01 Oct

I had not painted in over 20 years when the desire to return to the canvas began warting me with fleeting notions in late spring of 2016. By the time I had enrolled in a class, the initial flirty thoughts had re-imagined themselves into a battering ram, pounding Get in a class – do it now!

I found a beginning acrylics class at an Austin studio that will remain nameless. Jump starting with a beginner’s class made sense because the only thing I remembered about acrylics – and the reason I liked the medium so much – was that I could paint and hang in the same day.

The teacher was a middle-age, round-bellied man with a spark-snuffing, paint-like-me teaching strategy. The subjects he brought to class lacked appeal. They ranged from colorful, small rubber 3-D puzzle pieces, the teacher himself as a model, and an ancient, filthy teddy bear. Even though mine was clean, it reminded me of the bear Santa brought me when I was four-years-old. Not really appropriate – me thinks – for adult art students.

My biggest challenge came the last two weeks of class. We were instructed to bring a photo from home we wanted to paint. I took two. One was of a water fall at Canyon of the Eagles. Beautiful – with its white cascading water, green moss-covered granite walls, and grayish-brown boulders hiding secret black caves. It would – I thought – translate into a stunning abstract nature painting. Teacher dissed it. “There’s no light!” he blamed. But, did he suggest how I might incorporate light in the painting? No, he did not.

My second photo was of a Marfa, Texas landscape with two dirt roads converging in the foreground.  Behind them was an open field lined with barbed wire, and way beyond the pasture stretched the mountain range. And – my favorite part – at the intersection of the two dirt roads literally in the middle of nowhere standing stately was a street sign reading: 5th Street.

Teacher wasn’t too enthusiast about that photo either, but I chose it as my subject. We had weeks five and six dedicated to working on our paintings. Indeed, the last two weeks of class was when teacher revealed his true identity, and I had to decide what to believe. 

I struggled with the Marfa intersection painting. Making my work look like the photo was darn hard and extremely frustrating. Class was not fun! At one point, teacher came by my easel, which he rarely did, to offer help. I acquiesced, thinking he would suggest options while considering the painting’s entire context. Did he do that? No, he did not. Instead, he took one of my brushes, slapped on Titanium White paint from my palette and stroked the brush across my brown horizon, yammering instruction I’ve long forgotten.  

Not understanding in the first place why I had to make my painting a duplicate of a photograph, I said, “I’ll just make it an abstract.” Did teacher read into my comment that abstract painting was where my inclination was pushing me? That I might want to try something bold and daring? That making representational art was not working for me? No, he did not. Instead, he stood directly in front of me and looking in my eyes, said, “You’re not good enough.” Yep, that is exactly what he said.

The next week I went to class, declining an invitation to another event I preferred to attend. But before going into the classroom, I sat in my car in the parking lot considering my options. I could accept his venomous words as truth and scurry away in shame to an event where people I trusted would hold me in loving support. Or, I could go in with a sour attitude, spilling hurt feelings into my C.P. Cadmium Red Dark and shoot poison-dart glances at him all night. Or, I could go in – I had paid for six sessions after all – resting in my own healthy self-confidence, which is exactly what I did. Teacher did not know me. Nor, did he know that the first time I hung in an art show, I sold a painting . . . an abstract. I knew what I was made of. I didn’t give a damn what he thought of my artwork. I had seen his.

I’ll be honest. His words did sting a bit. How could they not? But only a little.

I will never recommend that teacher to anyone, especially a budding artist who may lack creative certainty. But he did, however unintentionally, lay out as undercoating the essential opportunity for me to remember myself as an artist.

It was my artist self that harassed me to take a class in the first place. It was my artist self that stilled my spirit in the face of cruel remark. It is my artist self that calls me every day to my studio.

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