Settling In

It is taking time to settle into both my new home and new job. About two weeks into my tenure as an AmeriCorps Program Director a co-worker who is about to retire leaned out of the office she was emptying and asked if I would like a big map of Kentucky, and because I still have a partial office wall to fill, I said yes.

smallbigmapofky

She delivered it a couple days ago, with a palm full of the lethal looking, unique mounting devices for it. But she didn’t just leave it. She wanted to talk about it. She explained that the map’s surface was writable, like a white board. She told me the best marker colors to use so the surface would stay clean. Several times she mentioned the name of the staff person who acquired the map in the first place, and with what sounded like affection tinged with sadness that touched me because I have been feeling affection and love tinged with sadness, sometimes despair, for eighteen months straight and wonder if I will ever stop. Our apparently similar feelings about loss, in this case of a several decade’s long job, made me connect with this woman and wonder: Did her coworker retire too? Did she work with him for a long time? Does she miss working with him?

This interesting encounter started in the hallway, as I returned from one of many deliberately long walks to  get away from my desk and computer. I am used to writing alone and in silence, spent the whole summer and fall of 2017 writing about late in life professional and personal losses, some of them profound, on blessedly quiet mornings in my old apartment, in public and private libraries in the afternoons, on weekends in coffee shops and, during the 2017 holidays, in a lovely dining room of a home I was helping to house-sit, so I am okay with solitude. But now that I am housed in an academic institution again and busy preparing to launch a new program I am eager for contact. First, however, I have to create many original forms and documents. This requires sitting in front of two computer screens that are not particularly companionable, and so loneliness is what I was escaping from when I saw that woman and she asked if I still wanted the map.

I almost said No, and I don’t know why. Maybe because she gave me the option. Maybe because I have a piece of Owen’s artwork taking up part of that wall, and it meant moving it and moving Owen’s things has left me drained and depressed and feeling bereft of a future, despite my new home and new job. Maybe that day I was afraid that map would be a daily reminder of his loss and the others that led me to a new life in Kentucky. Whatever it was I stifled it, and was glad I did, and for the woman’s company and the memories she shared over the map she is now entrusting to my care. Somehow, seeing the shape of state and the many roads that connect the hundreds of small towns to the much fewer large cities that comprise Kentucky, some of them places I visited with or lived in with Owen, makes me feel more grounded and not nearly so alone.

 

 

A new kind of student. And teacher!

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.