What I learned in art class
Posted on September 10th, 2013
orty-five minutes before school was supposed to start, I was called to be a substitute for the day.
“Somewhere in Albuquerque, someone needs a substitute teacher,” Scott intoned in his best blockbuster movie trailer voice. “And when that need arises, Mommy springs into action!”
I didn’t mind the short notice. It left me with the smallest possible window within which to panic. I was more concerned that my first full-day assignment as a substitute teacher would be as an art teacher.
When asked to offer up a bit about my strengths and weaknesses in my job interview, I promptly confessed to a decided lack of craftiness. Depending on what you’re looking for in a person hired to fill in for a primary school educator, it seemed like a character flaw to which I should confess. The administrator had been reassuring. There isn’t a great deal of art that goes on in the classroom she told me.
Outside of art class, of course.
Throughout that day, I watched as the children taped, painted and turned Play-Doh into pasta and pyramids. One intrepid group attacked the recycling bin to pull out bits of others’ discarded work to incorporate into their own, new fresh pieces. I might have let one first grader make a hat out of a particularly sturdy plastic bag. Then, at some point during the second class, a kindergartener brought me a plastic plate to which she had affixed a detailed rendering of something in blue Play-Doh.
“It’s nice,” I told her, taking note of the long, luxurious ears at the top of the relief. “Is it a bunny?”
She looked at me strangely.
“It’s me,” she said.
What I thought was: ‘Sure, it’s you if you’re wearing the rabbit suit from Donnie Darko; what’s going on with those ears?’
What I said was: “Oh, sure! There you are.”
As class wound down and clean-up loomed—always the saddest time for an artist called to create their most personal work in a medium squished back into a tub—my young friend returned to me with her plate. She expressed her great hope that she could recreate her work at home; she had the Play-Doh, she assured me, but she lacked the special tools that had enabled her to create the tiny stars she had made to accent her figure.
I looked down at her two-dimensional sculpture again then only to realize with a start that those bunny ears weren’t ears at all! They were feet. Turning her plate 180 degrees revealed the detail she’d in her malleable blue avatar. I swear, there was even a belt. How had I missed it the first time?
That Play-Doh portrait reminded me that everything turns on perspective—what we understand and whether or not we even come close. That’s something that could come in handy in any art class, I think. Maybe there’s something I can teach in there after all.∗