In Art Class

Art was messy. As a kid, I enjoyed drawing—in pencil, in markers, in crayon. But watercolors tended to end up dripping over my hands, over the table, and I was rarely happy with what I painted. Papier mache and pottery and any projects that involved lots of cutting and gluing were little better, and thus Art class remained an uneven proposition for me. Better than Gym class where I was bad at most sports, a welcome reprieve sometimes from the regular elementary school classroom where I struggled to pay attention after long periods of sitting, and on more or less equal footing to Music class which tended to strike the middle ground of not objectionable nor fun. Art could be great. Art could be awful.

I remember my first art teacher, a thin, very tan, very Italian woman with a fiery temper who scolded the kids who talked while she was giving instructions and who tsk tsk tsked when we failed to follow the instructions of a project correctly. I recall one such tsk when I heard the rattle of her metallic bracelets over her wrists and thought for sure she would slap me on the back of the head (she didn’t--I already knew, but hadn’t yet internalized that teachers couldn’t do that).

I remember my second art teacher. I remember thinking, even in the moment, that her projects were too ambitious for her student base. Regardless of how interesting its composition was, no one wanted to sit still to draw a still-life of an empty violin case and plant with long vines and an open book. I remember upon volunteering to hand out something or other one day, that she said, “thank you,” that I said, “sure thing,” and that it gave way to a lengthy monologue on why you’re welcome was the appropriate response, and how children didn’t learn to speak properly these days.

I encountered her again in high school--perhaps she had moved up the ranks, or the school system had simply recognized older students as a better fit for her. She gave us sketchbook assignments, one asking us to capture something from a dream. I drew my crush de jour (with an elongated nose, lest anyone recognize her), drew a dragon. The art teacher held it up as an exemplar of what we might accomplish in our exercises if we applied ourselves.

And another art teacher—the better art teacher who worked with juniors and seniors, and who had worked closely with my sister, peeked at my progress now and again. Lauded the texture of my shading, and chastised me when I rubbed it into even tones. I suspect he may have been waiting to work with me, and so it was with some regret that that I stopped taking art classes after sophomore year, in favor of focusing on AP coursework and editing the school newspaper; relishing in a daily study hall instead of the extra elective.

I figured drawing would always be a part of my life, anyway. It had been throughout childhood. Surely I wouldn’t let it go. As I started to identify more concretely as a writer, though, I made less use of the still half-empty sketchpad from my last art class.

At my liberal arts college, I fulfilled my art requirement first with an art history course freshman year, and then, in my senior year, a studio class focused on pencil sketching, where I found myself entirely average in skill and not all that inspired.

Now and again, I still think of drawing. I can still remember some of the fundamentals—that capturing what I saw rather than what I assumed or imagined tended to be truest route to an accurate sketch, and that the human head is shaped more like an egg than a sphere. And I think one day, work will slow down, and I’ll carve time from writing and reading and family life to make a go at visual art again.

But I don’t.

And so I look back to art class not as something that I objectively miss, but as a conduit to a way of being in the world that I rarely think of, much less pine for in my day-to-day as a thirty-something. The way my hand used to cramp after drawing for too long and the way the side of my hand turned gray from absentmindedly pressing against the page while I worked.

These are the pains, the messes, the side effects that I miss as much as the art itself I used to make.

These are the pieces that make me think one day I really might try again.