I signed up for art classes with David. He wasn’t what I expected, once I finally started learning from him. I expected him to be intense and demanding and the kind of teacher who didn’t hold back on criticism.
I didn’t expect his criticism to be cruel. To be mocking. To goad students negatively, using sarcasm and scorn. I didn’t expect him to say things like “Wow, I’m amazed that this doesn’t smell like a cow patty, because it is crap“.
I developed a pretty strong dislike of him on contact. I didn’t mean to make it obvious, but it was clearly obvious by his reaction that my dislike of him was apparent. When he made cutting statements about my art in front of other students, I mostly stayed quiet, kept my eyes down. But when it was after school hours, and his comments shattered the quiet, peaceful flow I had while working, I made my own cutting comments back.
The first time I did that, I think I said something along the lines of “If you’re tired of cow patty art, why don’t you go back to the big city and work with the students there? Or did you come here because you were tired of pigeon crap art?”. I remember his eyes widening, the way that he looked at me. In that moment, he wasn’t looked at a student, he was looking at a person. A whole person. It was disconcerting; I didn’t like him, but I also felt like he was the first person I ever saw who looked at me as…a whole instead of a part. A student. A daughter. A best friend.
Feeling odd about that look we shared, I threw myself back into my art. Into three types of art, actually.
There was the art I made for class, which usually expressed a theme or had certain elements that he stipulated. Sometimes we had projects geared around learning certain techniques or learning how to combine certain types of media. Even in practice pieces, he wanted us reaching into ourselves, creating something that had some point other than technical mastery. He often reiterated to us that these practice pieces could both help us learn technique and help guide us towards the kind of art we wanted to make.
The second type of art was our finals art. Our final art pieces were to involve some of the techniques we learned in class. But they were also supposed to strongly evoke passions that we had, feelings we wanted to express. They were supposed to be large, and might be a single piece or a collection. We were urged to begin work on these pieces after the first month of class, so that we had ample time to work through various technical difficulties and bring our work to light before the end of the semester.
The final type of art was my own art, for my own sake. I thought most of what I wanted to create privately was too soft for David’s classes. Though the point of it wasn’t to be pretty, it often was. Or ambiguous. Sometimes I liked creating really ambiguous pieces. I didn’t even know what they meant. Why would I expect anybody else to? Those pieces were usually small and I worked on them after David left for the day. There were half a dozen students that he trusted in the art rooms after he left. I quickly became one of them.
Over my sophomore and junior years, I held my own in his classes. When we were alone or there were only a few other preoccupied students around, I would snipe back, when David sniped at me. I continued to dislike him, but I could see that he respected me as an artist. I excelled under his borderline abusive tutelage. I got high marks in his classes and that was an achievement; he was very grudging at giving out As. On parent-teacher conference days, he told my parents that I had a brilliant mind, that I bought had interesting ideas and the focus and drive to work on techniques over and over again until I reached a very high level of execution. My parents were both absurdly pleased. Though they knew of David’s reputation for art that offended the good Christian senses of the community, he did get his degree in New York City and he was clearly someone who would know when he was dealing with talent. When I did well enough in the lower level classes to qualify for his honors art classes, they actually both gave their enthusiastic blessings. Even my mom was happy, tickled that I was doing so well in something, even if it wasn’t what she wanted me to do originally.
For myself, I enjoyed the freedom that David’s classes gave me. Freedom to work on things that really were interesting to me, to experiment, to play. But more importantly, freedom to be alone. Freedom to have my mind to myself for some time, every single day. Until it started to go very wrong, it was a wonderful gift.