and showed them how to make corrections — that they then refused to make. I will never forget walking through a studio filled with easels proudly displaying unfinished, rushed through or otherwise poor paintings during finals week. Or how I blamed myself, the teacher, for my inability to reach these students. I was also filled with fear, knowing I couldn’t possibly give these students the Cs and Ds they deserved because they would complain to my supervisors, and put my tenure track teaching job, my future at risk.
Five and a half years later, I watch a man who lives in a homeless shelter take weeks to lovingly complete a landscape. He exhaustively pages through donated books to find inspiration and references, yet creates a tree that could only come from his obviously incredible imagination. Then, after a snow storm and in a single art making session, he transforms this painting to correspond with the recent descent of winter. His dedication, creativity and courage take my breath away.
The same thing happens when I present what in academic terms would be categorized as a typography assignment to a table full of homeless individuals. After giving them incredibly few instructions, I watch a young woman “design” a word describing herself into a creative crossword puzzle and see a young man transform a personal attribute into an innovative, graffiti-like work of art. I cannot help but compare this experience with one I had in 2009, watching graphic design majors sit in sullen silence in response to a similar project, waiting for me to give them inappropriate amounts of “advice” about how to proceed so they could painlessly “succeed”.
The disadvantaged individuals I now work with are without a doubt the best “students” I have ever had. And many of them have never had the benefit of a college education. Instead of leaving my “classes” feeling defeated, frustrated, and afraid, my heart sings with joy because every single session is a revelation about myself and these so-called unfortunate people.
And another thing. Every day, someone thanks me. In the almost twenty years I taught art at the college level, I cannot remember any college student ever thanking me at the end of a project or class period.