Painting Shimmers: Preliminary Research
January 14, 2014
Painting based upon my Tagwhat article:
Research. As a visual artist, what does it entail?
I prepare to embark on a 20-canvas portrait series: “New York City, Inside and Out.” Quiet jazz of my iTunes accompanies the voice of the documentary’s narrator while I flip through Library of Congress Images.
Even though it was the beginning of the semester, my rural Colorado drama class had already begun their cut-out background of the NY skyline. Rather than presenting yet another poorly attended play to a sparsely filled auditorium that doubled as a gymnasium and cafeteria, we were hosting a school-wide, K-12 talent show with big city lights as our backdrop. Little did we know that by the time we presented our monologues and interpretive dances that the performance would become a tribute to nearly 3000 Americans killed on a single day.
I teach my students to write and create as Joan Didion espoused, drawing from the “shimmers” of our lives, those moments so imbedded in our memories we remember every sentient detail. During the first few weeks of fall semester each year, even over a decade later, talk turns to 9/11.
“You could hear them hitting the ground with a thud like a sack of cement,” one viewer reported.
Visceral words creating vivid sights and sounds that spring out of the droning documentary, quietly jumping out from under the smooth notes of Miles Davis’ Manhattan masterpiece, “’Round About Midnight,” spilling themselves over LOC’s fair-use architectural details.
Human sacks of cement hitting the concrete below. Inescapable “shimmers” flitting across our collective lines of vision, echoing across the ages, filling our nostrils with acrid soot, brushing our skin like ghosts.
“Miss,” he shouted as he ran through the hallway toward my room, “Have you heard?” His large, powerfully athletic frame was silhouetted in the early morning sun streaming behind him through the school doors. “We have to turn on our TV. New York’s World Trade Center,” he exclaimed as tears streamed down his face. “It’s been hit by an airplane.”
He was the small high school’s largest football player, a “tough guy” who towered over everyone else in the school. He grabbed the remote from my desktop and turned on the classroom television several minutes before the first bell rang calling his peers into our homeroom.
He and I watched in horror as the live television stream continued to recap the moment the plane hit the building, watched as smoke began streaming out of the building.
As his classmates began trickling in, they, too, became mesmerized by the looping images on the screen while news broadcasters did what they do best: analyzed, recapped, predicted.
Believing in true American freedom of speech and expression, as instructor I was never one to insist that students engage in the morning ritual broadcast over the school’s intercom, allowing those who chose to remain seated during the pledge. This morning, as we watched America change forever, even those few who normally resisted arose to their feet upon the utterances of the first phrase of the rote rhyme.
Throughout the day, I left the live stream on, setting aside my lesson plan for a day-long lesson in current events.
Second period. All the “difficult” students placed in a small class comprised of those 17-18 year old high-schoolers who had been unable to plow through Caesar Augustus, the school’s requisite Shakespeare for tenth-graders. Even though I had earned magna cum laude in Humanities and English Literature a few years ago as an undergrad, I was intimidated by the play, wondering how I would ever engage this group of minority, street-wise fighters in Elizabethan culture.
We were a tight-knit group who had avowed to one another that we would push through the challenge of conquering Rome and iambic pentameter together.
The history teacher had caught wind of the events and had opened the partition between our classrooms, and both of our televisions simultaneously broadcast the unfolding events. Her large class sat in the darkened room, many sleeping, a handful completing last night’s homework, some passing notes back and forth between themselves.
Our determined handful sat huddled together near my computer, a place we frequently congregated to look up historical references since the text in which we read Shakespeare was poorly annotated.
Although our faces were illuminated by the blue screen of my inactive computer, we were intent upon the drama unfolding before us, recomposed after breaking out in nervous giggles when I snapped a pen in half from unrealized tension, coating myself and my clothes in the purple ink I had used while taking attendance.
With the outbreak of our nervous laughter, we had been recipient of a cold, hard critical stare from the history teacher. Perhaps she was afraid we would potentially disturb her sleepers.
Satisfied that she had scorned us into silence, she returned to her opened grade book and stack of ungraded multiple-choice chapter exams.
Later in the day, all my colleagues flip off the feed and return to their scheduled lesson plans while students, desperate to know what is happening to their nation slip out of their classrooms to steal a few quick minutes, grasping bathroom hall passes in their whitened fingers, directing their still-pale gaze toward my television.
Precisely at 9:58, the ten of us huddled beside the computer let out a collective gasp, followed by a harshly whispered yet still plainly audible, “Fuck.” Critical eyes turned toward our group rather than the screen; we intent few were the ones who saw the horror as it happened.
NYC Main Public Library
Watercolor Pencil on Canvas
Underdrawing for 24 x 18 Acrylic
A few weeks later, the gaunt, abused, troubled Hispanic senior stalled in a sophomore English class, wrapped in the Mexican blanket I had at my desk, paced around the room, rapping out in perfect time Mark Antony’s famed oratory at the murdered Caesar’s funeral: “Friends, Romans, countrymen….Hear me with patience.”
The rest of us responded, shouting: “Peace, ho!”
He continued while another drummed his desk to keep the beat:
“he hath left you all his walks,
His private arbours and new-planted orchards,
On this side Tiber; he hath left them you,
And to your heirs for ever, common pleasures,
To walk abroad, and recreate yourselves.
Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?”
Upon graduation, my young orator, the one whose high school degree was hinged upon Shakespeare’s politically infused iambic pentameter, the same one who quietly uttered the single epitaph summarizing the day’s dreadful shimmers, enlisted.
Sometimes as instructor, no plans, no footnotes, no contrived set of state standards, is able to teach a student a message as well as life itself.
Research at its best.