My high school art teacher, Mr. Imus, was an irascible sort who never sugar-coated his praise or his criticism. He didn’t like me. This was unusual because all my teachers had always liked me. I was a straight-A student and always turned my homework in on time. This was not because I was a brown nose. It was because I found homework – all schoolwork – very easy.
Art was easy for me too. I had a good sense of color and design, I could capture likenesses – I just didn’t understand why Mr. Imus didn’t like me. With the other students, he would laugh and joke around, or he would discuss art with them and treat their opinions with respect. With me, he said little and what he said seemed to be encased in ice. My projects always came back graded “B” with no comments.
At the beginning of the year, he gave us a year-long assignment. We were to create something – anything – a painting, sculpture, drawing, or whatever we wanted, using any kind of media we chose. This something was to express what was unique and original about us. “Why were you born?” said Mr. Imus. “Your project should answer that question.”
I don’t think Mr. Imus truly expected a bunch of sixteen-year-olds to produce works of great originality or beauty, or come remotely close to answering his grandiose question. But that was no reason not to ask it.
Because I was a quick study and easily mastered school subjects, I had developed a bad habit: procrastination. So I didn’t start work on the year-long project until just a couple of weeks before it was due. I didn’t even think about it. How hard could it be?
When I did begin the project, I still wasn’t thinking about it much. One day when I was doing algebra homework at a friend’s house, gossiping and giggling as we “worked”, I kept us both further amused by doodling along the sides of my paper. My doodles were quick sketches of my friend’s new kitten. The kitten was a striped creature full of mischief and grace, and my doodles must have caught some of her goofy spirit, for it leaped off the page. The kitten gamboled, she sneered, she preened, she looked wise, and most of all she looked very funny. My friend went into transports of delight over the doodles, and I was proud of (and secretly surprised by), how good they were. Good enough for even Mr. Imus to be impressed by them.
I decided that my kitten doodles would be my year’s project. But since I couldn’t submit them on the margins of an algebra paper, I had to come up with another media. The obvious choice was pen-and-ink drawing, but I felt that wasn’t original enough. Recently I had become interested in the art of tapestry, although so far all I’d done was look and admire – I’d never tried any kind of needlework. But how hard could it be?
I got my mother to take me to the fabric store to buy yarn and needlepoint canvas. I didn’t pay any attention to the different kinds of canvas; I just bought what I thought looked right. I paid the same lack of attention to the different kinds of yarn and needles available; I got the yarn in colors that “called” to me, and a needle was a needle, right? I didn’t buy a frame to hold the canvas, or any instructions on how to block it. I didn’t see why that should be necessary.
When I got my tools home I cut the canvas up into six different squares, for my six different kitten poses. The edges of the canvas were a little rough and uneven and starting to fray already, but I’d fix that later, I thought. I transferred my sketches to the nubbly canvas – it was harder than I expected, but the kitten still looked goofy and mysteriously graceful. Then I started to stitch. I didn’t read anything about different kinds of needlepoint stitches, I just began pushing my needle in one hole and out another. I mean, how hard could it be?
Hard. Really hard. I must have stitched those six kittens at least twenty times each, trying to turn that intractable yarn into sneers and whiskers, grace and mischief. Every spare minute I had I spent working on those kittens, as the due date came closer and closer.
Well, I learned tapestry making the hard way, but I did learn. When they were done, the night before they were due, the needlepoint kittens were even better than the original doodles, and I knew I had created something truly magical. The only problem was that I had no time left to “fix” the frayed and ragged edges, and since the canvas had not been stretched at the beginning, some of my kittens had begun to droop in the middle. And the only way to fix that would be to start all over.
They’d have to do as they were, but I was not that worried – I knew how good those kittens were. I knew because my artist’s eye told me so.
When it was my turn in class to display my project, I tacked the kitten canvases up on the wall with thumbtacks. I could hear some of the students saying complimentary things (“those are so cool!”). Mr. Imus, however, said nothing. He just looked at the kittens for a long time.
Finally, he turned to me to deliver his verdict. “You fulfilled this assignment perfectly,” he began. “Your piece does express what is unique about you. And it makes me furious.”
“These could have been the best art I’ve seen from a high-school student,” he continued. “Those kittens are original and beautiful and make us want to laugh with joy. They make us want to keep looking at them – until we see the sloppy technique and lazy presentation that you have chosen for them. Here’s what I see now when I look at them – I see an artist who does not respect her art or her talent. I see someone who does not have the courage to live up to her gifts. I no longer want to laugh at your kittens; now I want to cry.”
And with that, he walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him, leaving us all – especially me – stunned.
This memory from a long time ago still makes me cringe when it pops up, as it still does sometimes, whenever I have an attack of the lazies. Maybe Mr. Imus was too harsh with me; after all, I was only sixteen. But I don’t think so. By dismantling my arrogance and forcing me to face the truth, Mr. Imus nipped tendencies in the bud that could have crippled me all my life. I am eternally grateful that he didn’t like me. He respected my art even when I didn’t, and that was enough.
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