I had the privilege of spending my last two years of high school at the School of the Arts in Winston Salem, NC studying visual arts (now UNCSA). In retrospect, I don’t know how my art teachers, Pam, Clyde, Martha, and Greg managed to do what they did. I of course, as a 15, 16, 17 year old, was the most important and talented person in the universe and already know most of everything.Those teachers fought the good fight, carving into my youthful idiocy, extracting and exposing talents and abilities that I didn’t know were there. I loathed some assignments because they were so demanding as to seem impossible. I haughtily skipped through others, finding them overly simple and below my obvious and extraordinary talents. Mostly I relished being there in an environment where creativity, craftsmanship, and personal excellence were daily goals, taken seriously. This was precious, in it’s high contrast to the perniciously dull and underwhelming education I waded through in my rural Appalachian upbringing.
The majority of the art assignments at UNCSA revolved around basic exercises in design, drawing and sculpture; draw what you see in front of you, make a perfect cone and cube from paper, pencil an even value scale from white to black, demonstrate a focal point. Though these types of assignments at the time, seemed like distractions from making REAL art, I now, these 15 (what?!) years later, see these as among some of the most important things I ever learned in school. As fundamentals, they still relate and resonate in everything that I do.
I recently sifted through my portfolio from that time and came across a color theory assignment where with paint, we mixed value scales of the tints, tones, and shades of 12 pure hues. I worked hard at that assignment, and did an alright job of mixing my paint within orderly, gridded sections. Once done with the painting, I hurriedly cut out the color swatches and mounted them on foam board. I was deeply appalled when the the grade on the assignment came back with a big ugly minus attached to the A. Pam circled the minus and pointed it to a handwritten note telling me that my color mixing was fine, but that my craftsmanship was lacking in the way that I had cut and mounted the bits of paper; wormy cut-edges and bits of layout marks and finger smudges remaining. In my eminent wisdom, I was sure that Pam was being too harsh and that everyone (i.e. me) was looking at the paint and not the craftsmanship. I now see that that criticism was the one of the first rays of light that broke through to me in the dawning of my eye for craftsmanship. Up until that point, I honestly couldn’t see the difference. I was blind to that level of detail. I couldn’t see it, so it didn’t matter, so I how could I have made it any differently?
I have since developed a keen eye for fair lines, spacial relationships, and exacting craftsmanship. When I look at that color theory assignment now, I just have to laugh. My craftsmanship sucked and I didn’t even know it. I now marvel at the resiliency of those teachers who spent their careers on the front lines of teenage ignorance, unworldliness, and stupidity, working tirelessly to hammer in not just information, but truly some of the finer points of the world, shedding light on the inner dimensions and expanse of our human abilities. Some people will go their whole lives without ever being able to spot something that is a sixteenth of an inch off. To Pam, Clyde, Greg, and to Martha up in heaven, Thank You. You taught me how to see.