The Artist in Me
By Diane Stark
I’m not the least bit art-y. And I’m not at all musical either. Unfortunately, Indiana University’s School of Education didn’t get the memo. They thought they could magically transform me into some half-note-reading, treble-clef-drawing, acrylic-paint-using Mother Earth type.
Yeah, well, I’m a lost cause. The ability is simply not there. But I really wanted to teach kindergarten, and the art and music classes were requirements for graduation.
The university’s rationale was that their graduates could wind up teaching in a school that did not have a teacher who specialized in art or music, so the regular teacher needed to have some training in these areas. But let me remind you that all the training in the world would not produce any actual talent in someone like me.
For me, the music class was the scarier of the two. Friends had warned me that you had to learn to play the recorder (a.k.a. the flutophone) and play a song in front of the class. For most people, this would be no big deal. Any fifth grader can toot around on one of those things, right? Not me. I’d like to think I’m smarter than a fifth grader, but I’m definitely less musically inclined.
I decided to be pro-active and throw myself at the professor’s mercy. I explained that although I’d never actually been tested, I was quite sure that I had some learning disability in the area of sheet music reading and tune carrying sans a bucket. The professor was surprisingly reasonable. She gave me a long list of extra credit assignments and promised to pass me, regardless of how many dogs came running when I blew into my recorder. And, God bless her, she was true to her word. When the term was over, I had not only passed the required music class, I’d received a very respectable “B.”
The art teacher was less understanding. When I tried to explain about my learning disability and embarrassingly low Art-Q, she shook her head and said, “There’s an artist buried in all of us.” I was living proof that her theory was faulty.
The class met only once a week, on Monday evenings. I dreaded it all week long. Not only was this professor not willing to accept that some people were not – and never would be – artists, but she also seemed to think that her class was the only one I was taking. She piled on the assignments, and she graded them based on product, not process. I could hear my “F” coming at me like a freight train.
One of her more difficult (and dare I say, ridiculous) assignments was to draw bugs. Ten a week for the entire semester. That first week, on Sunday evening, I sat down with my sketch pad – the fact that someone like me even owned a sketch pad was an oxymoron – and drew some bugs. My butterfly had perfectly symmetrical wings and pointy little antennae. My ladybug was red with black spots. I gave her beautiful, super-mascara eyelashes because, as we all know, ladybugs are always female. I finished my ten bugs in record time. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all, I thought. And who cares if my bugs look like cartoon characters? (I would later realize that the bee I had drawn bore a striking resemblance to Jerry Seinfeld’s character in “The Bee Movie.”)
The following day in art class, I handed in my sketch pad. I wasn’t sure what grade I’d get, but I was pleased that my bugs had at least looked like bugs. I had done better than I thought I would. Unfortunately, the professor didn’t agree. On my paper was a huge red “D” with these words underneath:
“Don’t draw what you see in your mind. Draw what you see with your eyes.”
As you can imagine, my response was in the What-the-heck-does-that-mean vein. But later, the professor gave us an illustration to show what she meant. Years ago, my professor had been an art teacher in an elementary school. She had a student that always drew a cat by making a figure eight and then filling in the paws, face and whiskers. One day, the little girl was crying because she “forgot” how to draw a cat. The teacher told her the same thing she’d told me. “Don’t draw what you see in your mind. Draw what you see with your eyes.”
Instead of drawing her figure eight cat, the little girl found a photograph of a cat and tried to copy it onto her paper. Her efforts turned out to be the best cat she’d ever drawn.
I got the message. No more cartoon bugs. I went to the library, found a book on insects and got to work. I drew butterflies whose wings didn’t match perfectly and houseflies whose eyes didn’t look like big glossy globes.
When I was done, my bugs looked like bugs. They weren’t cute like my cartoon bugs. These bugs were realistic-looking, and some of them were downright ugly. When I got my sketch book back the second time, the professor had written the following words: “Much better. You drew with your eyes this time. Remember, real-life isn’t always pretty and perfectly proportioned.”
She was definitely right on that count. Most of us don’t have to live too long to see that real-life has a few rough edges. But I realized she was right about something else too. There is something buried in all of us. Not an artist, necessarily, but something good. Something worth digging for, if we just take the time.
About this writer
- Diane Stark is a former teacher turned stay-at-home mom and freelance writer. Her work has been published in 16 Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, A Cup of Comfort for Christian Women and dozens of magazines. She loves to write about the important things in life: her family and her faith.