One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.
— Gerhard Richter
What is art?
I don’t know if I am a good teacher yet. Let’s be honest- my training is limited and my experience, although I have some, is not substantial. The good thing is when I stand in front of a class of students who are learning English, I can write a plan and hope it will work. If it doesn’t, I can do my back up. If that doesn’t work, I can play a game. If that doesn’t work, I can speak slower. If worse comes to worse, I just stand in front of everyone as a puppet, surrendering myself to total lunacy. I can dance and sing like a fool. Usually that gets their attention.
Teaching English as a foreign language is not easy. It is quite frustrating, difficult and awkward at times. There are moments where I stand in front of my class and forget what I want to say. Today I could not find the words to define wield. To compensate, I awkwardly ran around like a crazy person pretending I had a sword in my hand. This stuff is graceless. But I ran through a dictionary, scanned to the w’s and before I knew it, the definition was on the board.
Wield: |wēld| verb [ trans. ]
- hold and use (a weapon or tool)
- have and be able to use (power or influence)
The thing is, when I teach English, I can count on a lot of things. Dictionaries that have standard definitions, for one. There are twenty-six letters that we use to form words. There are certain categories of words and these words form sentences in certain patterns. Sure, English has some weird rules and deviations, but the point is, there are some things I am intrinsically given as an English teacher.
But yesterday I was not teaching English. Yesterday I taught something with a lot less rules. Yesterday I taught my students about art.
In my mind, my dream career would be to teach art at the collegiate level. I would love to fill curious minds with notions of color and space, ideas about how things relate, time and motion. I fancy the idea that I could inspire someone who never imagined pursuing art into becoming an artist, like my professors did for me. I dream of being able to give someone that enormous gift.
There are rules in art. There are colors wheels, shapes, engineering facts and set ways to create the horizon line. These rules govern our world in text books, in space, in time and in our perspective. These rules are not surprising.
And yes, much of my education in fine arts was learning “these rules.”
Alas, more time was spent learning to break them.
With art, I’ve found, the more you break the rules, the stronger your disbelief in them grows. Suddenly colors are changing. Figures blur. Space becomes temporal. Shapes move. WhereDidTheImageGo? ILostItAndFoundAnother.
The thing about making art is that it requires one to think beyond our normal realm of understanding. One must recognize the “rules” that exist and be concurrently doubtful of their necessity. It’s all counter-intuitive.
When I stood in front of my students and tried to convince them to turn the faces of figures upside down they looked at me like I was standing on my head. I felt I must have been as the blood rushed through my body, bracing every bit of myself to try and find words to define these ideas.
But there was no dictionary.
I bit my tongue. Inside my mouth, grandiose words about theories and ideas that are useless in this moment. I taste bitter confusion as I try harder to explain.
I heard each tick of the clock behind me as I stood in front of fifteen sets of eyes. Their gaze confused and heavy on me. I wish I could hand them some magic bean that would turn them all into reckless artists. I wish I could see them rip pages from the magazines and slice images in half to create something strange and new.
In their eyes I see:
“Kelsey, what you want me to do is something I do not understand.”
“Kelsey, being strange and different is hard.”
“Miss Kelsey, why would you do that? Why would you cut someones head off their body? Won’t they not be able to think now?”
The questions hangs heavy in the room. These are legitimate questions. I do not know the answer. The point is there is none. Before I fumble and get lost in some labyrinth of words, I realize the answer they need is simple.
They looked at me, dumbfounded. In this moment I am thankful they like me, or at least pity me enough to keep trying, because otherwise, I am certainly lost.
In study tonight I saw a student’s homework assignment for art class. She was drawing a beautiful still life of vases and boxes. I was impressed with her command of the line, the shadows and the forms. She clearly had talent. I asked her where the still life was, so I could see what she was working from. She stared blankly back at me and pulled out a piece of paper with the same image on it. The instructions to make this drawing were step by step and rigidly defined. She was not looking, instead, she was copying.
I could teach drawing classes. I could print tutorials online and teach my students to draw perfectly formed faces so they can all do portraits on the side. I could.
And I know, drawing like that has its place. I am not “beyond” textbook drawing. There is something to be learned in this.
But I don’t want to teach my students to copy.
I want to teach my students to think.
And that, is the difference between teaching conversational English and teaching art.
Art challenges us. Art screws with our heads and makes us question what we already know. What we thought we knew. Art defies these ideas. And it’s uncomfortable. It’s incredibly uncomfortable.
I stood in front of that class, full of energy and enthusiasm I had yet to find here in Malaysia. I stood, committed to challenging my students, passionate about pushing them, boldly asking them to be brave- knowing all the while these were big ideas. These were huge things to ask of thirteen and fourteen year olds.
“You can do whatever you want. You can do things that are weird. You can make pictures that look beautiful and funny at once, and that is great. Art is whatever you want it to be.”
They looked at me again with a flicker of light in their dark eyes. It was like some strange liberation was happening in that room. I saw them crawl out slowly but surely, beginning to merge images that did not match- mixing up shapes and forms. They were enthused and confused.
They didn’t dive off the deep end, but I got their toes in the water. I ran around reminding them it was okay to do strange things, encouraging them not to worry what it looked like.
It was a lesson part in self confidence, part in English, part in abstraction, part in laughing.
There was a lot of laughing.
And in that, there was a lot of art.